Harari provides 21 jolting predictions for how technology will transform our lives and our work during the remainder of this century
21 Lessons for the 21st Century
By Yuval Noah Harari
Published by Spiegel & Grau (2018); Hardcover $28
If you’ve wondered what the world will be like as the 21st Century unfolds, author Yuval Noah Harari’s book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century will give you a look at some scenarios. Harari casts a piercing eye on some the most pressing issues of our time as he predicts how technology will impact the future social, political, religious, and cultural well-being of humanity across the globe.
“21 Lessons” is a collection of essays on the current state of the world, and it provides one man’s opinion on where we’re headed. The book also includes historical analyses of how societies evolved to where they are today. I found these analyses insightful and interesting to read. However, I found his outlook on the future impact of technology depressing and pessimistic, and his solutions for achieving a better world too simplistic.
The book’s first section, “Disillusionment,” sets the stage for what’s to come with a brief overview of the global spread of democracy and how it has given rise to liberalism, imperialism, fascism, communism, and Trumpism, which he describes a nihilistic nationalist, protectionist world view. He warns we need to rise above past failures; otherwise nuclear war and other calamities are inevitable.
Harari sees a future with technology, specifically artificial intelligence (AI), becoming increasingly more pervasive in our daily lives because of its ability to mentally and physically outperform humans. Technological advances will be fueled by breakthroughs in life sciences, social sciences, and the confluence of infotech with biotech. Eventually no one will have to think for themselves and instead will rely on AI and Big Data to make all purchasing and healthcare decisions, create art and music, and provide financial and legal advice. Self-driving cars will be centrally networked to navigate streets and highways and programmed to communicate with other autos on the road in ways that will reduce automobile accidents and save lives.
His assumptions for the future do not bode well for mankind and work. The chapter titled, “Work: When You Grow Up, You May Not Have a Job” sums up Harari’s outlook for future employment of the masses. He sees technology (specifically AI) becoming a continuous disrupter in the job market leading to systemic mass unemployment for billions of people. Machines will be programmed to replace humans to perform low-skilled, skilled, and even professional work. The number of freelancing and part-time gigs will continue to grow while labor unions will be a thing of the past because cheap labor (machines) will be readily available.
Harari speculates that large groups of people will be made professionally useless — and pushed out of the job market. Therefore, it will be the responsibility of governments to provide for the basic needs of citizens, either by stipends to buy necessities (capitalism), or by providing access to free health care, transportation, child care, and other services (socialism).
Given the ability to program AI to connect, update, and integrate with other systems, the future looks like one where the need for traditional manpower will be dramatically reduced. “What we are facing is not the replacement of millions of individual human workers by millions of individual robots and computers; rather, individual humans are likely to be replaced by an integrated network.” Eventually, Harari even sees algorithms (AI) selecting our leaders for us and replacing voting systems because humans are emotional and easily manipulated.
The solution lies in providing meaningful work for the masses by creating new social and economic models that protect humans, not jobs, concludes Harari. This new model will ensure that man’s mental, physical, and economic well-being is protected, and he will not become irrelevant and devalued — especially since, as Harari points out, work gives us value (and money to keep economies and nations moving).
If the future workforce will be computers, what do you teach future generations to prepare them to survive? What skills will be needed to adapt to the changing Big Data environment? Students of tomorrow are advised by Harari not to “rely on adults,” because they have been old schooled, and may not have the information critical to knowing how to survive. He actually advises against heavy reliance on technology because it can be programmed to shape and control our thoughts and decision-making. He questions if humans have the ability to cope with social changes that accompany new technology, and thinks workers will not be able to develop new skills fast enough to keep pace with change.
A future utopia will depend on human ability to understand the power and limits of technology but also, more importantly, on how well we know ourselves. Harari sees a nirvana and true understanding of oneself that can be achieved through the practice of meditation. Says Harari, “If we are willing to make such efforts in order to understand foreign cultures, unknown species, and distant planets, it might be worth working just as hard to understand our own minds. And we had better understand our own minds before algorithms make our minds up for us.”
Harari’s vision of the 21st Century leaves a lot to be desired, but it did make me think about the future of work, education, politics, and religion. The more I think about it, the more I think I don’t want to be around to see the future presented by the author.
Harari shows a lack of confidence in the human species’ ability to cope with socio-economic problems. By contrast, many still believe technology can be used to enhance human capabilities for the benefit of humanity; it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to its destruction.
Ethel Shepard, a public relations consultant with more than 20 years of experience working with corporations and nonprofits, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.