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Littler Books cover of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century Summary

21 Lessons for the 21st Century Summary and Quotes

Yuval Noah Harari

5.9 minutes to read • Updated May 22, 2024

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What it's about in one sentence:

An exploration of the key political, technological, social, and existential challenges facing humanity in the modern age.

Bullet Point Summary

  1. Disillusionment: The End of History Has Been Postponed. Political disillusionment spreads through simple stories rather than facts and data, which led to ideologies like fascism and communism gaining traction in the past. Any new ideology seeking relevance must make sense of artificial intelligence, big data, and bioengineering within a meaningful narrative.
    1. “Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely. It is easier to manipulate a river by building a dam than it is to predict all the complex consequences this will have for the wider ecological system. Similarly, it will be easier to redirect the flow of our minds than to divine what that will do to our personal psychology or to our social systems.”
  2. Work: When You Grow Up, You Might Not Have a Job. Automation and AI pose a threat to human employment across numerous industries, potentially creating a new "useless class" without economic value. While some new jobs may be created, there might not be enough to compensate for the losses. This could necessitate exploring new models like universal basic income. However, AI can also eliminate mundane tasks and let humans focus on more meaningful and enjoyable work.
    1. Those who cooperate with AI will do better than those who do not.
    2. AI will benefit us in many ways. For example, self-driving cars can significantly reduce the number of fatal car crashes.
  3. Liberty: Big Data Is Watching You. Elections are based on feelings rather than rational thinking. However, despite the flaws of democracy, it is still viewed as better than the alternatives. Big data and AI have the potential to make political decisions in the future, rendering democratic elections unnecessary as we increasingly rely on algorithms for everything from finance to warfare.
    1. Israeli forces use extensive data monitoring and analysis to control the Palestinian population in the West Bank. For example, in 2017, a Palestinian laborer posted a photo with a bulldozer on Facebook, captioned “Good morning!” However, an algorithm mistranslated it as “Kill them.” Mistakenly suspecting a terrorist threat, Israeli security forces arrested the laborer and ultimately released him after realizing the error.
    2. “We will increasingly rely on algorithms to make decisions for us, but it is unlikely that the algorithms will start to consciously manipulate us. They won't have any consciousness. Science fiction tends to confuse intelligence with consciousness and assume that in order to match or surpass human intelligence, computers will have to develop consciousness... Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love, and anger. We tend to confuse the two because in humans and other mammals intelligence goes hand in hand with consciousness. Mammals solve most problems by feeling things. Computers, however, solve problems in a very different way.”
  4. Equality: Those Who Own the Data Own the Future. While globalization was supposed to promote equality, the rise of AI and biotechnology may instead create the most unequal societies in history, with a small elite owning the data and technology to enhance themselves into a superior caste or species. To prevent this dystopian scenario of a mass underclass becoming irrelevant, the key question to answer is who owns and controls the data -- corporations, governments, individuals, or a collective ownership model?
  5. Community: Humans Have Bodies. Online communities cannot truly replace the depth and physical connections of offline communities, as humans have bodies and senses that require grounding in the physical world. For community-building efforts to succeed, they may need to adopt a new model that encourages more offline interaction and doesn't just treat humans as "audiovisual animals" absorbed in online worlds.
  6. Civilization: There Is Just One Civilization in the World. Despite claims of a "clash of civilizations" (e.g., the West vs. Islam), the world has become increasingly homogenized, from political systems to economic models to views of the human body and natural world.
  7. Nationalism: Global Problems Need Global Answers. Patriotism recognizes a nation's uniqueness, while nationalism falsely believes in a nation's superiority. To counteract nationalism and make progress, we need to think globally.
  8. Religion: God Now Serves the Nation. While traditional religions are largely irrelevant for solving technical and policy problems in the modern world, they remain extremely relevant to identity problems (like nationalism) that divide humanity into different groups.
    1. Religious traditions can turn tiny variations, like wording in a creed, into major points of division (e.g., Eastern Orthodox vs. Western Christians).
  9. Immigration: Some Cultures Might Be Better than Others. Some argue for equal treatment of all cultures, while others contend certain cultures are more welcoming and aligned with liberal ideals, providing justification for prioritizing immigrants from those backgrounds. The latter view (culturist) holds that, unlike racism's flawed biological basis, cultural differences can have real impacts, though culturist claims risk overgeneralizing groups and stereotyping individuals unfairly.
  10. Terrorism: Don't Panic. The overreaction to terrorism is more dangerous than terrorism itself. Terrorists kill about 25,000 people a year while air pollution kills seven million a year. Governments should take a more measured, clandestine counterterrorism approach to avoid stoking unnecessary fear in its people and undermining other priorities like curbing climate change.
  11. War: Never Underestimate Human Stupidity. War has been a driver of empire building throughout history, but major powers today struggle to wage successful wars that produce economic gains. However, human stupidity should not be underestimated as a potential catalyst for senseless violence despite the diminishing returns of war.
    1. Modern warfare will consist more of information technology and biotechnology than conventional military weapons.
  12. Humility: You Are Not the Center of the World. Most religions and cultures inaccurately view themselves as the central driving force of human progress, when in reality universal traits like morality, spirituality, and creativity evolved long before any modern religion. Cultivating true humility -- recognizing one's small place in the grand scope of human achievement across cultures -- would be a positive development for people of all faiths and backgrounds.
  13. God: Don't Take the Name of God in Vain. Belief in gods is not necessary for morality, as morality arises naturally from reducing suffering for oneself and others. No one wants to live in an immoral society. Secular philosophies can provide ethical frameworks just as effectively as religions.
    1. “Morality doesn't mean ‘following divine commands'. It means ‘reducing suffering'. Hence in order to act morally, you don't need to believe in any myth or story. You just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering.”
  14. Secularism: Acknowledge Your Shadow. Secularism is defined by a commitment to truth based on evidence, compassion, and equality by rejecting hierarchies -- values shared across religions. Secularism encourages acknowledging its blind spots, rather than claiming infallibility, as humility is needed to pursue truth and reduce suffering.
    1. “Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.”
  15. Ignorance: You Know Less than You Think. The key to human success in the modern world is our ability to think together in large groups. No individual can fully comprehend the complexities of the modern world. There is a "knowledge illusion" -- the idea that we know far less than we think, and that we heavily rely on others' skills and knowledge.
    1. “Individual humans know embarrassingly little about the world, and as history has progressed, they have come to know less and less. A hunter-gatherer in the Stone Age knew how to make her own clothes, how to start a fire, how to hunt rabbits, and how to escape lions. We think we know far more today, but as individuals, we actually know far less. We rely on the expertise of others for almost all our needs.”
  16. Justice: Our Sense of Justice Might Be Out of Date. Our sense of justice evolved to deal with small-scale hunter-gatherer societies, but fails to grasp the complexities of a globalized world with millions of interconnected people. It has become extremely difficult to understand the full impacts of our actions and know if we are inadvertently contributing to injustice.
  17. Post-Truth: Some Fake News Lasts Forever. Humans have always lived in an era of "post-truth", relying on fictions and myths to unite groups and enable cooperation, from ancient religions to modern national ideologies. While some level of shared fiction is necessary for social cohesion, we should strive to distinguish reality from fiction, especially on important issues, by insisting on reliable sources and consulting scientific literature.
    1. “We certainly need good science, but from a political perspective, a good science-fiction movie is worth far more than an article in Science or Nature.”
  18. Science Fiction: The Future Is Not What You See in the Movies. Science fiction plays a pivotal role in shaping how people understand emerging technologies like AI, but often depicts problematic tropes like conscious machines rebelling against humans rather than grappling with the real threat of algorithms empowering an elite and disempowering the masses.
  19. Education: Change Is the Only Constant. Education needs to shift from imparting predetermined skills and information, most of which will be obsolete in a few years, to teaching critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and mental flexibility to deal with rapid change.
  20. Meaning: Life Is Not a Story. Meaning arises not from grand cosmic narratives, but from acknowledging the reality of suffering and impermanence. All stories that claim to provide permanent meaning are fictions produced by the human mind. True understanding comes from directly observing reality, especially the inevitability of suffering, rather than getting trapped in imagined dramas and identities.
    1. “The Buddha taught that the three basic realities of the universe are that everything is constantly changing, nothing has any enduring essence, and nothing is completely satisfying… Suffering emerges because people fail to appreciate this. They believe that there is some eternal essence somewhere, and if only they can find it and connect to it, they will be completely satisfied. This eternal essence is sometimes called God, sometimes the nation, sometimes the soul, sometimes the authentic self, and sometimes true love -- and the more people are attached to it, the more disappointed and miserable they become when they fail to find it. Worse yet, the greater the attachment, the greater the hatred such people develop toward any person, group, or institution that seems to stand between them and their cherished goal.”
  21. Meditation: Just Observe. Meditation allows one to directly observe the reality of their own mind, rather than relying on secondhand accounts. By focusing attention on bodily sensations and mental reactions, one can uncover the basic patterns of the mind and recognize that suffering arises from the mind's reactions rather from external conditions. While ancient cultures developed meditation techniques for this purpose, modern science could greatly benefit from incorporating such firsthand methods of studying consciousness alongside current tools focused on the brain.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century: Resources