back to books

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Thoughts

This was an eye-opening book that provides a thoughtful look at everything from humans and what motivates us, to the purpose of life, religion, and how the world works. If you want to challenge your beliefs and what you know to be true, pick up this book, as it will give you a lot to ponder. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of feelings, knowledge, and how fake news works. I found myself thinking over some of these ideas outside of reading, and I appreciate the impact it has had on my ways of thinking.

Summary Notes

  • The merger of infotech and biotech might soon push billions of humans out of the job market and undermine both liberty and equality. Big Data algorithms might create digital dictatorships in which all power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite while most people suffer not from exploitation but from something far worse—irrelevance.
  • Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better.
  • Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely.
  • In 2018 the common person feels increasingly irrelevant. Lots of mysterious words are bandied around excitedly in TED Talks, government think tanks, and high-tech conferences—globalization, blockchain, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, machine learning—and common people may well suspect that none of these words are about them.
  • Perhaps in the twenty-first century populist revolts will be staged not against an economic elite that exploits people but against an economic elite that does not need them anymore. This may well be a losing battle. It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.
  • Democracy is based on Abraham Lincoln’s principle that “you can fool all the people some of the time, and some people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
  • By manufacturing a never-ending stream of crises, a corrupt oligarchy can prolong its rule indefinitely.
  • But liberalism has no obvious answers to the biggest problems we face: ecological collapse and technological disruption.
  • Vaunted “human intuition” is in reality “pattern recognition.”
  • Two particularly important nonhuman abilities that AI possesses are connectivity and updatability.
  • The quest for meaning and community might eclipse the quest for a job.
  • In the wake of the Brexit vote, eminent biologist Richard Dawkins protested that the vast majority of the British public—including himself—should never have been asked to vote in the referendum, because they lacked the necessary background in economics and political science. “You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land.”
  • We usually fail to realize that feelings are in fact calculations, because the rapid process of calculation occurs far below our threshold of awareness. We don’t feel the millions of neurons in the brain computing probabilities of survival and reproduction, so we erroneously believe that our fear of snakes, our choice of sexual mates, or our opinions about the European Union are the result of some mysterious “free will.”
  • Most people don’t know themselves very well. When I was twenty-one, I finally realized that I was gay, after several years of living in denial. That’s hardly exceptional. Many gay men spend their entire teenage years unsure about their sexuality. Now imagine the situation in 2050, when an algorithm can tell any teenager exactly where he is on the gay/straight spectrum (and even how malleable that position is). Perhaps the algorithm will show you pictures or videos of attractive men and women, track your eye movements, blood pressure, and brain activity, and within five minutes display a number on the Kinsey scale.
  • On March 16, 1968, a company of American soldiers went berserk in the South Vietnamese village of My Lai and massacred about four hundred civilians. This war crime resulted from the local initiative of men who had been involved in jungle guerrilla warfare for several months. It did not serve any strategic purpose and contravened both U.S. legal code and military policy. It was the fault of human emotions. If the United States had deployed killer robots in Vietnam, the massacre at My Lai never would have occurred.
  • For every dollar and every minute we invest in improving artificial intelligence, it would be wise to invest a dollar and a minute in advancing human consciousness. Unfortunately, at present we are not doing much in the way of research into human consciousness and ways to develop it. We are researching and developing human abilities mainly according to the immediate needs of the economic and political system, rather than according to our own long-term needs as conscious beings.
  • The race to obtain the data is already on, headed by data giants such as Google, Facebook, Baidu, and Tencent. So far, many of these giants seem to have adopted the business model of “attention merchants.” They capture our attention by providing us with free information, services, and entertainment, and they then resell our attention to advertisers.
  • A thousand years ago every culture had its own story about the universe, and about the fundamental ingredients of the cosmic soup. Today, learned people throughout the world believe exactly the same things about matter, energy, time, and space. Take, for example, the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. The whole problem is that the Iranians and North Koreans have exactly the same view of physics as the Israelis and Americans. If the Iranians and North Koreans believed that E = mc4, Israel and the United States would not care an iota about their nuclear programs.
  • People still have different religions and national identities. But when it comes to the practical stuff—how to build a state, an economy, a hospital, or a bomb—almost all of us belong to the same civilization.
  • So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. And there is no shortage of short-tempered bulls in the world.
  • It is hard to set priorities in real time, while it is all too easy to second-guess priorities with hindsight. We accuse leaders of failing to prevent the catastrophes that happened, while we remain blissfully unaware of the disasters that never materialized.
    People confidently replied that they understood zippers very well - after all, they use them all the time. They were then asked to describe in as much detail as possible all the steps involved in the zipper’s operation. Most people had no idea. This is the knowledge illusion. We think we know a lot, even though individually we know very little, because we treat knowledge in the minds of others as if it were our own.
  • We invoke this mysterious God to explain the deepest riddles of the cosmos. Why is there something rather than nothing? What shaped the fundamental laws of physics? What is consciousness, and where does it come from? We do not know the answers to these questions, and we give our ignorance the grand name of God.
  • Yet though gods can inspire us to act compassionately, religious faith is not a necessary condition for moral behavior.
  • What then is the secular ideal? The most important secular commitment is to the truth, which is based on observation and evidence rather than on mere faith.
  • For example, secular people abstain from murder not because some ancient book forbids it but because killing inflicts immense suffering on sentient beings. There is something deeply troubling and dangerous about people who avoid killing just because “God says so.” Such people are motivated by obedience rather than compassion, and what will they do if they come to believe that their god commands them to kill heretics, witches, adulterers, or foreigners?
  • Worse still, great power inevitably distorts the truth. Power is all about changing reality rather than seeing it for what it is. When you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail; when you have great power in your hand, everything looks like an invitation to meddle.
  • If you really want truth, you need to escape the black hole of power and allow yourself to waste a lot of time wandering here and there on the periphery. Revolutionary knowledge rarely makes it to the center, because the center is built on existing knowledge. The guardians of the old order usually determine who gets to reach the centers of power, and they tend to filter out the carriers of disturbing, unconventional ideas. Of course, they filter out an incredible amount of rubbish too. Not being invited to the Davos World Economic Forum is hardly a guarantee of wisdom. That’s why you need to waste so much time in the periphery: while it might contain some brilliant revolutionary insights, it is mostly full of uninformed guesses, debunked models, superstitious dogmas, and ridiculous conspiracy theories.
  • One can try to evade the problem by adopting a “morality of intentions.” What’s important is what I intend, not what I actually do or the outcome of what I do. However, in a world in which everything is interconnected, the supreme moral imperative becomes the imperative to know. The greatest crimes in modern history resulted not just from hatred and greed but even more so from ignorance and indifference. Charming English ladies financed the Atlantic slave trade by buying shares and bonds in the London stock exchange without ever setting foot in either Africa or the Caribbean. They then sweetened their four o’clock tea with snow-white sugar cubes produced in hellish plantations about which they knew nothing.
  • I am aware that many people might be upset by my equating religion with fake news, but that’s exactly the point. When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it “fake news” in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath).
  • Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda maestro and perhaps the most accomplished media-wizard of the modern age, allegedly explained his method succinctly: “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” In Mein Kampf Hitler wrote,“The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly—it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”
  • Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the smug feeling that one knows exactly where the world is heading: down.
  • The Hindu epic the Bhagavad Gita relates how in the midst of a murderous civil war, the great warrior prince Arjuna is consumed with doubt. Seeing his friends and relatives in the opposing army, he hesitates over whether to fight and kill them. He begins to wonder what good and evil are, who decided it, and what the purpose of human life is. The god Krishna then explains to him that within the great cosmic cycle each being possesses a unique “dharma,” the path you must follow and the duties you must fulfill.
  • The 1994 Disney epic The Lion King repackaged this ancient story for modern audiences, with the young lion Simba standing in for Arjuna. When Simba wants to know the meaning of existence, his father, the lion king Mufasa, tells him about the great Circle of Life. Mufasa explains that the antelopes eat the grass, the lions eat the antelopes, and when the lions die their bodies decompose and feed the grass. This is how life continues from generation to generation.
  • All stories are incomplete. Yet in order to construct a viable identity for myself and give meaning to my life, I don’t really need a complete story devoid of blind spots and internal contradictions. To give meaning to my life, a story needs to satisfy just two conditions. First, it must give me some role to play. A New Guinean tribesman is unlikely to believe in Zionism or in Serbian nationalism, because these stories don’t care at all about New Guinea and its people. Like movie stars, humans like only those scripts that reserve an important role for them. Second, whereas a good story need not extend to infinity, it must extend beyond my horizons. The story must provide me with an identity and give meaning to my life by embedding me within something bigger than myself.
  • This theory of life as a never-ending epic is extremely attractive and common, but it suffers from two main problems. First, by lengthening my personal story I don’t really make it more meaningful. I just make it longer. Indeed, the two great religions that embrace the idea of a never-ending cycle of births and deaths, Hinduism and Buddhism, share a horror of the futility of it all. Millions upon millions of times I learn how to walk, I grow up, I fight with my mother-in-law, I get sick, I die—and then I do it all over again.
  • The second problem with this theory is the paucity of supporting evidence. What proof do I have that in a past life I was a medieval peasant, a Neanderthal hunter, a Tyrannosaurus rex, or an amoeba?
  • People who doubt that some kind of soul or spirit really survives their death therefore strive to leave behind something a bit more tangible.
  • The meaning of life is thus a bit like playing with a live hand grenade. Once you pass it on to somebody else, you are safe.
  • Alas, this modest hope of “leaving something behind” is rarely fulfilled. Most organisms that ever existed became extinct without leaving any genetic inheritance. Almost all the dinosaurs, for example. Or a Neanderthal family that became extinct as Homo sapiens took over.
  • If we cannot leave something tangible behind, such as a gene or a poem, might it be enough if we just make the world a little better?
  • A wise old man was asked what he learned about the meaning of life. “Well,” he answered, “I have learned that I am here on earth in order to help other people. What I still haven’t figured out is why the other people are here.”
  • This principle is as relevant in the twenty-first century as it was in ancient China. The power of hocus-pocus is alive and well in our modern industrial world. For many people in 2018, two wooden sticks nailed together are God, a colorful poster on the wall is the revolution, and a piece of cloth flapping in the wind is the nation.
  • If you want to make people really believe in some fiction, entice them to make a sacrifice on its behalf. Once you suffer for a story, it is usually enough to convince you that the story is real. If you fast because God commanded you to do so, the tangible feeling of hunger makes God present more than any statue or icon. If you lose your legs in a patriotic war, your stumps and wheelchair make the nation more real than any poem or anthem.
  • If you buy a secondhand Fiat for $2,000, you are likely to complain about it to anyone willing to listen to you. But if you buy a brand-new Ferrari for $200,000, you will sing its praises far and wide, not because it is such a good car but because you have paid so much money for it that you have to believe it is the most wonderful thing in the world. Even in romance, any aspiring Romeo or Werther knows that without sacrifice, there is no true love. The sacrifice is not just a way to convince your lover that you are serious; it is also a way to convince yourself that you are really in love.
  • When you inflict suffering on yourself in the name of some story, it gives you a choice: “Either the story is true or I am a gullible fool.” When you inflict suffering on others, you are also given a choice: “Either the story is true or I am a cruel villain.” And just as we don’t want to admit we are fools, we also don’t want to admit we are villains. We prefer to believe that the story is true.
  • Just as in ancient times, so also in the twenty-first century the human quest for meaning all too often ends with a succession of sacrifices.
  • In the fantasy film Willow—a run-of-the-mill George Lucas fairy tale—the eponymous hero is an ordinary dwarf who dreams of becoming a great sorcerer and mastering the secrets of existence. One day such a sorcerer passes through the dwarf village in search of an apprentice. Willow and two other hopeful dwarves present themselves, and the sorcerer gives the aspirants a simple test. He extends his right hand, spreads his fingers, and asks in a Yoda-like voice: “The power to control the world is in which finger?” Each of the three dwarves picks a finger—but they all pick the wrong one. Nevertheless, the sorcerer notices something about Willow and later asks him, “When I held up my fingers, what was your first impulse?” Says Willow in embarrassment, “Well, it was stupid—to pick my own finger.” “Aha!” the sorcerer exclaims in triumph. “That was the correct answer! You lack faith in yourself.” Liberal mythology never tires of repeating this lesson.
  • It is our own human fingers that wrote the Bible, the Quran, and the Vedas, and it is our minds that give these stories power. They are no doubt beautiful stories, but their beauty is strictly in the eyes of the beholder. Jerusalem, Mecca, Varanasi, and Bodh Gaya are sacred places, but only because of the feelings humans experience when they go there. In itself, the universe is only a meaningless hodgepodge of atoms. Nothing is inherently beautiful, sacred, or sexy; human feelings make it so. It is only human feelings that make a red apple seductive and a piece of turd disgusting. Take away human feelings, and you are left with a bunch of molecules.
  • According to the Buddha, then, life has no meaning, and people don’t need to create any meaning. They just need to realize that there is no meaning, and therefore be liberated from the suffering caused by our attachments and our identification with empty phenomena.
  • In 1930s Japan, people even found imaginative ways to combine Buddhist doctrines with nationalism, militarism, and fascism. Radical Buddhist thinkers such as Nissho Inoue, Ikki Kita, and Tanaka Chigaku argued that in order to dissolve one’s egoistic attachments, people should completely give themselves up to the emperor, excise all personal thinking, and observe total loyalty to the nation. Various ultranationalist organizations were inspired by such ideas, including a fanatical military group that sought to overthrow Japan’s conservative political system by a campaign of assassination.
  • There is very little chance that world peace and global harmony will arrive once seven billion human beings start meditating regularly.
  • Whenever politicians start talking in mystical terms, beware. They might be trying to disguise and excuse real suffering by wrapping it up in big, incomprehensible words. Be particularly careful about the following four words: “sacrifice,” “eternity,” “purity,” “redemption.” If you hear any of these four, sound the alarm.
  • So if you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is. The answer isn’t a story.
  • When people ask the big questions of life, they usually have absolutely no interest in knowing when their breath is coming into their nostrils and when it is going out. Rather, they want to know things like what happens after you die. Yet the real enigma of life is not what happens after you die but what happens before you die. If you want to understand death, you need to understand life.
  • You want to know what anger is? Well, just observe the sensations that arise and pass through your body while you are angry. Whenever I had been angry, I had focused on the object of my anger—something somebody did or said—rather than on the sensory reality of the anger.
  • Several ancient cultures devoted a lot of attention to the study of the mind, and they relied not on collecting secondhand accounts but on training people to observe their own minds systematically. The methods they developed are bunched together under the generic term “meditation.” Today this term is often associated with religion and mysticism, but in principle meditation is any method for the direct observation of one’s own mind. 

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Yuval Noah Harari
Back to notes

Did You Enjoy This?

Then consider signing up for my Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.