Worry, and Be Unhappy
Why should you read Yuval Noah Harari’s fascinating bestseller 21 Lessons for the 21st Century? Because you need to worry more.
Did you know that your phone will soon understand you better than you understand yourself? You may have suspected that you were in line to be replaced by a machine, but had you considered that all jobs might eventually be replaced, creating a “useless class” of human beings of which you, dear reader, will, with your luck, probably be the most useless of all? You knew that global warming and nuclear war threaten our existence. But did you know that our liberal democratic philosophy was inherently unsuited to addressing these threats? What about fake news, Donald Trump, nationalism, war, and Britney Spears? Harari will cover all of these perils for you, and much, much more.
Harari, a professor of medieval history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, may be the most celebrated thinker in the world right now. His two previous books, Sapiens (2015) and Homo Deus (2016), have earned him the admiration of everyone from Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to Barack Obama and even so illustrious a personage as this critic. Harari’s most impressive gift is certainly his way of extracting brand-new insights from familiar facts.
Consider, for example, his categorization of humanism into three distinct branches: Liberal Humanism, Socialist Humanism, and Evolutionary Humanism, epitomized by free-market democracy, Communism, and Nazism, respectively. What makes these philosophies, which we think of as so opposed to one another, all versions of humanism? They’re all based on the assumption that human beings (variously defined) are the repository of all value.
This is an original idea, something most of us will never have, but one that Harari can’t stop having. And the world being what it is, most of these ideas come with grim connotations.
For example, he ominously observes that advertising is no longer being tailored to human tastes, but to the parameters of the Google search algorithm. He forecasts that artificial intelligence and biotech are irresistible technologies because of their unprecedented benefits (millions of lives saved every year), but they come with a small drawback (they will result in the end of human existence). So, yeah, hooray.
Harari falls short in the solutions he offers to the problems he identifies. Most of his solutions are mere equivocations, while many are cliches like “don’t expect perfection.” He offers guru-style aphorisms. Worst, he advises us to meditate. No, thanks. This critic is a brave man, but isn’t about to risk dying of boredom. He’s got enough to worry about.