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21 Lessons For The 21st Century

by Kyle Thomas Smith
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Nov 10, 2018
 21 Lessons For The 21st Century

With "21 Lessons for the 21st Century," one of the finest minds of our time has added a new installment to his series on our own species' unlikely rise to world dominance and our likely decline into obsolescence as artificial intelligence (A.I.) and biotechnology eclipse our capacity to produce and perform.

Once an obscure professor of Medieval military history at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Noah Yuval Harari set out to inform his students about the world that they are likely to encounter as the human race embarks upon a paradigm shift that has the potential to dwarf any previous phase in our evolution as a species. To do this, Harari began by boiling down 200,000 years of human history to a little under 450 pages in his book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind," which gives an overview of how humans managed to distinguish themselves through their ability to "cooperate flexibly in large groups"—especially, at least for the past 10,000 years, under the aegis of unifying super-stories such as those wrought by religious or political ideologies—which then allowed us to conquer all other life forms, even though we're not endowed with sharp claws or teeth.

From there, with his next book "Homo Deus," Harari set out to impress upon his students and readers how the technological revolution—from self-driving cars to machines that not only replace but outperform doctors (even in terms of bedside manner! - as the machine's algorithms will be able to gauge the emotional/biochemical response of the patient better than even the most empathetic human)—will render our current way of life unrecognizable from the standpoint of future generations.

Now, in "21 Lessons for the 21st Century," Harari considers the ways in which (a) we might be able to better prepare ourselves for a world that will almost certainly be unlike anything we've ever seen or known and (b) how we might be able to partner with technological disruption so that it does not become the domain of autocrats and grifters.

It's almost impossible to summarize "21 Lessons for the 21st Century" since each of the hundreds of concepts it raises could warrant a book, if not series, of its own, yet here are some bullets as a primer:

Ideological Stories: The dominant stories of the 20th Century were fascism, communism, and liberalism. These three stories were able to unify untold millions. Although we are currently experiencing a resurgence of fascist movements in the 21st Century, fascism suffered a 20th Century defeat after World War II. The story of liberalism, which offered the narrative that anyone could work their way up from any corner of society, triumphed over communism, which offered the narrative that the exploited need to rise up against the owners of the means of production and create an egalitarian society. Now liberalism is making its last stand in the face of (a) environmental catastrophes, which can wipe away any measure of a region or nation's economic growth, and (b) biotech and infotech, which are creating a status quo in which robots are taking away jobs. Today, we find ourselves with no reliable stories (ideologies) to guide us through the next one hundred years of massive changes. What will our new story be?

The Useless Class: Harari is careful to point out that unemployed or unemployable people are not "useless" in terms of character or inherent worth. However, while they are not "useless" to their loved ones, they are often counted as such by economists, who will likely be generating a plethora of reports on a "useless class" of literally billions of people whose jobs have been replaced by phenomenally subtle technologies that can surpass not only the physical but the cognitive abilities of even the most brilliant human beings. The economy will still need humans to maintain and optimize the machinery behind these technologies; however, it could take many years of intensive study to train for these jobs. Add to this that, as technology advances, people will need to reinvent themselves again and again throughout their lifetimes to keep up with the changes in the labor market. For these reasons, governments will need to seriously consider providing their citizenry with a Universal Basic Income both for the so-called "useless class" and the transitioning class that is training to meet the technological demands of the new job market. Not only this, but basic income may also have to extend to the countries with which each government trades or else starvation may ensue among the populations of our trade partners (populations that, even apart from technological disruption, are likely to also be hit with environmental calamities amid global warming). How likely is it that the U.S. government, for example, will pass legislation to provide a Universal Basic Income for citizens of other countries, much less of its own? "People care far more for their enemies than their trade partners," Harari writes, meaning that we are far more likely to spend our capital on defeating our enemy, no matter how elusive, than on helping our allies. This is one of the many things about ourselves that we will need to change in the 21st Century.

Nationalism vs. Globalism: Harari is by no means a proponent of nationalism; however, he does make the case that the advantage of nationalism is that it allows a sense of unity and familiarity among people who would otherwise be divided into much smaller warring tribes. Yet, apart from the obvious hazards of one country establishing a consciousness that it is superior to other countries and that the dominant group within its borders is better than every other group within its borders, nationalism will fail to protect life even within a nation's borders because, with climate change alone, we are facing a crisis in which all nations need to cooperate to meet environmental safety standards. Otherwise, if so much as one nation opts out of compliance, the effects will be both global and lethal. How much more will it take to ensure this cooperation? Will it ever happen?

Technological Challenges: What about a world in which Artificial Intelligence knows us better than we know ourselves? What if we turn to it to make all of our major and minor life decisions? What if we come to rely on it for health assessments and early detection of illness, only to discover that, now that we're hacked, it also has an accurate gauge of our biochemical reactions, which it then communicates to a database that corporations and government agencies can use to manipulate our emotions in whatever way they wish? "Not only will the regime know exactly how you feel," says Harari, "but it could make you feel whatever it wants." What could this mean for LGBT people? In a more benign scenario, a corporation could try to sell us products by showing us ads that, according to our own individual biofeedback reports, are more appealing to our sexual orientation or gender identity. However, this could prove fatal if both our nation and this information fall into the hands of a regime that is bent on eliminating LGBT people.

Harari does not posit these questions and scenarios in order to gin up paranoia, but rather to urge us to consider the ethical implications of the advancements that are mounting on a daily basis in our times.

In any event, it's best to keep in mind the most calming words from "21 Lessons for the 21st Century," even as we absorb the more fearsome aspects of its vast wisdom:

The first step is to tone down the prophecies of doom and switch from panic mode to bewilderment. Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the smug feeling that one knows exactly where the world is heading: down. Bewilderment is more humble and therefore more clear-sighted. Do you feel like running down the street crying, "The apocalypse is upon us"? Try telling yourself, "No, it's not that. Truth is, I just don't understand what's going on in the world."

"21 Lessons for the 21st Century"
by Yuval Noah Harari

Kyle Thomas Smith is author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn with his husband and two cats.


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