The title of Yuval Harari’s latest best-seller is a misnomer: it asks many questions, but offers very few answers, and hardly any lessons. It is the least notable of his three major books, since most of its best ideas were introduced in the other two. But it is still worth reading. Harari delights in grandiloquent sweeping generalisations which irritate academics enormously, and part of the fun is precisely that you can so easily picture his colleagues seething with indignation that he is trampling on their turf. More important, some of his generalisations are acutely insightful.
The insight at the heart of “Sapiens”, his first book, was that humans dominate the planet not because we are logical, but because 70,000 or so years ago we developed the ability to agree to believe stories that we know are untrue. These stories are about religion, and political and economic organisation. The big insight in his second book, “Homo Deus” is that artificial intelligence and other technologies are about to transform our lives far more – and far more quickly – than almost anyone realises. Both these key ideas are reprised in “21 Lessons”, but they are big ideas which bear repeating.
Happily, he has toned down his idiosyncratic campaigns about religion and vegetarianism. In the previous books he encountered religion everywhere: capitalism and communism have passionate adherents, but they are not religions. The first third of “Homo Deus” is religious in a different way: it is a lengthy sermon about vegetarianism.
“21 Lessons” is divided into five parts, of which the first is the most coherent and the best. It concerns the coming technological changes, which Harari first explored in “Homo Deus”. “Most people in Birmingham, Istanbul, St Petersburg and Mumbai are only dimly aware, if at all, of the rise of artificial intelligence and its potential impact on their lives. It is undoubtable, however, that the technological revolutions will gather momentum in the next few decades, and will confront humankind with the hardest trials we have ever encountered.”
He is refreshingly blunt about the possibility of technological unemployment: “It is dangerous just to assume that enough new jobs will appear to compensate for any losses. The fact that this has happened during previous waves of automation is absolutely no guarantee that it will happen again under the very different conditions of the twenty-first century. The potential social and political disruptions are so alarming that even if the probability of systemic mass unemployment is low, we should take it very seriously.”
Very well said, but this part of the book would be much more powerful if he had offered a fully worked-through argument for this claim, which in the last couple of years has been sneeringly dismissed by a procession of tech giant CEOs, economists, and politicians. Perhaps next year, the World Economic Forum could organise a debate on this question between Harari and a leading sceptic, such as David Autor.
It is also a shame that he offers no prescriptions, beyond categorising them: “Potential solutions fall into three main categories: what to do in order to prevent jobs from being lost; what to do in order to create enough new jobs; and what to do if, despite our best efforts, job losses significantly outstrip job creation.” Fair enough, but this should be the start of the discussion, not the end. Still, at least he doesn’t fall back on the usual panacea of universal basic income, and his warning about what happens if we fail to develop a plan is clear: “as the masses lose their economic importance … the state might lose at least some of the incentive to invest in their health, education and welfare. It’s very dangerous to be redundant.”
Harari is also more clear-sighted than most about the risk of algocracy – the situation which arises when we delegate decisions to machines because they make better ones than we do. “Once we begin to count on AI to decide what to study, where to work, and who to marry, human life will cease to be a drama of decision-making. … Imagine Anna Karenina taking out her smartphone and asking the Facebook algorithm whether she should stay married to Karenin or elope with the dashing Count Vronsky.” Warning about technological unemployment, he coined the brutal phrase “the gods and the useless”. Warning about algocracy, he suggests that humans could become mere “data cows”.
The remaining four parts of the book contain much less that is original and striking. Harari is a liberal and an unapologetic globalist, pointing out reasonably enough that global problems like technological disruption require global solutions. He describes the EU as a “miracle machine”, which Brexit is throwing a spanner into. He does not see nationalism as a problem in itself, although he observes that for most of our history we have not had nations, and they are unnatural things and hard to build. In fact he thinks they can be very positive, but “the problem starts when benign patriotism morphs into chauvinistic ultra-nationalism.”
Although he sees nationalism as a possible problem, he also thinks it has already lost the game: “we are all members of a single rowdy global civilisation … 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 civilisation.” He supports this claim by pointing out that the Olympic Games, currently “organised by stable countries, each with boringly similar flags and national anthems,” could not have happened in mediaeval times, when there were no such things as nation states. And he argues that this is a very good thing: “For all the national pride people feel when their delegation wins a gold medal and their flag is raised, there is far greater reason to feel pride that humankind is capable of organising such an event.”
He is even more dismissive of religion – especially monotheism – despite his obsession with it. “From an ethical perspective, monotheism was arguably one of the worst ideas in human history … What monotheism undoubtedly did was to make many people far more intolerant than before … the late Roman Empire was as diverse as Ashoka’s India, but when Christianity took over, the emperors adopted a very different approach to religion.” Religion, he says, has no answers to any of life’s important questions, which is why there is no great following for a Christian version of agriculture, or a Muslim version of economics. “We don’t need to invoke God’s name in order to live a moral life. Secularism can provide us with all the values we need.”
He seems to be applying for membership of the “new atheists” club, in which Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker deliberately goad the religious by diagnosing religion as a disease which can be cured. Harari suggests that “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.”
Oddly, given his perceptive take on the future of AI, Harari is weak on science fiction, displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of both The Matrix and Ex Machina. He is stronger on terrorism, pointing out that it is much less of a threat than it seems, contrary to the deliberate mis-representations by populists: “Since 11 September 2001, every year terrorists have killed about fifty people in the European Union, about ten people in the USA, about seven people in China, and up to 25,000 people globally (mostly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria). In contrast, each year traffic accidents kill about 80,000 Europeans, 40,000 Americans, 270,000 Chinese, and 1.25 million people altogether.” Terrorists “challenge the state to prove it can protect all its citizens all the time, which of course it can’t.” They are trying to make the state over-react, and populists are their eager accomplices.
The book seems to be building to a climax when it addresses the meaning of life. Here and elsewhere, Harari has said that humans create meaning – or at least the basis of power – by telling ourselves stories. So is he going to give us a story which will help us navigate the challenges of the 21st century?
Sadly not. The closest we get is a half-baked version of Buddhism.
“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 … The big question facing humans isn’t ‘what is the meaning of life?’ but rather, ‘how do we get out of suffering?’ … If you really know the truth about yourself and about the world, nothing can make you miserable. But that is of course much easier said than done.” Indeed.
Harari has worked out his own salvation: “Having accepted that life has no meaning, I find meaning in explaining this truth to others.” Given his six-figure speaking fees, this makes perfect sense.
Harari also finds solace in meditation, which he practices for two hours every day, and a whole month or two every year. “21 Lessons” is a collection of essays written for newspapers and in response to questions. This shows in its disjointed, discursive, and inconclusive nature. If Harari had spent less time meditating, maybe he would have found more time to answer the questions he raises. It’s still definitely worth reading, though.
This article first appeared in Forbes Magazine