My Top Most Important Reads in 2021:
#5- 21 Lessons for The 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
“In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power.”
This statement which opens Harari’s third book in what is a trilogy exploring the past (Sapiens), future (Homos Deus) and now the present of humanity, captures the spirit in which he writes. Harari is clear that he believes time is ticking on humanities ability to control the narrative, and spends much time articulating how narrative is key for how we do history rightly or wrongly, because whether we recognize it or not we all have a narrative we hold to and which we assume and project into our understanding of truths relating to historicity. From narrative comes clarity and potential.
His essential argument in this final book focused on the present state of the human species revolves around the cautionary and prophetic message that In the near future, if not already, humanities power to dictate the direction of this narrative, especially when it comes to ethics, may or likely will be given over to the very power of the technology and systems we have created. When system is married to technology the narrative of our evolutionary story changes exponentially, giving the technology an agency unparalleled in human history. The irony of this being that it is because we see this technology as a symbol of humanities inherent exceptionalism that we remain largely unaware of the right questions to ask. In short, for the first time in history technology has far outpaced our ability to formulate these advances and changes in a way that that aids human activity. Instead human activity consistently caters to technological changes.
At one point the author points out that we’ve spent the whole of human history sitting around debating about life’s meaning, and we no longer have that luxury. We need to get past these arguments and get on with what really matters- regaining control of the world.
Why this is one of the most important books of 2021 for me is not so much because I agree with his conclusions; truth be told I depart with him on that front, it’s because I think the data and thoughts contained in this trilogy, and which this book effectively demonstrates, presents the most compelling argument for where we are and how we got here and what we must do in response that I have found to date. There’s no question that Harari has strong feelings about religion, and when he gets caught up in these biases the book and his arguments are at their weakest and least compelling. But the information that surrounds this I think makes a really strong case for the truth of reality as we know it and what these current realities are. For me his exposition uncovers the most logical way to live with these challenges with of course a strong eye on the future. I am convinced that if I didn’t hold to faith Harari’s assessment of reality remains most likely to be true. As a person of faith his assessment of reality also explains, at least in part, why it is that I believe in God.
I think one interesting thing about Harari is that what he has to say directly challenges so much about the ways in which non-religious thought often makes certain assumptions about reality that don’t reflect the way it actually is. I see this happen all the time in conversation. His deconstruction of free will, his assessment of nationalism, his appeal to materialism, his acknowledgement of narratives as illusions, his interpretation of our relationship to technology, these are all things that smart minds might acknowledge but rarely allow to actually inform the truth precisely because of where it seems to lead. This is where he challenges this tendency by exposing logical inconsistencies. The way he exposes the degree to which much of the laws of nature bleed through so many of the areas we generally apply freely to morals and ethics, and the acceptance that this is okay and even necessary when taken in the bigger picture, contradicts many of the most popular assessments of reality on the surface. It is the way that he makes a case for these things that makes it so compelling, even if it leaves us uncomfortable. And if you are a person of faith, so much of this intersects with the the stuff of life that religion tends to inform and reform, thus reading this can help clarify some of the uncomfortable realities about life and humanity that cause many of us to question and desire to confront and address.