21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Jack McArthur | Jack.McArthur@yale.edu January 22, 2019

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Every day, millions of communications are sent around the globe that wouldn’t be possible without modern technology. Though modern connectivity has many benefits, the sudden onset of the Technological Age has turned the 21st century into a uniquely unpredictable era. Historian Yuval Noah Harari discusses a wide range of possibilities for the future in his bestseller 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, a collection of 21 essays on looming problems in the modern world and predictions for their consequences. Harari investigates closely how science will change society, and how we can avoid a dystopia by making science accessible.

The Technological Age is changing the world in unprecedented ways. Nations can surveil their citizens and censor their information intake, giving them a sovereignty over their citizens that fallen dictatorships would envy. Technology may also be phasing out low-skilled jobs. In prior waves of automation, people who lost their jobs moved into the service industry. Soon, however, Harari believes artificial intelligence will outperform humans in cognitive abilities like communication skills and interpreting emotions. Will they overtake the service industry, too? If AI integrates into the service industry, will it lead to a societal restructuring—like how the Industrial Revolution transformed feudal Europe into a society with empowered workers?

In addition to changing the world we experience, Harari suggests technology could control our minds as well. We are transitioning from one era, in which nations were united by loyalty to our tribes, to the next, where Big Data and AI know exactly what information to feed constituents for their allegiance. Though Harari’s view of the future of technology is often insightful, other times it borders on paranoid. He takes an extreme view on the future of this computer-manufactured allegiance, saying that the biotech and infotech industries will soon allow us to kill thoughts at will. He also makes a bleak analogy that Kim Jong-Un could one day have biometric sensors that determine if his propaganda elicits anger.

In this way, Harari warns of science’s becoming a tool of oppression, separating scientists and the powerful from the ignorant. Harari believes that we can avoid this dystopian scenario if we can better communicate scientific ideas to the public. This means having scientists appear in public debates, publishing documentaries, or even writing sci-fi novels; art plays a key role in shaping people’s views of the world, and sci-fi can dictate how people feel about scientific debates. From a political perspective, these are far more valuable than publishing papers in journals; they create a more scientifically-aware population that will protect research endeavors for generations to come.

In a New York Times Op-Ed, Bill Gates agrees that Harari’s views are sometimes radically pessimistic. Gates doesn’t foresee technology integrating as deeply into our lives. Notably, Gates disagrees with his claim that data is the world’s most valuable resource, instead nominating real estate for the title. Though bleak at times, Harari’s work is thought-provoking and raises some critical conversations about our global future.