21 lessons for the 21st century by Yuval Noah Harari (Jonathan Cape)


“In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power”

YUVAL – after three books I feel we are on first person terms – has a political yardstick of communism, liberalism and fascism, which is fair enough, although as he opines here all three tenets have somehow flunked out leaving us  – the literate, book buying elite that remains – faced with an option worse than all three, no faith, no religion, at all, nihilism in fact. Bewilderment at world events.

Yuval is not against breaking out of these political constraints as if he also has other accepted beliefs like faith, empathy, sympathy, compassion, friendship, companionship, veganism, existentialism even, all safely locked up in his own personal larder, thank you very much. And then there is the question of when he says we, does he really mean we, as in me, as in readers in general, as in you/us, as in us undergraduates enrolled in the university of Harari? Or is he writing for some superhuman human, (as predicted by Stephen Hawking) about to inherit the planet, or perhaps he is applying for a job, major domo to said future superman/woman. It is a point Yuval touches on as we go along. The question of identity.

Which also asks the question if thought or thinking can alter the course of say climate change or any other foreseen calamity? Knowing there were Nazis around the corner did not stop them coming around and killing those of a non arian persuasions. We know about climate change, but what to do? Our parochial national political frameworks were not designed for such challenges.

Is there a point that for some, perhaps for most us, all this is irrelevant because we will be washed away anyway? Yuval set out as some liberal samurai but as time has passed – he cities Trump and Brexit as axiomatic truths of the modern era and if Russia did not meddle in those elections he takes it as a given someone will soon – events are upon us, or if not us, then somebody else. It is not such a comfortable perspective if you were/are looking from the Middle East or China or Asia or Russia…or in Palu. Are these just lessons for the affluent? For decision makers?

That said there is a certain flattering frisson in being treated as a master of the universe. Bask in this great sunshine of academia. Read this on a park bench to reassure others that you have things under control. You are taking here accepted texts. Be Moses for a day. Be an intellectual. Buy a life raft tomorrow…move to New Zealand, southern island.

The point of departure as Yuval looks into the future is bewilderment. Accept that life is complicated. Let us not be daunted. That just maybe machines and algorithms might help. And then we move into potential impacts, AI on jobs, algorithms in medicine, compassion as in nursing or looking after the elderly may it seems may still survive as new jobs. Some of this is not so new at all I suspect to many of us for whom Amazon is already busy supplying us with new reading suggestions each week and whose smart phones are hacked by advertisements of just the right saucepan that I did not know I needed but do now.

How much better might it be if Amazon’s algorithm might also suggest new partners for us based on our buying choices? Or a new more suitable job? Maybe Amazon’s big A could do it better because, as he points, out although we make a big deal of our free will, we as humans, don’t always make particularly good choices of career, loved ones or anything else however precious we regard our notional freedom of choice. Progress. The difficult part, he unnervingly suggests, is we are not very good with changes as radical as those in the pipeline.

“Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech,” he points out. There are intricate reasons for this assertion but in one explanation it is globalization, which on the one hand horizontally speaking brings down borders between countries but on the other perspective, the vertical, it reduces each of us to anonymous, potentially irrelevant cogs depending on our access or ability to afford to Big Data. And that is the nub. Who owns the data? And what will they use it for?

The pleasing thing amid all this nervousness is that Yuval is wonderfully articulate, like an engine driver pulling us passengers along. Toot Toot. The nearest thing that I can ascribe to this towering piece of thinking is that he has become the Karl Marx of our day.




About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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