I picked up Yuval Noah Harari’s latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century with great enthusiasm.

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Yuval Noah Harari burst onto the world radar with his first book, Sapiens in 2015. A summer reading pick for Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, it’s a book fill with clever phrases, creative concepts and different angles at looking at human remarkable history, especially the recent history since cognitive revolution some 70,000 years ago. Some of the first-seemly-outrageous, but entirely reasonable-after-explained-in-context claims include, but not limited to:

  1. Agricultural revolution is a scam that tricked our ancestors into working longer hours in exchange for lower quality of living.
  2. It’s not us who domesticated the wheat, it’s the wheat which domesticated Homo Sapiens
  3. Money is just as much a fiction as religion, or law, or even democracy rights or marriage.
  4. Human isn’t necessarily smarter than other mammals, just better at collaboration, AKA better at believing and keeping a fiction.

It is a very insightful book. At the end of the book, I was impressed by the novelty of his claims, explanations and interpretations, and he opened me to the possibility that historical events ( or any events in life) can be interpreted, explained or looked at from a completely different angles.

Talk about a mind provoking book, Sapiens is one. A good book feeds you with information, but a mind provoking book gives you new perspective to look at the old information.

Come to his third book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, it doesn’t feel as good, but only because he set the bar too high from his first book.

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, the author talks about a range of current issues from disillusionment of democracy liberal ideology to the rise of AI to global warming to religion to terrorism to God to meaning of life and to meditation. The coverage is vast, and the book does feel incoherent at times. Harari analyzes the issue clear enough, but there are very few actionable steps. He outlines the problems, but no concrete solutions.

Example, how to fight terrorism? Terrorism capitalizes on our over-reaction to remote and distant but mind boggling terrorizing acts. So the solution, according to Harari, is to calm ourselves down everytime we hear a terrorist attack and remind ourselves that terrorism kills a lot less people than car accident. The problem is that I can do that, and the people around me who haven’t read his book ( and there are almost all of them) don’t know this trick and will still overreact. If our country is attacked, those people will vote for an over-reacted retaliation despite that doing so is falling right into the terrorist agenda. Not to mention that the News Cable and terrorists exist in a symbiotic relationship. Bad news is a good business opportunity.

Another example, on how to safeguard our data privacy is in the 21st century, “data will eclipse both land and machinery as the most important asset”. So it is too important to let it owned by a single entity. So we need discourse on how to own or who to own the data. The problem is that this only works in everyone else in the planet has the same respect for data privacy. China, the most populous country in the world, is on track to become AI superpower precisely because it doesn’t really give a hood about data privacy nonsense.

if AI really gives China a competitive advantage over everyone else, do you still want to safeguard your data privacy? If people can enjoy better health, better convenience precisely because they are living in a country with a Super AI that monitors everything including your body information down to every single cell on a minute by minute basis, would you not want that, just because you cherish your privacy?

There are also chapters in which I feel that the author doesn’t give enough weight to a certain point of view. Case in point: immigration. Harari tries to do a fair job in portraying the pro-immigration and anti-immigration debates in Europe. But I feel that he doesn’t do justice to anti-immigration sides. He doesn’t present the one very persuasive reason: that immigrants can and do change the very social structure and fabric. Given the low birth rate of the Europeans, and the high birth rate of the Muslim immigrants, and given that there is no separation of politics and religion as far as Islam is concerned, and given that moderate Muslims are really ineffective in reining in the fanatical ones, what is there to stop Europe countries from sliding into Muslim majority ( or even worse, theocratic) states a few generation down the road?

This is the worry that Harari doesn’t do enough to present or assuage. Let’s take another example, say if Israel were to accept in a large number of Ultra-Orthodox Jews with high birth rate, who, among many things, despise homosexuals above all and hell bent on passing the so-called homophobic laws. In that case, wouldn’t Harari be worried that a few generations down the road, when the Ultra-Orthodox Jews outnumber the liberal ones, Israel will really pass homophobic laws and fundamentally alter the nature of the State itself?

The last chapter, about Vipassana meditation is the best chapter of all. Harari practices Vipassana meditation 2 hours a day, and does a 2 months retreat every year, for close to 20 years. Vipassana meditation is just the observation of your bodily sensation, thoughts, starting with observing your breath first. It might seem simple, but when you actually practice that, you will find that it’s very difficult to maintain your concentration. Harari credits his insights on the practice of Vipassana meditation, for it gives him the discipline to focus on really important things, the here and now, the reality.

Harari does not even own a cellphone; not owning a cellphone is a luxury,  because having one means that you are working for someone, and that person needs to be able to reach you from time to time. Also, there are just too many distractions on a modern day cellphone, social medias and news websites bombard you with clickbaits and exciting updates that simply fragmentize your attention, making your attention short, perhaps even shorter than Goldfish. It’s a little wonder why we can’t get any serious, deep work done, because after entertaining all the exciting facebook updates, we have no more energy left.

Instead of talking about what we can learn from Harari’s latest book, perhaps it’s more important to know what we can learn from Harari himself. No cellphone (or at least, no social medias or news on your cellphone), and meditate. Being able to do these two shall improve your life quality leaps and bounces.

I can attest to this. Let’s talk about it in one of the future posts.

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