Hello friends. This post is a collection of quotes from the book - 21 Lessons for the 21st Century book by Yuval Noah Hariri. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a probing and visionary investigation into today's most urgent issues as we move into the uncharted territory of the future.
As a historian, I cannot give people food or clothes - but I can try and offer some clarity.
Terrorism is both a global political problem and an internal psychological mechanism. Terrorism works by pressing the fear button deep in our minds and hijacking the private imagination of millions of individuals.
The merger of infotech and biotech might soon push billions of humans out of the job market and undermine both liberty and equality. Big Data algorithms might create digital dictatorships in which all power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite while most people suffer not from exploitation, but from something far worse - irrelevance.
Artificial intelligence and biotechnology are giving humanity the power to reshape and re-engineer life. Very soon somebody will have to decide how to use this power - based on some implicit or explicit story about the meaning of life. Philosophers are very patient people, but engineers are far less patient, and investors are the least patient of all. If you don't know what to do with the power to engineer life, market forces will not wait a thousand years for you to come up with an answer. The invisible hand of the market will force upon you its own blind reply. Unless you are happy to entrust the future of life to the mercy of quarterly revenue reports, you need a clear idea what life is all about.
Since the 1990s the Internet has changed the world probably more than any other factor, yet the Internet revolution was directed by engineers more than by political parties. Did you ever vote about the Internet? The democratic system is still struggling to understand what hit it, and is hardly equipped to deal with the next shocks, such as the rise of AI and the blockchain revolution.
Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely.
Humans vote with their feet. In my travels around the world I have met numerous people in many countries who wish to emigrate to the USA, to Germany, to Canada or to Australia. I have met a few who want to move to China or Japan. But I am yet to meet a single person who dreams of emigrating to Russia.
The technological revolution might soon push billions of humans out of the job market, and create a massive new useless class, leading to social and political upheavals that no existing ideology knows how to handle.
Humans have two types of abilities - physical and cognitive. In the past, machines competed with humans mainly in raw physical abilities, while humans retained an immense edge over machines in cognition. [...] However, AI is now beginning to outperform humans in more and more of these skills, including in the understanding of human emotions. We don't know of any third field of activity - beyond the physical and the cognitive - where humans will always retain a secure edge.
The challenge posed to humankind in the twenty-first century by infotech and biotech is arguably much bigger than the challenge posed in the previous era by steam engines, railroads and electricity. And given the immense destructive power of our civilisation, we just cannot afford more failed models, world wars and bloody revolutions. This time around, the failed models might result in nuclear wars, genetically engineered monstrosities, and a complete breakdown of the biosphere.
In order to cope with the unprecedented technological and economic disruptions of the twenty-first century, we need to develop new social and economic models as soon as possible. These models should be guided by the principle of protecting humans rather than jobs. Many jobs are uninspiring drudgery, not worth saving. Nobody's life-dream is to be a cashier.
Referendums and elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality. If democracy were a matter of rational decision-making, there would be absolutely no reason to give all people equal voting rights - or perhaps any voting rights.
When the biotech revolution merges with the infotech revolution, it will produce Big Data algorithms that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can, and then authority will probably shift from humans to computers. My illusion of free will is likely to disintegrate as I daily encounter institutions, corporations and government agencies that understand and manipulate what was hitherto my inaccessible inner realm.
In the late twentieth century democracies usually outperformed dictatorships because democracies were better at data-processing. Democracy diffuses the power to process information and make decisions among many people and institutions, whereas dictatorship concentrates information and power in one place. Given twentieth-century technology, it was inefficient to concentrate too much information and power in one place. [...] However, soon AI might swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. AI makes it possible to process enormous amounts of information centrally. Indeed, AI might make centralised systems far more efficient than diffused systems, because machine learning works better the more information it can analyse.
If we invest too much in developing AI and too little in developing human consciousness, the very sophisticated artificial intelligence of computers might only serve to empower the natural stupidity of humans. We are unlikely to face a robot rebellion in the coming decades, but we might have to deal with hordes of bots who know how to press our emotional buttons better than our mother, and use this uncanny ability to try and sell us something - be it a car, a politician, or an entire ideology.
We are now creating tame humans that produce enormous amounts of data and function as very efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but these data-cows hardly maximise the human potential. Indeed we have no idea what the full human potential is, because we know so little about the human mind. And yet we hardly invest much in exploring the human mind, and instead focus on increasing the speed of our Internet connections and the efficiency of our Big Data algorithms. If we are not careful, we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world.
Globalisation has certainly benefited large segments of humanity, but there are signs of growing inequality both between and within societies. Some groups increasingly monopolise the fruits of globalisation, while billions are left behind. Already today, the richest 1 per cent owns half the world's wealth. Even more alarmingly, the richest hundred people together own more than the poorest 4 billion.
In ancient times land was the most important asset in the world, politics was a struggle to control land, and if too much land became concentrated in too few hands - society split into aristocrats and commoners. In the modern era machines and factories became more important than land, and political struggles focused on controlling these vital means of production. If too many of the machines became concentrated in too few hands - society split into capitalists and proletarians. In the twenty-first century, however, data will eclipse both land and machinery as the most important asset, and politics will be a struggle to control the flow of data.
At present, people are happy to give away their most valuable asset - their personal data - in exchange for free email services and funny cat videos. It is a bit like African and Native American tribes who unwittingly sold entire countries to European imperialists in exchange for colourful beads and cheap trinkets. If, later on, ordinary people decide to try and block the flow of data, they might find it increasingly difficult, especially as they might come to rely on the network for all their decisions, and even for their healthcare and physical survival.
We don't have much experience in regulating the ownership of data, which is inherently a far more difficult task, because unlike land and machines, data is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, it can move at the speed of light, and you can create as many copies of it as you want.
Zuckerberg says that Facebook is committed 'to continue improving our tools to give you the power to share your experience' with others. Yet what people might really need are the tools to connect to their own experiences. In the name of 'sharing experiences', people are encouraged to understand what happens to them in terms of how others see it. If something exciting happens, the gut instinct of Facebook users is to pull out their smartphones, take a picture, post it online, and wait for the 'likes'. In the process they barely notice what they themselves feel. Indeed, what they feel is increasingly determined by the online reactions.
Historically, corporations were not the ideal vehicle for leading social and political revolutions. A real revolution sooner or later demands sacrifices that corporations, their employees and their shareholders are not willing to make. That's why revolutionaries establish churches, political parties and armies.
European civilisation is anything Europeans make of it, just as Christianity is anything Christians make of it, Islam is anything Muslims make of it, and Judaism is anything Jews make of it. And they have made of it remarkably different things over the centuries. Human groups are defined more by the changes they undergo than by any continuity, but they nevertheless manage to create for themselves ancient identities thanks to their storytelling skills. No matter what revolutions they experience, they can usually weave old and new into a single yarn.
War spreads ideas, technologies and people far more quickly than commerce. [...] War also makes people far more interested in one another. [...] People care far more about their enemies than about their trade partners. For every American film about Taiwan, there are probably fifty about Vietnam.
The dollar bill is universally venerated across all political and religious divides. Though it has no intrinsic value - you cannot eat or drink a dollar bill - trust in the dollar and in the wisdom of the Federal Reserve is so firm that it is shared even by Islamic fundamentalists, Mexican drug lords and North Korean tyrants.
The big challenges of the twenty-first century will be global in nature. What will happen when climate change triggers ecological catastrophes? What will happen when computers outperform humans in more and more tasks, and replace them in an increasing number of jobs? What will happen when biotechnology enables us to upgrade humans and extend lifespans? No doubt, we will have huge arguments and bitter conflicts over these questions. But these arguments and conflicts are unlikely to isolate us from one another. Just the opposite. They will make us ever more interdependent. Though humankind is very far from constituting a harmonious community, we are all members of a single rowdy global civilisation.
The problem starts when benign patriotism morphs into chauvinistic ultra-nationalism. Instead of believing that my nation is unique - which is true of all nations - I might begin feeling that my nation is supreme, that I owe it my entire loyalty, and that I have no significant obligations to anyone else. This is fertile ground for violent conflicts.
Since 1945 surprisingly few borders have been redrawn through naked aggression, and most countries have ceased using war as a standard political tool. In 2016, despite wars in Syria, Ukraine and several other hot spots, fewer people died from human violence than from obesity, from car accidents, or from suicide. This may well have been the greatest political and moral achievement of our times.
There are many things that governments, corporations and individuals can do to avoid climate change. But to be effective, they must be done on a global level. When it comes to climate, countries are just not sovereign. They are at the mercy of actions taken by people on the other side of the planet.
An atom bomb is such an obvious and immediate threat that nobody can ignore it. Global warming, in contrast, is a more vague and protracted menace. Hence whenever long-term environmental considerations demand some painful short-term sacrifice, nationalists might be tempted to put immediate national interests first, and reassure themselves that they can worry about the environment later, or just leave it to people elsewhere. Alternatively, they may simply deny the problem. It isn't a coincidence that scepticism about climate change tends to be the preserve of the nationalist right.
In previous centuries national identities were forged because humans faced problems and opportunities that were far beyond the scope of local tribes, and that only countrywide cooperation could hope to handle. In the twenty-first century, nations find themselves in the same situation as the old tribes: they are no longer the right framework to manage the most important challenges of the age. We need a new global identity because national institutions are incapable of handling a set of unprecedented global predicaments. We now have a global ecology, a global economy and a global science - but we are still stuck with only national politics.
As more and more humans cross more and more borders in search of jobs, security and a better future, the need to confront, assimilate or expel strangers strains political systems and collective identities that were shaped in less fluid times.
Terrorists are masters of mind control. They kill very few people, but nevertheless manage to terrify billions and shake huge political structures such as the European Union or the United States.
Terrorism is a military strategy that hopes to change the political situation by spreading fear rather than by causing material damage. This strategy is almost always adopted by very weak parties who cannot inflict much material damage on their enemies. [...] In terrorism, fear is the main story, and there is an astounding disproportion between the actual strength of the terrorists and the fear they manage to inspire.
The terrorists hope that even though they can barely dent the enemy's material power, fear and confusion will cause the enemy to misuse his intact strength and overreact. Terrorists calculate that when the enraged enemy uses his massive power against them, he will raise a much more violent military and political storm than the terrorists themselves could ever create. During every storm, many unforeseen things happen. Mistakes are made, atrocities are committed, public opinion wavers, neutrals change their stance, and the balance of power shifts.
Terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. And there is no shortage of short-tempered bulls in the world.
Terrorists stage a terrifying spectacle of violence that captures our imagination and turns it against us. By killing a handful of people the terrorists cause millions to fear for their lives. In order to calm these fears, governments react to the theatre of terror with a show of security, orchestrating immense displays of force, such as the persecution of entire populations or the invasion of foreign countries. In most cases, this overreaction to terrorism poses a far greater threat to our security than the terrorists themselves.
Terrorists undertake an impossible mission: to change the political balance of power through violence, despite having no army. To achieve their aim, terrorists present the state with an impossible challenge of their own: to prove that it can protect all its citizens from political violence, anywhere, any time. The terrorists hope that when the state tries to fulfil this impossible mission, it will reshuffle the political cards, and hand them some unforeseen ace.
A terrorist is like a gambler holding a particularly bad hand, who tries to convince his rivals to reshuffle the cards. He cannot lose anything, and he may win everything.
In the great age of conquerors warfare was a low-damage, high-profit affair. At the Battle of Hastings in 1066 William the Conqueror gained the whole of England in a single day for the cost of a few thousand dead. Nuclear weapons and cyberwarfare, by contrast, are high-damage, low-profit technologies. You could use such tools to destroy entire countries, but not to build profitable empires.
We should never underestimate human stupidity. Both on the personal and on the collective level, humans are prone to engage in self-destructive activities.
Human stupidity is one of the most important forces in history, yet we often discount it. Politicians, generals and scholars treat the world as a great chess game, where every move follows careful rational calculations. This is correct up to a point. Few leaders in history have been mad in the narrow sense of the word, moving pawns and knights at random. [...] The problem is that the world is far more complicated than a chessboard, and human rationality is not up to the task of really understanding it. Hence even rational leaders frequently end up doing very stupid things.
Polytheists found it perfectly acceptable that different people will worship different gods and perform diverse rites and rituals. They rarely if ever fought, persecuted, or killed people just because of their religious beliefs. Monotheists, in contrast, believed that their God was the only god, and that He demanded universal obedience. Consequently, as Christianity and Islam spread around the world, so did the incidence of crusades, jihads, inquisitions and religious discrimination.
Many religions praise the value of humility - but then imagine themselves to be the most important thing in the universe. They mix calls for personal meekness with blatant collective arrogance. Humans of all creeds would do well to take humility more seriously.
Unlike some sects that insist they have a monopoly over all wisdom and goodness, one of the chief characteristics of secular people is that they claim no such monopoly. They don't think that morality and wisdom came down from heaven in one particular place and time. Rather, morality and wisdom are the natural legacy of all humans.
A society of courageous people willing to admit ignorance and raise difficult questions is usually not just more prosperous but also more peaceful than societies in which everyone must unquestioningly accept a single answer. People afraid of losing their truth tend to be more violent than people who are used to looking at the world from several different viewpoints. Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
Revolution isn't a picnic, and if you want an omelette you need to break a few eggs.
Humans rarely think for themselves. Rather, we think in groups. Just as it takes a tribe to raise a child, it also takes a tribe to invent a tool, solve a conflict, or cure a disease. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, an atom bomb, or an aircraft. What gave Homo sapiens an edge over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet was not our individual rationality, but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups.
If you want to go deeply into any subject, you need a lot of time, and in particular you need the privilege of wasting time. You need to experiment with unproductive paths, to explore dead ends, to make space for doubts and boredom, and to allow little seeds of insight to slowly grow and blossom. If you cannot afford to waste time - you will never find the truth.
Power is all about changing reality rather than seeing it for what it is. When you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail; and when you have great power in your hand, everything looks like an invitation to meddle. Even if you somehow overcome this urge, the people surrounding you will never forget the giant hammer you are holding. Anybody who talks with you will have a conscious or unconscious agenda, and therefore you can never have full faith in what they say. No sultan can ever trust his courtiers and underlings to tell him the truth.
Great power thus acts like a black hole that warps the very space around it. The closer you get, the more twisted everything becomes. Each word is made extra heavy upon entering your orbit, and each person you see tries to flatter you, appease you, or get something from you. They know you cannot spare them more than a minute a two, and they are fearful of saying something improper or muddled, so they end up saying either empty slogans or the greatest clichés of all.
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.
As a species, humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it - and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it. Therefore, if you dream of a society in which truth reigns supreme and myths are ignored, you have little to expect from Homo sapiens. Better try your luck with chimps.
Silence isn't neuatrality; it is supporting the status quo.
Humans could never predict the future with accuracy. But today it is more difficult than ever before, because once technology enables us to engineer bodies, brains and minds, we can no longer be certain about anything - including things that previously seemed fixed and eternal.
Technology isn't bad. If you know what you want in life, technology can help you get it. But if you don't know what you want in life, it will be all too easy for technology to shape your aims for you and take control of your life. Especially as technology gets better at understanding humans, you might increasingly find yourself serving it, instead of it serving you. Have you seen those zombies who roam the streets with their faces glued to their smartphones? Do you think they control the technology, or does the technology control them?
For thousands of years philosophers and prophets have urged people to know themselves. But this advice was never more urgent than in the twenty-first century, because unlike in the days of Laozi or Socrates, now you have serious competition. Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu and the government are all racing to hack you. Not your smartphone, not your computer, and not your bank account - they are in a race to hack you and your organic operating system. You might have heard that we are living in the era of hacking computers, but that's hardly half the truth. In fact, we are living in the era of hacking humans.
If you ask for the true meaning of life and get a story in reply, know that this is the wrong answer. The exact details don't really matter. Any story is wrong, simply for being a story. The universe just does not work like a story.
If you want to make people really believe in some fiction, entice them to make a sacrifice on its behalf. Once you suffer for a story, it is usually enough to convince you that the story is real. If you fast because God commanded you to do so, the tangible feeling of hunger makes God present more than any statue or icon. If you lose your legs in a patriotic war, your stumps and wheelchair make the nation more real than any poem or anthem.
The real enigma of life is not what happens after you die, but what happens before you die. If you want to understand death, you need to understand life.
In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power.
Astronauts devote many years to difficult training regimes, preparing for their hazardous excursions to outer space. If we are willing to make such efforts in order to understand foreign cultures, unknown species and distant planets, it might be worth working just as hard in order to understand our own minds. And we had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us.