Yuval Noah Harari is a phenomenon. An Israeli professor of history, he became a huge bestseller when his book Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind sold more than eight million copies worldwide.
Translated into English from the Hebrew in 2014, when he was 38, it was robustly argued, mind-expanding, often overwhelming in its scope.
His 2016 follow-up, Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow, examined the way developments in biotech and infotech, among other factors, might affect the future for humans.
It had the same boggling sweep and intellectual audacity: I’m still trying to work out how his passage about lawns as status symbols related to a vision of ageless billionaire cyborgs.
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Putting down Homo Deus, I thought Harari might be the new Stephen Hawking: a man trying to address highly complex matters for a popular audience, whose books might be bought but not read. Or, if read, not fully understood.
Now here’s his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which retools some of Harari’s earlier research and thinking in a more comprehensible form and applies it to our world today.
It’s arranged in five sections – The Technological Challenge; The Political Challenge; Despair and Hope; Truth; Resilience – broken down into issues including immigration, religion, terrorism and post-truth.
One of the central tenets of Harari’s work is that Homo sapiens won the evolutionary race over Neanderthals and other hominid species because of our ability to create and share useful fictions (religion, money, credit), which enabled us to organise into societies. But now it seems that belief in the dominant global narrative, of liberalism, has broken down.
Harari sees the resurgence of nationalist myths embodied by Donald Trump and Brexit as regrettable but largely irrelevant, because the coming technological change will be more revolutionary than anything we’ve yet encountered.
By 2050, he predicts, robots will do most of our jobs, including the supposedly “creative” or “intuitive” ones, creating a new “useless” class. Algorithms may become so sophisticated that they won’t just anticipate our Netflix choices, but also select (or even create!) our partners for us.
It’s possible that only the wealthy will be able to retrain and equip themselves for the new world: the species could split into an overclass and an underclass, if it hasn’t done so already.
There is some good news: most countries don’t want to go to war, as war is uneconomical now that information is more valuable than territory or goods.
And some bad news: wars can still be started by human stupidity. We are already contributing to ecological destruction on a vast scale, but the looming bio-disaster may prompt humans to greater scientific innovation, as the two world wars did.
We are more ignorant and detached from the world than our ancestors, who knew how their clothes were made and their food slaughtered and prepared. But though religious, national and political divisions persist, we are also more united as a species “when it comes to the practical stuff – how to build a state, an economy, a hospital, or a bomb”. Swings and roundabouts, then.
Harari almost induces vertigo with the wild leaps he takes into the future and the way he zooms in and out of his subject matter, showing you things you thought you knew about in a completely new way.
“If you are left with the nagging feeling that this is too much, and that you cannot process it all, you are absolutely right,” he writes. “No person can.”
He lobs assertions at the reader like grenades. But there also seems to be in this book an acknowledgement that a remorseless survey of humanity has to be more, well, human. Harari puts a lot more of himself into this volume than into its predecessors, particularly on what it means to be gay, Jewish and Israeli.
The section on Judaism in the chapter entitled Humility is fascinating. Overall, he suggests we’d all cope better with the world if we were a little more humble, a little more loving and – counter-intuitively – a little less inclined to put our faith in stories.
And he says that two hours’ meditation a day helps him to deal with his own existential dread.
Good advice – for, though I find Harari’s writing exhilarating, I feel the need for quiet contemplation after reading it.
Yuval Noah Harari will be interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday 6 August