21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari - review by Dominic Sandbrook

Dominic Sandbrook

Get with the Programme

21 Lessons for the 21st Century


Jonathan Cape 345pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Seven years ago, Yuval Noah Harari was a little-known lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specialising in world, medieval and military history. Then, almost out of nowhere, he published Sapiens, which told the story of mankind’s entire biological and civilizational history in fewer than five hundred pages and became a colossal worldwide bestseller. Five years later he did it again with Homo Deus, a ‘brief history of tomorrow’, which predicted that mankind’s reign over the earth will soon come to an end as we are superseded by ‘non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms’.

Both won admiring notices from some tough critics, so Harari is clearly no fool. Indeed, my review copy of his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, comes with complimentary words from Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Lily Cole, Jarvis Cocker and Kazuo Ishiguro. If only as an intellectual entrepreneur, then, Harari is clearly doing something right.

Framed as a book of ‘lessons’, his new work seems obviously inspired by such bestsellers as Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. In the acknowledgements, he explains that he wrote it ‘in conversation with the public’, since many of the chapters originated in answer to ‘questions I was asked by readers, journalists and colleagues’. If somebody asks Harari a question, and he then gives a 5,000-word answer, does that genuinely count as a ‘conversation’? In any case, it would surely be more accurate, as well as less pretentious, to describe it as a compilation of previously published articles, many of which appeared in the Financial Times and The Guardian and on Bloomberg View.

That gives a good indication of the tone. This book’s natural habitat is the airport bookshop, its natural reader the ambitious businessman who has a four-hour flight ahead of him but has forgotten his charger. No doubt that sounds a bit sniffy. I suppose it is meant to, because 21 Lessons strikes me as almost completely worthless.

Take Harari’s early chapter on ‘Work’, in which he considers how technology will change the labour market and therefore society itself. This is not exactly virgin territory: the Daily Mirror did a big series on the subject in 1955, under the title ‘Robot Revolution’. And as it turns out, the Daily Mirror did it rather better.

‘We have no idea’, Harari says, ‘what the job market will look like in 2050.’ Well, that’s true enough. Automation and AI, he says, will probably put a lot of people out of work. True again. ‘It would be madness to block automation in fields such as transport and healthcare just in order to protect human jobs.’ Yes, I think we would all agree with that. ‘In the long run no job will remain absolutely safe from automation.’ Yes, agree with that too.

‘No remaining human job will ever be safe from the threat of future automation.’ That sounds awfully like the same sentence again. ‘Obviously, most of this is just speculation.’ You don’t say. ‘We cannot allow ourselves to be complacent.’ Well, that’s always true, isn’t it? Nobody ever says, ‘We should allow ourselves to be complacent.’

And in closing, Harari states, ‘If we manage to combine a universal economic safety net with strong communities and meaningful pursuits, losing our jobs to the algorithms might actually turn out to be a blessing.’ Yes, and if I manage to win the Nobel Peace Prize, score the winning goal for England in the next World Cup final and win the Oscar for best actor, then losing my job as a historian might actually turn out to be a blessing too.

So it continues, great swathes of padding followed by dinner-party observations of crushing banality. The chapters cover some big subjects – war, terrorism, nationalism, God – but since most average about fifteen pages, they fall almost comically short of providing the ‘dazzling’ insights promised on the book’s cover. One sentence literally reads, ‘Humans have bodies.’ Amazing. ‘European civilisation is anything Europeans make of it.’ Profound. Where terrorism is concerned, ‘we just cannot prepare for every eventuality’. Dazzling.

On and on it goes. ‘With a single exception, all flags are rectangular pieces of cloth.’ Well I never. ‘A robot army would probably have strangled the French Revolution in its cradle in 1789.’ There’s a good Doctor Who story in that. ‘If the USA had had killer robots in the Vietnam War, the My Lai massacre might have been prevented.’ Is this Yuval Noah Harari or Alan Partridge?

What about the book’s politics? In his introduction, Harari says that he wrestled long and hard with his conscience before venturing into print. ‘As an author’, he says, he faced a ‘difficult choice’ because he knew he would have to say some controversial things about the failings of liberal democracy. ‘Should I speak my mind openly, risking that my words could be taken out of context and used to justify burgeoning autocracies?’ But in the end, ‘after some soul-searching, I chose free discussion over self-censorship’.

Now we really are in Alan Partridge territory. In reality, Harari’s political observations are fantastically bland. He likes equality, he thinks we should be humble, he thinks we should reach across national boundaries, he thinks that sometimes democracy gets it wrong – oh, I can barely bring myself to write this stuff down. Does he really believe that President Erdoğan will be heartened to learn that we ought to try to ‘make the world a little bit better’? Can he really believe that all this is likely to bring a smile to Vladimir Putin’s face? The truth is that Harari’s book is far more likely to send him to sleep.

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