“21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Harari

Carl R. Trueman
Monday, February 10th 2020

Most teachers are familiar with the kind of student question which begins “What do think will happen if/when….?” History teachers like myself have the perfect answer: “I am paid to explain the past, not to predict the future. The latter is the preserve of lunatics, con artists, and those who think far too much of their own wisdom.” It is a good answer, irrefutable even—and yet its veracity has proved no discouragement to generations of self-proclaimed seers, from the fairground fortune-teller to our current generation of ‘tech visionaries.’

To the long list of prophets we can now add Yuval Harari, whose 21 Lessons for the 21st Century offers a wide-ranging, entertaining, and at times deeply dystopian view of the future. And, as is ironically typical in such books, Harari is inevitably much better at analyzing present conditions than at predicting future realities.

Take, for example, his chapter on fake news. He makes the important observation that fake news is not really news: myths have inspired human beings for generations, often to good effect. Harari himself seems to have no personal investment in traditional religion but he acknowledges that it has produced many good things: “Adam and Eve never existed, but Chartres Cathedral is still beautiful” (p. 240). It has also generated much evil, for example Christianity’s fomenting of anti-Jewish violence for much of its history. ‘Fake news’ is not necessarily bad news seems to be his message, with good based upon false beliefs not necessarily being a false good.

So far, so good. But then he offers advice on how to avoid (or at least become better at discerning) fake news. Some of this is sound—if you want reliable information, pay for it. That is certainly helpful to a point. But then he launches into a paean to scientific literature and peer-reviewed journals. Really? Given the way in which academic guilds operate, peer-review and a prestigious publisher’s imprimatur are no guarantee of truth any more than winning an Oscar is a sign of true artistic merit. The intellectual culture of the Third Reich was built on the works of men with doctorates. The storms surrounding Amy Wax and Mark Regnerus, among others, indicate how difficult it can be to express dissent from a politically, not scientifically, generated consensus in academia. Wax, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, found herself subject to a ferocious campaign calling for her firing after she dared to suggest in an op-ed that middle class values of hard work, two parent families, etc., actually worked better for society than the alternatives. Regnerus, a professor at the University of Texas, has been pilloried again and again for his (peer reviewed!) research into areas such as promiscuity and gay adoption. And the rise of transgender ideology shows just how quickly scientists can be co-opted via intimidation or careerism into supporting the most bizarre but trendy political causes. If postmodernism has done one important service, it is in unmasking the myth of a disinterested, truth seeking scientific establishment. Harari’s confidence here is thus touching but disastrously misplaced.

At key moments, Harari’s cosmopolitan liberalism deeply influences his analysis. He sees Brexit, for example, as a rejection of the liberal, multicultural vision for a new Europe (p. 139). That is true, but what he forgets—or perhaps chooses to ignore—is that phenomena such as Trump and Brexit are not simply rejections of liberalism. They are also products of liberalism; testimonies to its fundamental failure. Trump did not create Trump—he did not emerge from nowhere but from eight years of the Obama presidency. Brexit was not the genesis of Brexit. That lay in the longstanding failure of the EU, its inefficiency, its eye-watering economic profligacy, and above all its high-handed arrogance towards those who did not fit the model it was attempting to manufacture. And both Trump and Brexit (along with the rise of Victor Orban in Hungary, among others) indicate that the old gods of particularity—ethnicity, location, religion—may be of small import for the cosmopolitan urban elites to which Harari belongs, but still command deep allegiance from much of the human race. They cannot simply be engineered out of existence.

Harari’s chapter on equality trots out the usual Piketty-type pieties about the concentration of capital where the richest 1% now own half the world’s wealth (p. 75). That may well be true, but it fails to address the deeper question of whether quality of life can be adequately assessed in such blunt economic terms. Distribution of capital is only one way of assessing this, and not a particularly nuanced one. The average American or European now enjoys better healthcare, better transport, better access to entertainment, better communications systems etc. than was the case fifty years ago. A chapter on equality that fails to address these issues even within the limited space available is inevitably vulnerable to the criticism that it is either naïve or tendentiously simplistic.

Harari’s discussion of liberty is dominated by technology, particularly the role which Artificial Intelligence (AI) might play in the future. There is little doubt that the ubiquitous advent of the cell phone has created a world where the surveillance of individuals now has a potential range of which the Stasi could only dream. Further, algorithms have capitalized on behavioral economics and thereby demonstrated that human behavior is more predictable (and therefore more vulnerable to manipulation) than many of us care to acknowledge. But here Harari is appropriately modest in his predictions, noting that intelligence and consciousness are two different things, with the latter having numerous non-rational, non-algorithmic components.

This is true. It is one thing—and one impressive thing—to develop a computer program which can beat the best human being and also learn from its mistakes. It is, no doubt, a remarkable computer program that can compose a hit pop song of One Direction calibre. But to write a sonnet to rival those of Shakespeare, a nocturne to stand alongside those of Chopin, or to carve a statue possessing the emotional power of Michelangelo’s Pieta is quite another. Pop culture is necessarily ephemeral; art is transcendent. AI assumes a fundamental analogy between algorithms and what it means to be human, and, despite the fact that certain aspects of human culture—a game susceptible to mathematical patterns or a trite combination of musical notes and rhythms—it remains an assumption, not an established fact. While not seeing AI overtaking human beings in the near future, Harari is pessimistic about the human future in the shadow of AI. He seems to assume (rather as the dull apostles of the Frankfurt School did in the mid-twentieth century) that most people are hapless dupes of whatever system they happen to find themselves within, and that AI will come to set the terms of humanity’s aspirations. I am again not so sure—recent reactions against what was assumed to be a blithe acceptance that Facebook and its ilk signaled the end of privacy would seem to indicate that Harari’s pessimism at this point is misplaced, rooted I suspect in his low view of those that I suspect he considers to be a kind of unreflective Lumpenproletariat.

Harari writes well and offers interesting insights into the world of today, but (as with all predictive books), it is likely to be obsolete within a few years. If pollsters could not predict the election of Donald Trump even 12 hours before he claimed victory in 2016, we should be skeptical of all seers, whether they be wild-eyed end-time prophets or cosmopolitan intellectuals. An unexpected environmental disaster, a 9/11, a crisis in the markets, an unusually high or low voter turnout—the shape of the future often hangs on just such unpredictable events. Harari’s book will no doubt provide the chatterati in Manhattan, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv with good cocktail-hour discussion for a few months, but my prediction for the twenty-first century is that by 2025 much of his book will already seem naïve and overstated. Christians need not panic. Christ in on his throne and will remain so, whatever lunatic schemes human beings develop in order to avoid facing the present and future implications of that fact.

Carl R. Trueman is a professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, Grove City College.

Monday, February 10th 2020

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