Notes from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Recently read Yuval Noah Harari’s book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (he is also the writer of Sapiens and Homo Deus). Part of it on the Kindle, part on audio.

The essence of the book is that our models for making sense of the world are no longer adequate in the current age and of complexity, and that we have a finite amount of time to find and adopt new models.

Our present ways of organising society through religion, nationalism, fascism, capitalism worked fine when the impact of such societies was something humans could imagine. The impact of the actions of a local business are limited to the area it serves, of a group of villagers to the bounds of the village, a king’s decisions to his kingdom, and so on. But multi-national corporations, AI systems, the internet and social media are entities in a society with global reach and whose actions have repercussions far beyond the point of decision making. Calling Apple an American company makes as much sense now as calling an AI system Buddhist.

The underlying message in most lessons is that humans have failed to properly identify and price externalities. We have evolved to use extremely complex, global systems but still view their costs through a narrow lens with little consideration of second and third order impacts.

For example. We see Uber mostly as a city-specific public vs private transportation issue, with its impact on local congestion and on taxicab drivers. But its popularity also means people from outside the city will migrate to this new job opportunity. That it may skew car sales in favour of one manufacturer as Uber cuts a financing deal with one of them, causing plant shutdowns elsewhere in the country. That a large pool of people could be rendered unemployed if Uber decides a city is not profitable. In fact there is an even bigger risk of unemployment with the inevitable move to self-driving vehicles. Then there is the impact of mapping data and user ride data owned by foreign companies with no incentive or obligation to provide it to the city itself. Of user data being stored outside the country if it is to be used along with other global ride data to improve routing and others algorithms.

Consequently, problems seem intractable because we present ourselves with narrow choices, neither of which are palatable to all parties involved. Also, solving one problem throws up another, then another in turn, just like optimising a traffic system too narrowly creates flying bottlenecks.

The writer presents what is effectively trans-humanism as a model to tackle problems such as income inequality, immigration, ecological destruction and climate change. He suggests, as the final lesson, mindful meditation such as Vipassana to better see the reality of the world and its systems. He’s right, but it’s going to take a lot of de-conditioning to get there: individuals who take such an approach in a world rooted in individualism and simplistic systems will quickly suffer. As David Cain says in one of the blog posts on his blog Raptitude, “Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed” for you. It’s a mutation in thinking that by its nature will quickly die out. What is unknown is how we will get a whole community to change its thinking en masse.

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