A friend of mine has an interesting analogy of modern life. We are, he says, 1.0 systems operating in a 6.0 environment. In other words, our world is evolving far more quickly than we can keep up.
Thanks to socio-economic and technological advances, we live in times when obesity kills more people than starvation, violence continues to rapidly decline, and the number of people living in abject poverty has plummeted by more than 50% over the past 30 years.
Our lives are also becoming increasingly convenient. I remember writing to pen pals in far-off countries, waiting for two or three weeks for a reply to come back. Nowadays, we wonder what’s gone wrong if the Facebook message we send halfway around the world takes a split second longer than usual to arrive.
Even the phones we use were beyond the realm of imagination not so long ago. Some might think the price of an iPhone is a little on the costly side, but if you tried to buy the same computing power of an iPhone 5S in the late 1980s, it would have set you back over US$3mil.
With all the advances that we now enjoy, why do we still continue to feel dissatisfied with the state of the world, and how can we deal – in our comparatively primitive state – with an environment that continues to evolve apace?
These are the fundamental questions address in historian Yuval Noah Harari’s latest book, 21 Lessons For The 21st Century. To be sure, the book doesn’t offer any instruction manual on how to deal with modern life, but rather covers the main issues and trends that will surely affect all of us in the future, both near and far.
Readers will likely know Harari from his earlier works, 2011’s Sapiens (which was lauded by the likes of Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg) and the follow-up, Homo Deus (2015).
It’s not easy to cover the entire history and future of mankind in under 600 pages, but Yuval Harari writes with the infectious pace of Dan Brown but with a lot more substance and an elegant style.
The historian’s latest work is a scintillating collection of thought-provoking essays that cover topics such as immigration, work, religion, education, and a host of other meaty topics that keep the reader engaged from start to finish.
Coming back to the question of our dissatisfaction with the world, the author argues that we have become less patient over time and less tolerant of situations, ideas and events whose complex nuances necessarily call for deliberate consideration.
We are also victims of our own success – while we’re an inventive species, we’re not always the cleverest when it comes to knowing what to do with ourselves or the environment we create. As Harari warns, “We should never underestimate human stupidity. Both on the personal and on the collective level, humans are prone to engage in self-destructive activities.”
He nods to this point when he talks about the prevalence of fake news, and wonders how we can sift through the noise and the misinformation in order to arrive at making informed decisions. The Brexit (Britain exiting the European Union) shambles in Britain is just one example of the potential costs of decision-makers (in this case, the electorate) being swayed by emotion and demonstrably false narratives when considering literally life-changing choices.
But it’s not just the laypeople on the street who are prone to pernicious groupthink – even the experts can fall prey to following the herd and jumping on the latest trends and fads without much thought.
So how do we rise above these perennial challenges that can all too easily lead us to disaster in areas such as politics, climate change, and how we manage our financial systems?
For Harari, modern problems call for ancient solutions. The historian calls on us to get to know ourselves better, to slow down, and to live life with less impetuousness and more mindfulness. By understanding ourselves, we can get a better insight into how we play a role in our own suffering, and therefore how it plays into the wider collective.
While it might sound like a cheap solution, it actually makes a lot of sense. More than ever, people are waking up to the fact that governments alone don’t cause the problems we face in the world – each of us has a part to play, however small, and each of us can play a part in helping to turn things around. Greater awareness of ourselves will surely aid that endeavour.
As Harari puts it, “The greatest crimes in modern history resulted not just from hatred and greed, but even more so from ignorance and indifference.”
The world might have made some incredible progress in the last half-century, but the message from Harari is clear: Let’s not take that progress for granted. It takes a lot of work to make changes for the better, and it will take more work and commitment from us all to make sure we keep moving in the right direction.