Book Review – 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Reading Time: 3 minutes
My book review is on Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
I’ll say, up front, that this book is not about project management, but I think it is such a profound book that I decided to write a book review on it. And I did pull out a few threads to apply to the task of managing projects and people. I also highly recommend Anthony Doerr’s book, Cloud Cuckoo Land
. The juxtaposition of themes between the books and within the Doerr story is fascinating. I predict you will be pondering these books for days.
Harari is an Israeli historian and academic and author of Sapiens – a look at the history of humanity, and Homo Deus – a look into the future. In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he focuses on the present and what we should be doing. He focuses extensively on the concern that, with the growth in artificial intelligence (AI) and bioengineering, we are poised to create an entirely irrelevant class of humans. He recommends that leaders carefully consider the wisdom of that course of action. Other takeaways include:
AI offers us two valuable abilities that humans don’t have. Humans cannot be connected to each other so that what we know as individuals is aggregated into a useful set of data. Nor can we be instantly updated with new information, as events change around us. What this means, as a simple example, is that with self-driving cars, every car on the road understands the position, speed, and surroundings of every other car. Think about the implications for us when we choose our doctors. Instead of comparing two doctors against each other, or even one team against another team, we would then have access to an “integrated network” of doctors. (p. 31)
AI and bio-engineering offer great hope for people with brain damage and physical impairments. And yet, if we pursue the path towards bio-engineering a group of humans to have exceptional intelligence, what happens to the others who are not given these super abilities? If we think the gap between the rich and the poor is a problem, what happens to an entire population of people with average intelligence in a world with super-smart people? Will they become irrelevant? According to Harari, it is “much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.” (p. 21) And yet, when I read that a paralyzed man can now drive a car using brain signals, I can’t help but marvel.
As AI, big data algorithms, and bio-engineering advance, will we find ourselves in a place where we don’t have any free will, or control over our lives? Will the world be governed by cyborgs? “As scientists gain a deeper understanding of the way humans make decisions, the temptation to rely on algorithms is likely to increase. Hacking human decision-making not only will make Big Data algorithms more reliable but also will simultaneously make human feelings less reliable.” (p. 56)
Harari pretty thoroughly derides any ideas associated with organized religion – all of the main ones, anyway. He offers statistic after statistic about people who have been killed in the name of religion, and suggests the world would be better if we abandoned the dogmas and stories that characterize Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
Yet, Harari notes that “it is perhaps no coincidence that Confucian cultures—first and foremost in China, but also in neighboring Korea, Vietnam, and Japan—produced extremely long-lasting social and political structures. If you want to know the ultimate truth of life, rites and rituals are a huge obstacle. But if you are interested in social stability and harmony, as Confucius was, truth is often a liability, whereas rites and rituals are among your best allies.” (p. 240-241)
Harari explores the nature of free will – noting that we might be able to choose how to behave but we can’t choose the thoughts and feelings that emerge in our brains. He suggests that once we understand that, it might help us relate better to others. He uses the final chapter to discuss the value of meditation to help us process the thoughts and feelings as they emerge within us, but notes that some people may achieve this objective through sports, art, or music. He then cautions about engaging in the pursuit to understand ourselves while there is still time.
From a project perspective, perhaps there are a few nuggets here: embrace rituals to build community and help the members of your teams grow personally so that they can relate better to others.