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Salon Dinner #5

Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21 st Century

· Salon Dinners

What is a Salon?

A salon is a gathering of inquisitive minds who meet to exchange ideas. This tradition began in 16th century Italy where prominent figures in society met to discuss current affairs and to engage their minds through intellectual conversation.

Founder of Her Century, Olga Yanovskaya, saw a modern need for salons through her interactions with colleagues. In meetings and dinners for her corporate work in Health Care, Olga noticed that oftentimes the only attendees who did not voice their opinions were women. She initiated the Her Century Salon Dinners to help women become more comfortable sharing their thoughts on important topics.

The Her Century Salon Dinners are open to both men and women who are invited to have dinner and an intellectual conversation about the most pressing questions of our time.

 Salon Dinner #5 

The topic: Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

In his third book on the trilogy of mankind, Harari takes the reader into the many possibilities that the future holds for homo sapiens by addressing the 21 most pressing issues of our time.

Hi book outlines these pertinent topics:

  1. The technological Challenge
  2. The Political Challenge
  3. Despair and Hope
  4. Truth
  5. Resilience

In the Salon Dinner #5, 18 curious individuals set out to discuss these questions and perhaps find some answers for themselves.

The Discussion:

At a long table in a private room at Café Sambal, the 18 guests begin to make themselves comfortable. Many are introducing themselves and chit chatting. Some are already talking about the book that we’re there to discuss, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. As we order our drinks and settle in, I wanted to get a feel for the mood of the room. After reading Yuval Noah Harari’s predictions of the future, were people feeling more hopeful or more frightened about what was to come?

The sense that I got was that many people were anxious about Harari’s vision of the future. With so much uncertainty - including the potential for human irrelevance - it’s understandable that the discussion would be marked more by anxiety than by comfort. Presumably, the guests were there to try to get some more answers from their peers.

After drinks were ordered and everyone around the table introduced themselves, our host, Olga Yanovskaya, opened with the first question:

“This book has become extremely popular across all nationalities, all walks of life, and all classes - from CEOs to teachers to parents. Why do you think it’s so universal?”

Looking around the room, you could tell how applicable Olga’s question was. The guests at the salon dinner were both male and female, were young and middle aged, were citizens of many different nations, and claimed a spectrum of careers from teachers to entrepreneurs to health care professionals, writers and more.

The first guest to speak up offered what is probably the most succinct answer: that we’re all human. Although we may define ourselves in many different ways – and indeed, Harari mentions that we all claim a myriad of different identities – what we all undeniably share is a common membership to the homo sapiens club. The future may have varying outcomes for different groups based on factors like where one lives or their wealth, but in the end, it will affect all of us in one way or another. So, if you’re a human who will be living on planet earth, or who will be leaving behind human offspring, the future applies to you.

Another guest suggests that not only does this book give us something to chew on regarding the future, but it does it in a narrative fashion. As Harari says himself, humans are no good with numbers. We grapple much better with stories. In fact, the whole of modern society depends on the stories that we’ve collectively created and that we collaboratively participate in. If we stopped believing in the story of nations or religions or corporations, for example, there would be utter chaos. Our shared stories are the only adhesive that binds millions of strangers together. This book is appealing, then – suggests this guest – because it gives us another story to hold on to – one that we can use to plan our future.

Relevance

Most of the guests seemed to agree that the most concerning idea presented by Harari was the idea of human irrelevance. Harari paints a nightmarish scenario where AI and technology become so efficient that they replace most human jobs. We already see this happening in some cases. For example, when you plan a holiday, do you go to a travel planner or do you book plane tickets and hotels online?

AI and technology are set to disrupt even more jobs. Soon, with self-driving cars, we will not need truck drivers anymore, and AI police will one day be better able to enforce laws more accurately and fairly than any human could ever hope to. What then will happen to humans who are left without a job?

Harari offers up a number of futuristic scenarios. One is that humans work alongside AI and technology. It is possible that for every job taken over by a computer, there may be a dozen more jobs created for humans. For example, although we do not need a travel agent to book our flights and hotels for us anymore, we still need coders and web designers to build travel websites and apps, customer service agents to address the needs of clients, marketers to bring in customers, etc. Although these jobs may also one day be replaced by technology, there may be more jobs created to complement the technology.

The other is that, with the revenue from automated industries, the government can create a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for its citizens. A UBI is a monthly salary that covers everything that humans need to survive and to be satisfied. Of course, if that time does come, we will have to determine what is universal and what is basic.

However, the second scenario depends on the generosity of the billionaire corporation elites who will likely own all the technology. Looking at the track record of generosity displayed by these elites makes that a very frightening scenario. So if technology does end up replacing most human jobs and no Universal Basic Income can be agreed upon, most humans may actually find themselves irrelevant in the future.

One guest suggested that if human irrelevance does become a reality and the elites refuse to share their wealth, an uprising is not out of the question. But another guest reminded her that if billionaire elites hold the keys to all the technology including weapons and data that can both be used against revolutionaries very efficiently, then what hope do the common people have of a rebellion?

What’s more, biological research may one day give us the ability to hack and alter our own bodies. In the past, the elite claimed to be more intelligent, industrious, and biologically superior to the common folk. Science has told us that this is not true. However, science may also one day enable the elite to turn this old myth into a frightening reality. So if a small group of rich, superhuman beings with all the technology decides that the rest of humanity is irrelevant, what hope is there of revolution? One day a superhuman elite may live behind secure walls with all the technology while the rest of humanity is left to fend for itself in the wilderness beyond the walls.

But the dinner guests wanted to know more about the meaning of irrelevance. After all, there is more than one way to be irrelevant.

For example, even if we do institute a UBI in the future, will irrelevance still consume us? Many people these days find meaning and relevance in their work, one salon guest pointed out. Even if we are able to have our basic needs met by a UBI, will we ultimately be miserable because we have no meaning without work? Or will we simply find meaning instead in things like family and community?

Another guest brought up the point that working and having a job are two different things entirely. A job provides financial security. It’s what people do to see that their needs are met. Work, on the other hand, is engaging in tasks and activities. You could do work for a volunteer organization, for instance, or you could ‘do some work’ on your garden or on your car for fun. Many people these days work a full-time job to make money and support themselves, but on the side they may volunteer for a charity, join a bowling league, hold debates, or garden. Are these things not work? Do they not provide meaning in one’s life?

The most important kind of relevance, one guest from Russia suggested, is the relevance of our physical bodies. She explained that in Russia, the people are already irrelevant because the government does not care about their physical wellbeing. This is true in many countries. Since the dawn of human civilization, governments have waged wars to capture more land and more wealth. The pawns of these wars have always been the common people who fight and die for their government’s cause. If they can be used in such a manner, then individually they are already irrelevant. In places like the United States – one of the richest countries in the world – healthcare is exorbitant. If you are poor and you fall sick, the government turns a blind eye. How can you not feel irrelevant in such a system?

Today, corporations employ large numbers of people to do menial work for menial pay. On average, the CEOs of these companies make 361 times that of the average worker that they employ. Although collectively their employees are relevant because they do the work that allows the corporation to continue to exist, individually they are not relevant because their experience of dissatisfaction is unimportant. Perhaps if human labor became irrelevant, humans would be left to decide what relevance means for them individually.

However, the most alarming thing, says one guest, is that most people aren’t even aware of the potential cataclysmic changes that await us. The idea of irrelevance itself is irrelevant because many people are at least partially ignorant to this possibility. What’s more, this guest says, the institutions that should be creating this awareness – such as our governments and schools – are not doing their part to properly prepare people for the future. Many nationalistic governments today are in fact frightening their citizens by proclaiming that immigrants will take their jobs when in fact what people should be worried about is technology making them redundant.

Who owns the data?

In the past, wealth and industry were built on the harvesting and use of natural resources like oil. Today, the most valuable commodity is data. ‘Whose data?’ you may be asking. Your data. My data. Our data. So who owns it and should we give it away freely?

Harari says that today most of us are like the Native Americans who “sold” their land for shell necklaces and feathers. They did so because they had no concept of land ownership. Today we have no concept of data ownership or of how valuable it is. We’re giving away our data for free every day to companies like Google and Facebook without understanding the full consequences. In the future when all our needs will be met by AI that understands our preferences and desires, the people who control the data will be the people who control the world.

So how should we handle this? We can perhaps demand ownership over our own data and sell it to companies for a profit. But as Olga pointed out, that does not solve the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that even if we can make a profit from our data, selling it to big companies will still ensure that all the power will eventually reside in the hands of a tiny elite. If you sell your land, for example, you will certainly make a profit in that moment. But if the buyer purchases vast tracts of land and then rents it back to you or your children later on, you haven’t really gained anything in the long run. Right now, a tiny elite already own most of the world’s wealth. This will only continue to happen if we don’t decide what to do with our data soon.

To make any meaningful change, this is something that humans will have to decide together. If you or I alone decide to safekeep our data, we may find that our lives become rather inconvenient. One day technology could be used to help humans decide which career to choose based on their personal data. If you do not share your data, you will most likely become a relic of another time, and quite ill-suited for the modern world.

Free will and decision-making

If you’re a human, chances are you’re familiar with Netflix. And if you’re familiar with Netflix, you’re also undoubtedly familiar with the abject horror of having to choose a new series after you’ve just completed one. We live in a world of so much muchness that deciding on what to watch for the night, let alone deciding how to spend our lives, can be quite overwhelming.

On top of that, Harari says that humans don’t actually know themselves very well and are actually very poor actors in their own lives. We believe that we have free will and a true self, and we place these ideas on the highest of pedestals. But what we consider to be free will and a self is actually a complex system of biochemical reactions that tell us what to do based on personal experiences, the guidance of our parents and educators, the influence of our culture, and the beliefs we hold about the universe. In essence, although we think we are in the driver’s seat, we’re actually being taken along for a ride by our biology and outside influences.

In contrast, Harari says that AI may eventually know us better than we know ourselves. As we develop new technologies that can help us better understand human psychology and biology, there may come a day when AI is better suited to making decisions for us than we are able to do. While humans are notoriously able to lie to not only other people but to themselves about their likes and dislikes, you cannot lie to a biometric sensor that can read your biological responses. If you say that you hated a film because you think your peers will expect that of you, but your biometric sensor says that you loved it based on the biological response your brain had, then who’s the liar? Is it better, then, to put our decisions in the hands of AI that will know us better than ourselves and will be better able to decide whom we should marry and which career we should follow?

Many of us naturally recoil in horror when we think about the idea of a machine making our decisions for us. Certainly many of the salon guests expressed an aversion to this idea. After all, if we completely put our faith into the hands of a machine without feelings, will it manipulate us in unforeseen and horrendous ways, as one dinner guest suggested.

Harari argues that because machines do not have feelings, they will also lack an agenda. In fact, what we may need to fear the most is that machines will obey humans to a very accurate and efficient degree. In the hands of a cruel dictator, technology that makes decisions for you or that can manipulate you based on your biology is the most dangerous thing of all. So perhaps it is not the machines we should fear, but the humans who control them.

But what about life satisfaction? Isn’t life a drama centered on the struggle to discover ourselves and to realize our true purpose? One dinner guest suggested that perhaps we would be bored if our skills and true natures were openly revealed to us. And perhaps this is true. Like John the Savage in Orwell’s Brave New World, should we claim the right to confusion and struggle and adventure and discovery in favor of a life of constant contentment and maybe boredom? Would we indeed be bored at all if machines revealed to us our destiny and we were fulfilled in following it without the struggle of first determining what it is? Would this contentment destroy our curiosity and our cherished sense of self? Will we one day decide that there is no self? Will curiosity even matter we’re content without it?

Is technology making our lives better or worse?

All this talk of the future made the dinner guests also think about the past. Because we live in such fear of what unknowns the future will bring, sometimes we tend to look on the past with dreamy eyes. And I’m sure there’s not one of us who hasn’t heard an elderly relative admonish the unruly, disrespectful youth of today in a tirade that begins with “back in my day…”

But is the past really better? On average, our standard of living is better, we live longer, we have better health care, and we are more accepting of others. On the other hand, we’re also facing an ecological crisis, human irrelevance, and nuclear warfare.

And for whom is the standard of living better? Western countries? What about developing nations whom Western countries have sacrificed in order to raise their own standard of living? And how far do we look back into the past? Our health care today is better equipped to cure diseases than ever before, but pre agriculture, there were no mass epidemics because people lived in groups that were too small to allow the spread of disease.

And has technology made our lives easier? It is certainly easier to connect with people from all around the globe, to order food, to travel, to gain knowledge, to innovate, to explore, to entertain, to discover medical cures, etc. But it has also made us alienated. While we connect with a relative an ocean away, we may be ignoring the people around us. Our screen time makes us less emotionally intelligent, and although we have access to more information than ever before, no one human has the ability to retain it all. Plus, there is evidence that our attention spans are becoming shorter and that our critical thinking abilities are diminishing.

In his first book, Sapiens, Harari argues that humans have traded an easier life for one of luxury, abundance, and immediacy. We developed agriculture because we thought that the abundance of food would make our lives easier. While we did cultivate a surplus of food, this surplus allowed our population to grow which meant that we needed to cultivate even more food. To cultivate more food for more humans, we had to spend more hours toiling in the fields and performing tasks that our bodies are not suited to. So while pre agricultural homo sapiens had a life filled with more leisure time and more varied activity, many homo sapiens in modern times sit in an office all day or work in a field from dawn to dusk.

Harari calls this the luxury trap. Humans are forever trying to make their lives easier, and in that effort we’ve accomplished some amazing things. However, it’s impossible to predict what changes our technology will bring about in the future. One of the odd things that has happened, Harari claims, is that because technology has advanced so quickly in the last 10,000 years, our DNA hasn’t been able to keep up. Changes wrought by evolution occur over millions of years, but changes brought about by technology have occurred in only ten centuries. If our technology took millions of years to develop, our DNA may have been able to keep up. But because the timelines are out of sync, our bodies, brains, and minds are ill-suited to the life we’ve created. This could explain why so many people are dissatisfied and alienated, and even why we have bad backs. Our evolution did not prepare us to sit hunched over a computer screen all day.

To contend with this fact, Olga suggested that the only way forward may be to enhance ourselves. As biotechnology becomes more advanced, we may be able to biologically alter our own bodies to meet the demands of the future we’re creating. With enhancement, we could take in information more efficiently, straighten our spines, find fulfillment in 9 to 5 work, banish feelings of loneliness and alienation, and adapt to change more readily. This last point may become extremely relevant in the not too distant future. As the advancement of technology speeds up, jobs may be disrupted with breathtaking regularity and humans may have to change careers every decade or even more. Today’s humans are not equipped for that kind of constant reinvention. Enhancement may be the only answer.

While technology has placed certain people and nations on an uneven playing field, it cannot be dismissed that the ultimate goal of technology is to make people’s lives better. Since technology is progressing so rapidly, it’s not unthinkable that it simply may take time before it makes everyone’s lives better.

Education

So, if the future is uncertain and the only thing that we can reliably count on is that it will be marked by constant and rapid change, how do we prepare our children for the future?

A report by Dell Technologies released in 2017 says that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet. How can we even hope to guide our children if we don’t even know what jobs will be available for them when they grow up? Equally importantly, how do we prepare them for a life of constant change and uncertainty?

Harari says that in order to cope with these prospects, there are a few timeless lessons we can be teaching our children today. One is the ability to maintain mental stability in times of stress brought on by constant change. The other is the ability to adapt and be resilient. Finally, the three c’s are of the utmost importance: creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.

To this, the dinner guests readily agreed. Especially because these are skills that some of the guests believe are being threatened today. Kids who spend too much time on their screens have lower emotional intelligence, underdeveloped social skills, and impaired cognitive functioning. Psychology Today reports that kids who have shown screen addiction behavior have atrophied gray matter in the brain:

 Areas affected included the important frontal lobe, which governs executive functions, such as planning, planning, prioritizing, organizing, and impulse control (“getting stuff done”). Volume loss was also seen in the striatum, which is involved in reward pathways and the suppression of socially unacceptable impulses. A finding of particular concern was damage to an area known as the insula, which is involved in our capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others and our ability to integrate physical signals with emotion. Aside from the obvious link to violent behavior, these skills dictate the depth and quality of personal relationships.  

But does this even matter, one dissenter asked. The ability to thrive in the future may also mean that we become more intimately linked with our technology. It would never do to raise a kid without any screens these days, because they would never be able to keep up with the technological world. And since we have no idea what kind of human enhancements the future might bring, learning may even become irrelevant. What if one day we can just download social skills and critical thinking faculties?

Two of the guests at the salon were a married couple with a little girl of their own, so this problem was very real to them. As parents raising a child of the 21st century, they take their responsibilities very seriously and home school their daughter in a co-op of other like-minded parents. They incorporate less traditional forms of education into their daughter’s routine, such as exploring the outdoors because they believe that interacting with the world will encourage a fifth c that they find increasingly important – curiosity. The parents also allowed for the use of screens, knowing that growing up without any technology would leave their child woefully unequipped to deal with a technological world. The difference, they said, was to create a balance between technology and reality.

Another guest chimed in that using technology in a healthy way also requires an understanding of who is in control – the human or the technology? Unfortunately, technology is designed to keep our attention as long as possible. Endlessly scrolling feeds, curated content fed to us by an algorithm that uses our data against us, notifications and more are all intended to keep us on the screen for as long as possible. Knowing this and being able to set limits for ourselves and our children can go a long way in maintaining our ability to form meaningful relationships and to keep our sense of curiosity about the world around us. Perhaps we should also demand that the government regulate these industries to respect our time and our minds better.

Closing thoughts

One of the things the guests talked about was the fact that Harari does not provide any concrete answers. He unfolds many possibilities, poses interminable questions, and gives the reader a peek into the future, but does not offer a one-size-fits-all solution.

However, he does say that these are all questions we need to think very seriously about. Perhaps he meant to provoke discussions like the one the salon guests had so that we can figure it out together. It will take a lot of thoughtful human discussions to determine what we want our future to look like and to work toward its achievement.

Harari warns that we’re currently creating technology that does not necessarily have humans in mind. Rather, it has profit in mind. We’re letting our creations get away from us because we have not taken the time to slow down and determine where this will eventually lead us and whether or not it will benefit us. One day, when we rely more heavily on technology to make decisions for us, it will be too late to decide our fate.

He mentions that most Sci Fi movies depict a scenario where AI grows a consciousness and decides to destroy humans or to enslave them. It’s actually more likely that we build technology that’s extremely obedient to humans and that performs its tasks exceedingly well. However, if we do not take the time to think about what kind of future we want, we may end up with AI that continues a human tradition of greed, inequality, and war – and does it more efficiently than humans could ever hope to.

That is why the ability to critically think, to have empathy, and to be curious and creative is more important than ever before. We may be building a future with technology that does exactly as we ask it to do. So what do we want to ask from it?

Text prepared by Ariana Crisafulli

Ariana Crisafulli is the Managing Editor of an expat magazine in Shanghai and a freelance writer. A California native, she has not called California “home” for three years. A year ago she moved to Shanghai where she acquired a position at a Shanghai-based magazine. She continues to write for the magazine as well as accepting freelance writing jobs. WeChat ID: arianacrisafulli

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