Yuval Harari: Are politicians doing enough to prepare the world for the 21st Century?

In an age where trust in politicans is constantly contested, we asked 21 Lessons for the 21st Century author Yuval Noah Harari where they have gone wrong, and what might come next. 

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

Are politicians doing enough to prepare the world for the new realities of the twenty-first century?  

Too many politicians are busy selling us nostalgic fantasies instead of preparing us for the future. This is because most people don’t like radical change, and they fear the unknown. They want more stability, and in particular, they want to have a secure identity that will give meaning to their lives.

This is why we see a wave of nostalgic political visions, that look more to the past than to the future. Politicians in diverse countries including the USA, Britain, Russia, India and Poland turn to traditional nationalist and religious stories, and promise a return to some golden past. In my own country of Israel the government relies on the Bible and on Jewish tradition to justify its actions. Nationalism and religion are comforting, because they explain to us in simple terms what is happening in the world, what is our personal place in the cosmic drama, who we are, and what is the meaning of our lives. Moreover, the nationalist and religious stories claim to be absolute and eternal truths that did not change for thousands of years, and that cannot be changed even by the technological and economic revolutions of the twenty-first century. They thus claim to provide an anchor of certainty in a stormy world.

Unfortunately, the nostalgic fantasies of nationalism and religion will not solve the big problems of the twenty-first century. How do we deal with climate change? What to do when AI pushes billions of people out of the job market? How to use the enormous new powers of genetic engineering? You won’t find the answers to these questions in the Bible or in Judaism, because the people who wrote the Bible and created Judaism knew little about the global warming and knew even less about genetics and computers. The reality of the twenty-first century is frightening, so I understand why people wish to turn away from it. But we don’t have any choice. We have got to see reality as it is. And we have got to develop new political models that can deal with the unprecedented problems of the twenty-first century.

What is the most important question humankind faces today?

Who owns the data. Those who control the data control the future of life.

Because today data is the most important asset in the world. In ancient times land was the most important asset, politics was a struggle to control land, and if too much land became concentrated in too few hands, society split into aristocrats and commoners. In the last two centuries machines and factories became more important than land, political struggles focused on controlling machinery. If ownership of the machines became concentrated in too few hands, society split into capitalists and proletariats. In the twenty-first century, however, data will eclipse both land and machinery as the most important asset, and politics will be a struggle to control the flow of data. If data becomes concentrated in too few hands, humankind might split not into classes, but into different species.

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