Summer Reading List

21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

I have chosen to provide a brief overview of three books for this review; all focusing on the theme of the future, the impact of technology on society and what it means to be ‘human’ in the midst of this change.

The three authors, a journalist, an entrepreneur and an academic bring their own unique perspectives to this challenge.

Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who writes regular columns in the New York Times and is well known for his previous best seller “The Earth is Flat”. Friedman writes with vitality, wit, and optimism, and argues that we can overcome the multiple stresses of an age of accelerations—if we slow down, if we dare to be late and use the time to reimagine work, politics, and community.

Byron Reese is the CEO and publisher of the technology research company Gigaom, and the founder of several high-tech companies. His previous book as also a best seller, titled “Infinite Progress: How Technology and the Internet Will End Ignorance, Disease, Hunger, Poverty, and War.” Reese writes from the perspective of an entrepreneur, but does more than simply explain and describe the world of AI and robotics, he focuses on how to think about these technologies, and the ways in which they will change the world forever.

Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli academic who rose to fame with the publication of his book Sapiens, originally written in Hebrew as a history of humanity, translated into English in 2014. He followed that with Homo Deus which is a gaze into the future. 21 Lessons provides a contemporary stocktake of where we are currently, and explores the issues facing us in the present time, challenging us with the decisions we will need to make as individuals and as society as we progress into this ever changing future.

My reason for providing this collective review is that when we read a single book on a topic like this it’s easy to become caught up in the particular set of arguments or thesis of that particular author, and lose sight of the bigger picture of the issue or issues at stake. The combination of these three books provides an eclectic mix of viewpoints which, while sharing a similar focus, differ in the perspectives provided, leaving the reader to synthesise for themselves the ideas to arrive at their own point of understanding.

My reason for choosing these three in particular is that they are each extremely well informed, well researched and profoundly challenging volumes. There is a plethora of books emerging at present on the similar theme, but many of these are purely descriptive or opinions of the authors, rather than providing the meaty, ‘metacognitive’ perspectives that these three do.

At the heart of what these authors provide are fascinating insights into Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics and Bio-technologies and their extraordinary implications for our species.

In The Fourth Age, Byron Reese makes the case that technology has reshaped humanity just three times in history:

  •       100,000 years ago, we harnessed fire, which led to language.
  •       10,000 years ago, we developed agriculture, which led to cities and warfare.
  •       5,000 years ago, we invented the wheel and writing, which lead to the nation state.

Reese then explains we are now on the doorstep of a fourth change brought about by two technologies: AI and robotics.

Harari arrives at a similar place, claiming that as humans we are currently facing three big challenges that are shaping our ‘future agenda’:

  •       How to prevent nuclear war
  •       How to prevent climate change
  •       How to learn to control new technology before it controls us

Friedman describes three key areas of non-linear acceleration that are shaping our future…

  •       The Market (digital globalisation)
  •       Mother nature (climate change, biodiversity loss)
  •       Moore’s law (exponential technological development)

While it may appear from these summaries that each author has a different agenda, their perspectives merge around building a picture of the future that is significantly different to what has been experienced in the past, and one that will present us with an unprecedented level of challenge in terms of who we are as humans. The change ahead is simply not a case of finding ways to adapt, but of considering how that future is being shaped by our own behaviour and decisions now, and then facing the consequences of what may happen when we are no longer able to make those decisions or act on them because a ‘greater force’ is doing that for us.

The challenge I’ve taken from these books is to consider the question that has challenged philosophers and academics for centuries, “how should we then live?” It is patently clear, from the three perspectives here, that our current ways of thinking about how we organise our personal lives, our business models and our political systems must all be up for review if we are to adequately prepare for, and shape, this uncertain future.

Throughout each of these books there are challenges that will resonate in the minds and hearts of educators. The future we imagine and are preparing our young people for demands action now. Our current ways of thinking and organising learning are being severely challenged and will require us to ‘let go’ of some of the things we feel precious about, and to act with greater determination to understand our role as ‘future makers’, rather than those who perpetuate the status quo. Essential to this is finding ways of working together, in collaborations, in networks, in communities – and not as isolated individuals with a ‘hero-mindset’.

The challenge is well summed up in the words of Harari…

How do you live in an age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed and no new story has yet emerged to replace them?”

References:

Friedman, T. L. (2016). Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations (First edition.). New York: Farrar

Reese, B (2018) The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity

Harari, Y.N. (2018) 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

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