Author of bestselling books like Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari shares his views on everything from smartphones to social media to sugar, in this two-part special series of Storyboard18's Bookstrapping.
Yuval Noah Harari's key themes have been that society has largely been driven by our species' capacity to believe in ‘fictions’ - that exist in our collective imaginations. In this two-part interview series, we focus on storytelling for parents and storytelling for the C-suite.
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Unstoppably Yuval - Part One
Historian and author Yuval Noah Harari, bestselling author of six books, was in Mumbai this week with his trusted entourage and inimitably courteous husband Itzhik Yahav. At an event organized by Akash Gupta of Crossword Bookstores as part of their 30 year celebrations, Yuval spoke about his new book ‘Unstoppable Us’ (a version of ‘Sapiens’ for 8+). A very engaged audience filled the halls of the Sophia College auditorium. To their shock and amusement, Yuval declared that he would learn of the winner of the Argentina-France FIFA world cup final, only after the end of his two month meditation!
We heard him on stage and later caught up with Yuval on the sidelines to understand his unique brand of storytelling. From Sapiens to Home Deus to 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari’s key themes have been that society has largely been driven by our species’s capacity to believe in ‘fictions’- that exist in our collective imaginations. In this two-part series we will maintain our trademark pithy style. Part one focuses on storytelling for parents while part two focuses on storytelling for the C-suite.
On writing for children
In Unstoppable Us, I’ve tried to take the bigger lessons from Sapiens and tell them in an accessible way. When we write for adults we can get behind big complicated sentences. For children, it is different. In fact, many people who read Sapiens wrote to me and asked me to write something similar for children. And I really wanted to do it too. As a historian, I often find it challenging to explain history to adults. Because they already believe way too much nonsense about the past.
On how children are taught history
When I was a child, they taught us the history of Israel only! If we learnt about anyone else; the Romans for instance, it was about what they did to ‘us’. All of history was about us. We were at the centre of the universe and others were somewhere in the periphery. In some way, this made us feel entitled and that it was okay to do terrible things to others! The teaching of history needs to be more balanced, especially since the idea of nations is very new.
On the idea of nations
The oldest nations in the world are 5000 years old. Human evolution is so much older. About 50000 years ago, there were no countries. Likewise, there were no Hindus no Muslims either. The original sin of humanity was when we got rid of our closest relatives. But there has been interbreeding between the species, and we are descendants of that. If we can breed between species, why can't we marry between religions? I want to tell history from a different perspective.
On our fears
Our fears are not necessarily rational. For example, it is thanks to evolution that we are more afraid of spiders than cars, even though cars kill more people than spiders. This is a memory from a million years ago. We have not had the time to develop resistance to cars yet.
On our obsession with sugar
There is a reason why we crave to eat something that's not good for us. From an evolutionary standpoint, in the African savannah, when our ancestors saw a tree laden with apples, they would be wise to eat as many as possible, as fast as possible! Because if you came back the next day, the baboons would've already eaten them. We have not forgotten this memory and connection to eating sweet things that are in front of us.
I don’t have a smartphone (except in case of an emergency, when I travel.) It is true that I have others using smartphones on my behalf. But smartphones eat your time.
On social media
There are positive and negative aspects to it. When people started making videos from their couches, they broke hierarchy in a peaceful way. This is significant because in the past, any big change could happen, only when a war was fought! As they say, ‘one must break eggs in order to make an omelet!’
Today, social media has created new influencers, peacefully. Now this is not the first time that hierarchy has been broken! The last generation changed the gender hierarchy considerably, even though there is a lot more to be done. For instance, why can only boys be rabbis or priests? The negative aspect of social media is that just like eating junk food, we are feeding ourselves with hatred, jealousy, greed! Maybe like we label food, we must label content too as 20 percent greed, 20 percent hatred, 40 percent violence, etc. Then we are free to choose as per the labels.
There is a common argument that the present generation is more entitled. They’re growing up in abundance. True, they're protected from some dangers, like lions and tigers! But the world today has newer dangers and anxieties. Are we protecting them from smartphone addiction or the psychological and physical challenge of new habits that technology is forming? How can we protect them from Presidents and world leaders who have psychological issues and inflict pain? Maybe if they spent a quiet minute, the world would be a better place.
An interesting discussion was whether ‘selfies’, which we consider a modern phenomenon, have been around since the Stone Age, when people left their handprints on surfaces.
Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta is a columnist, biographer and bibliophile. She is credited with the internationally acclaimed Red Dot Experiment, a decadal six-nation study on how ‘culture impacts communication.’ She writes the weekly column Bookstrapping on Storyboard18. On Instagram @officialreetagupta.
Note: Unstoppably Yuval - Part 2 is coming soon.
(Edited by : Jerome Anthony)
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