Friday, October 30, 2020

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harvill Secker, 2014)

Is it really possible to fit the history of mankind into a mere 500 pages? Yuval Harari gives it a shot and, while understandably a little light on a granular level, it’s a pretty enlightening journey, even to a history buff like me.

Take, for instance, money — a topic near and dear to every entrepreneur’s heart. Most of us think we know what it is, but really, as Harari tells us, money is an illusion, a social artifact that we all have agreed, consciously or not, will have a certain meaning. Money has no value except that which we give it. It’s all based on trust. 

Harari traces the development of money from ancient times, when bags of grain were used as a means of exchange, to the silver coins used during the biblical era. The silver itself had no inherent value. Unlike the grain, you couldn’t eat it, nor did this soft metal serve any other useful purpose, but it was a great deal easier to carry around and store. Fast forward to today, when most money is actually in the form of electronic data (not just credit cards, but Bitcoin!). Even easier to use!

The amazing thing is that this system based on trust is, and always has been, a global phenomenon. Harari says it all: “Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age, or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.”

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