Fragments of books: The Rational Optimist

The Rational OptimistI don’t want to give you the impression that I only read books with “optimist” in the title, but this was another great one that I wanted to share.

For me, the appeal of books that take an optimistic stance on humanity’s current conditions and future prospects is in the suggestions of positive directions to take. The benefit of learning about the promising options available – rather than the ways in which we are messing things up – is encapsulated in this statement from The Rational Optimist: “If you teach children that things can only get worse, they will do less to make it untrue.”

In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley presents a compelling argument for the role of specialization and trade in enabling the evolution of technology and the remarkable increases in human prosperity. He demonstrates how vast improvements in living standards over the ages and across the globe can only be expected to continue, as long as commerce and innovation remain unrestricted.

Presenting the reader with a historical overview – from the Stone Age to the 21st century – of the state of technology, prosperity, morals, health, and the environment, The Rational Optimist shows how in every age innovation and technological progress resulted in finding solutions to problems that previous generations thought insurmountable, and in improving the quality of life of a great number of people along the way.

Remaining optimistic even about such tough issues as the future economic prosperity of African nations and the potential outcomes of climate change, Matt Ridley argues that slowing economic progress today in order to mitigate probable future harm would be detrimental to humanity’s prospects, and that letting innovation and economic growth take their course is the only means to ensure continuing decreases in human misery, famine and ecological degradation.

The Rational Optimist‘s narrative style is slightly more academic than is typical of many popular science books today, and dry rather than humorous. Matt Ridley presents his arguments persuasively, forcefully, often sternly. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating, stunningly insightful read, vitally relevant to an understanding of the dynamics of technological evolution and human prosperity, and I highly recommend it.

Fragments of books: An Optimist’s Tour of the Future

To understand how much I enjoyed Mark Stevenson‘s An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, the first thing you need to know is that after I borrowed it from the library and read it, I went out and bought a copy and read it again just four months later. In my life as an unstoppable devourer of literature, this was a first. Usually a couple of years pass before I re-read even the most beloved of books, since my reading lists are so long that they give birth to baby-reading lists who in turn have baby-readings lists of their own in the time that it takes me to get through them.

Cover art for Optimist's Tour of the Future

Of all the cool things described in this book, there is not one word about jetpacks. Why they put one on the cover, I might never know.

However, a few aspects of An Optimist’s Tour proved completely irresistible and demanded an immediate re-read.

First, the number of new scientific ideas and emergent technologies that are described, accessibly and engagingly in this book, is incredible. Did you know there are several different research groups who’ve successfully created genetically engineered bacteria that consume waste CO2 and excrete fuel, such as diesel or ethanol? Or that an AI has learned not only how to derive new scientific laws, given a bunch of raw data, but also how to explain the meaning of the results it found to its creators?

None of the ideas in the book are hypothetical. In the course of writing it, Mark Stevenson visited (a very impressive roster of) research labs and startups that have conducted successful experiments with and built working prototypes of some mind-blowing technologies. From flexible solar film printed quickly and cheaply in big rolls on a former photographic printer, to nano-coating which can protect anything from clothes to monuments from weathering and dirt, the stuff of science fiction is being made manifest  today in laboratories around the world.

The second aspect that makes An Optimist’s Tour of the Future such an enjoyable read, is how damned optimistic it is. In startling contrast to most books dealing with the subject of the near future, this one maintains an unwaveringly positive outlook about the success of and the possibilities offered by these nascent technologies. Lucidly and rationally, (but often excitedly, because it’s going to be so bloody cool when it ramps up and really gets going), Stevenson explains the potential of each technology to transform the lives of individuals, societies, and the planet for the better.

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Fragments of books: Distrust That Particular Flavor

I usually prefer works of fiction to speak for themselves, without the need for behind-the-scenes commentary, the making of, or biographical information about the author. I never seek those things out and often actively avoid promotional material and reviews of those books that I know I will be reading anyway, so that someone else’s editorial commentary doesn’t get too much in the way of my own first impressions.

I guess that’s how I managed to read all of William Gibson‘s novels and short story collections without ever seeing an interview with him. I knew about his role in founding the cyberpunk genre from the university Sci Fi course that first introduced me to Neuromancer. After reading that novel, I didn’t really need to know anything else about the author because I was hooked on the fiction. It is excellent and smart and techy, with an elusive undercurrent of the arcane cutting edge.

Cover of Distrust That Particular FlavorWhen Gibson’s first non-fiction collection, Distrust That Particular Flavor, came out in January, I went to see him speak about the book as part of Toronto Public Library author talks & lectures and found that the man behind the fiction was even cooler than his cyberpunk heroes. Speaking slowly, with a calm assurance and intense intelligence, he was engaged with the audience, often funny and, perhaps by contrast with a buffoonish interviewer, seemed … regal.

Most of the nonfiction pieces collected in Distrust That Particular Flavor make the same impression their author does – they are utterly captivating. Written over the last two decades for publications such as Wired, The New York Times and The Guardian, the articles range from book and album reviews to observations of Japan, Singapore and the film industry, impressions of a pre-Google internet and details of Gibson’s own obsession with eBay, which started his antique watch collection. One of the most engaging pieces in the volume is the introduction, which details Gibson’s discomfort with writing non-fiction. Despite feeling out of his element, he pulls off nonfiction rather brilliantly.

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