As the ideological tectonic plates shift in America, many apparently settled matters have become unsettled. This creates, at the same time, both conflict and strange bedfellows, though I suspect the latter will become used to each other soon enough. Such once-settled matters include hot-button cultural matters like nationalism, but also dry, technical matters of little apparent general interest that are of profound actual importance. Among these are the place in our society of concentrations of economic (and therefore political) power, the subject of the excellent Tim Wu’s awesome new book, The Curse of Bigness. What Wu is hawking is “Neo-Brandeisianism,” and I am buying what he is selling.
I sometimes think of my project to pass Reaction through the refiner’s fire as beginning with the raw material of a simple stout tree, which has grown straight but has many branches. My task is to examine and prune those branches, and to plane down the tree to its core, creating a smooth and solid piece of wood, to which can be fitted a forged head—a lance of destiny, we can call it. This book, Guillaume Faye’s Archeofuturism, is one of those branches, and today we will lop it off, though perhaps some of its wood can be used to fuel the forging furnace. That said, this book is mostly insane. But not completely. And, if I am being honest, it prefigures, in part, my own preoccupation with a future that combines the politics of Reaction with the technology of tomorrow.
In the past year, several high-profile books have been published that purport to analyze the future of democracy. All are reactions, and not positive reactions, to the election of Donald Trump. All are written by people of the Left, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are either wrong or bad, although there is certainly a very strong correlation between being Left and being both wrong and bad. As part of my own analysis of a future Reaction, of which the death or massive alteration of so-called liberal democracy is a necessary part, I am slogging through these books (and also doing so in order that you may avoid doing so). How far I will get through the stack I am not sure, but I did get through this book, David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends.
While pretty much everyone in this book who is rich and powerful comes off looking bad, it is less a tale of typical fraud, like a Ponzi scheme, and more a tale of human foibles. These were expertly played on by Elizabeth Holmes, a very young woman of little productive talent and no particular evident intelligence, but with a natural gift for sales and embodying the icy manipulative abilities of the sociopath. Fascinating stuff, all of it, and worth reading just to make sure that you don’t fall into a similar trap in your life. And, more broadly, the arc of Theranos has much to say about supposedly imminent advances in technology, from artificial intelligence to flying autonomous cars.
Although no author likes to have his book lumped with another, this book is an excellent complement to Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants. Both books discuss, from different angles, possible practical reactions to the modern dominance of digital toys and tools. Today, when companies such as Facebook and Google are increasingly under fire from across the political spectrum, David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog reminds us of one possible response—not attack (although I am personally all for attacking such companies), but a return to the active use of pre-digital things. He takes us on a persuasive tour of analog offerings, and makes a compelling case for their continued persistence and growth, even if he seems unaware of some of the less socially beneficial results of that trend.
A few weeks ago, I watched a bad movie on Netflix—The Cloverfield Effect. This near-future science fiction film (distantly related to the original Cloverfield, an updated Godzilla-type movie) revolved around a disastrous attempt to generate unlimited energy in space, needed because the entire world was “two years from running out of all energy.” Yes, that’s really as stupid as it sounds. But Meghan O’Sullivan is here to tell us that just as stupid is the idea that we’re running out of fossil fuels, within any time frame that matters. And she is further here to tell us what that means, for our economy, our global position, and for the future stability of the world, both geopolitically and environmentally.
As with Steven Pinker’s earlier The Better Angels of Our Nature, of which this is really an expansion and elucidation, I was frustrated by this book. On the one hand, Pinker is an able thinker and clear writer, free of much of the ideological cant and distortions of vision that today accompany most writing about society (for society is what this book is about), and he is mostly not afraid to follow his reasoning to its conclusions. His data on human progress is voluminous, persuasive, and extremely interesting. On the other hand, Pinker regularly makes gross errors about history, some of little import, but some that undermine the entire thesis of his book—which is that that the Enlightenment is the sole cause of the human progress he illustrates.
This book addresses what is, as far as the material comforts of the modern age, the central question of our time—can mankind have it all? The author, Charles Mann, does not answer that question, though I think his answer would be, if forced, “probably yes.” What Mann offers, rather than canned answers, is a refreshingly and relentlessly non-ideological work, comparing two philosophies of human development, embodied in the lives of two men of the twentieth century. The first, Norman Borlaug, engineered the saving of hundreds of millions of lives and won a Nobel Prize. The second, William Vogt, prophesied a global doom whose arrival date has been continuously postponed for fifty years, and then shot himself, whereupon he was forgotten until this book.
The Gunpowder Age succeeds in its lesser goal, which is convincing the reader that the common belief the Chinese only used gunpowder for fireworks is wrong. But it fails in its greater goal, which is convincing the reader that except for a brief period in recent history, China has been the equal of the West in the technology of warfare. And, in the wreckage of its failure, it confirms and reinforces the accurate perception that China has, for a thousand years, been lacking in scientific and cultural innovation. Since a lack of innovation has negative implications for the Chinese future, and by modern Western standards is a negative judgment on Chinese society, this is probably not the effect that the Sinophile author of this book, Tonio Andrade, intended to achieve.
Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory is a mild corrective to the commonly found anguished certainty that America’s days of innovative scientific greatness are behind us. In its exploration of the might and works of Bell Labs, this book reminds us that genius requires the right cultural environment to flourish, and it addresses whether collective or individual genius is the mainspring of scientific advancement. Ultimately, Gertner’s account gives the obvious answer—scientific advancement stands on a three-legged stool, dependent on all of the broader culture, muscular group effort, and heroic individuals. Ayn Rand would not agree, but then, what did she ever actually accomplish?