Adam Gopnik writes about three books — Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra, A Culture of Growth by Joel Mokyr, and Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari — that address the tension between liberalism and conservatism, going back to Voltaire v. Rousseau during the Enlightenment (and even further back, to Plato).
For Mishra, elements in modernity that seem violently opposed, Zionism and Islamism, Hindu nationalism and Theosophical soppiness — not to mention Nazi militarism — share a common wellspring. Their apostles all believe in some kind of blood consciousness, some kind of shared pre-rational identity, and appeal to a population enraged at being reduced to the hamster wheel of meaningless work and material reward. Mishra brings this Walpurgisnacht of romanticized violence to a nihilistic climax with the happy meeting in a Supermax prison of Timothy McVeigh, perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, and Ramzi Yousef, perpetrator of the World Trade Center bombing: the fanatic, child-murdering right-wing atheist finds “lots in common” with the equally murderous Islamic militant — one of those healing conversations we’re always being urged to pursue. (“I never have [known] anyone in my life who has so similar a personality to my own as his,” Yousef gushed of McVeigh.)
Very interesting context and a stimulating argument for the middle way by Gopnik — in his estimation, Betteridge’s law applies to the title. He didn’t care much for Homo Deus, and I have to admit, as a big fan of Sapiens, that I’ve run out of steam with this new one and found myself nodding my head at Gopnik’s objections. I’m gonna get back to it, I’m sure, but with less enthusiasm than before.
Tyler Cowen’s new book, The Complacent Class, comes out today. In it, he argues that as a society, Americans have stopped taking risks, are too comfortable, and rely too heavily on incremental improvements of existing goods & ideas, which has resulted in a stagnation of our culture and economy. This video by Cowen is a good introduction to what he means by that.
After about the 1970s, innovation on this scale slowed down. Computers and communication have been the focus. What we’ve seen more recently has been mostly incremental improvements, with the large exception of smart phones.
This means that we’ve experienced a ton of changes in our virtual world, but surprisingly few in our physical world. For example, travel hasn’t much improved and, in some cases, has even slowed down. The planes we’re primarily using? They were designed half a century ago.
Since the 1960s, our culture has gotten less restless, too. It’s become more bureaucratic. The sixties and seventies ushered in a wave of protests and civil disobedience. But today, people hire protests planners and file for permits. The demands for change are tamer compared to their mid-century counterparts.
Time published an excerpt of the book last week:
Americans traditionally have thought of themselves as the great movers, and indeed that was true in the nineteenth century and even through most of the twentieth. But since the 1980s, Americans have become much less restless in movements across the country, and more people are looking to simply settle down and entrench themselves.
Here is this change in a single number: The interstate migration rate has fallen 51 percent below its 1948-1971 average, and that number has been falling steadily since the mid-1980s. Or, if we look at the rate of moving between counties within a state, it fell 31 percent. The rate of moving within a county fell 38 percent. Those are pretty steep drops for a country that has not changed its fundamental economic or political systems. You might think that information technology (IT) would make it easier to find a job on the other side of the country, and maybe it has, but that has not been the dominant effect. If anything, Americans have used the dynamism of IT to help ourselves stay put, not to move around.
And in a recent piece in the NY Times that mentions Cowen’s book, David Brooks references a piece by Nicholas Eberstadt called Our Miserable 21st Century:
That means there’s an army of Americans semi-attached to their communities, who struggle to contribute, to realize their capacities and find their dignity. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics time-use studies, these labor force dropouts spend on average 2,000 hours a year watching some screen. That’s about the number of hours that usually go to a full-time job.
Fifty-seven percent of white males who have dropped out get by on some form of government disability check. About half of the men who have dropped out take pain medication on a daily basis. A survey in Ohio found that over one three-month period, 11 percent of Ohioans were prescribed opiates. One in eight American men now has a felony conviction on his record.
If you need a chaser, consider this from the introductory chapter of Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (which I’m currently reading):
For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.
In Sapiens (which I enjoyed and recommend), Yuval Noah Harari gave us a “brief history of humankind”. In his upcoming Homo Deus, Harari turns “his focus toward humanity’s future, and our quest to upgrade humans into gods”.
Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but, as Harari explains in his trademark style — thorough, yet riveting — famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.
What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century — from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.