Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Christmas Cheer

If you want to climb out of the Slough of Despond that descends upon most right-thinking people in the run-up to Christmas, you could do worse than peruse this little collection above, in which contributors to the Third Culture Web site offer reasons to be cheerful.

The contributors to the Third Culture site are predominantly male, and a large number of them appear to come from the physics/computing/artificial intelligence end of the spectrum, with the consequence that most of their reasons for optimism have a kind of naive, engineering-based justification: Problems like global warming/climate change, poverty, disease and so on can be solved with the straightforward application of technology. In that respect, they remind me of all those nerdy kids at school who read nothing but science-fiction novels, did A levels in Maths, Physics, and Chemistry, and ended up working in aerospace, defence, pharmaceuticals, or overseeing South African gold mines.

There are plenty of dissenting or more circumspect voices herein, however, and one or two female voices too: Lynn Margulis, Rebecca Goldstein, Diane Halpern, Helen Fisher, Esther Dyson. Nonetheless, to describe the contributors as "today's leading thinkers" is in itself rather optimistic, in my opinion. Most of the A.I. folk seem stuck in the Marvin Minsky download-your-brain-into-a-computer school of thinking. There are one or two social psychologists and anthropologists who get a look-in, but rather than the slightly repetitive promise that nanobots will save us, I would have liked to have heard from a more diverse range of thinkers. What does Michael Albert think we have to be optimistic about? What about Chris Knight and Camilla Power? How about Steve Keen, Frans de Waal, Gabriel Dover, Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Frank? Add your own. Make them up.

Having said all that and having entirely disillusioned you about the whole project, let me repeat, for what it's worth, that this is an enjoyable, uplifting book that will now and again offer some illuminating and original ways of looking at the world so as to keep that razor from your wrists at least until New Year.


Anonymous said...

And another for the pile! You're just getting your own back, aren't you?

John said...

Heh heh. You can't have too many books, Stuart. Surely you know that by now. ;-)