03 February 2011

Great Books, Part I of ∞ : An Optimist's Tour of the Future

I've no experience at all with book reviews. Giving my opinion is hardly problematic, as I warned in my inaugural post. But summarizing is not my forte. If anything, I tend to do the opposite of summarizing: give me a paragraph and I will give you a book. When trying to review an entire book, then, well....I just hope blogspot doesn't charge by the word.

Nevertheless, here I am trying to do a book review. Why? Because I am suffering from an embarrassment of riches of late. I have come across so many wonderful books in the last couple of years that I am bursting to share them all. I haven't come across such a wealth of wonderful reading since I was a very young man*, back when ALL wonderful literature was new to me. So, over the coming months, I will share some of these titles and my thoughts on their content and worth.

Among the most recent is Mark Stevenson's An Optimist's Tour of the Future, an insightful and inspiring (if occasionally mildly terrifying) book about the latest trends in all the technologies and ideas that will shape the world to come. I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy of the book, which is being released in the US on 3 February 2011. After I read it, I began a correspondence with the author, who is one of the most genuinely kind people I have had the pleasure to 'e-meet', the electronic nature of our acquaintanceship notwithstanding. I mention this only in the interest of full disclosure: I am reviewing a book of a person whom I have come to know (albeit to a necessarily very limited extent). But to be clear, reading and admiring the book came first and my reflections are thus free of any bias: I would not have reached out to the author had I not already respected his work. So with all the disclosures out of the way...

Think back over the past few years and think about the books you've read on the current state of the world and/or its fast-approaching fate. Then, when you get back from the pharmacy and take your copious amounts of anti-depressants needed to cope with those books, pick up a copy of this book and throw out the pills. Amid all the doom and gloom, here's a blossom of hope. Mind you, Mr. Stevenson is no naïf in rose-colored glasses: he approaches his subjects - among them some of the world's most brilliant people - with an intelligent skepticism, challenging their assumptions and never letting them off the hook when they try to wiggle out of the tough questions.

To get a sense of Stevenson's style and approach in this book, think about the motivations behind "What Are You Optimistic About?: Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better", combine it with the probing intelligence and never-say-die quest for creative answers behind "Freakonomics", then dash in the wit and wisdom of a Bill Bryson.

Each section of the book covers a specific topic, with subjects ranging from transhumanism to robotics to the environment to genetic engineering (to name but a few). But more interesting still are the people working at the cutting edge of these fields. In each section, we follow Mr. Stevenson around the world as he visits some of these leading minds of our time, visionaries like Ray Kurzweil, George Church and Vint Cerf. Through wit, charm and intelligence, he elicits a level of frankness that you will not witness in any other interview format. (In that sense, the book is worth the price for the biographical components alone.)

I think the biggest selling point of this book, though, is the way it alters the reader's whole way of looking at an exciting future that is so much closer than most of us might think. Stevenson calls it a 'reboot', and that's a very apt descriptor: the reader finishes the book with a sense of awe (and yes, some trepidation) about a future in which everything we have taken for granted for so long, is suddenly washed away in favor of very new definitions of things as fundamental as success, happiness, relationships, even mortality.

So put down the doom and gloom for a while, turn off the 24/7 parade of dismay and pick up this reason to be optimistic. The future is going to be a wild ride, and Stevenson's book is a good road map.



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