Where from? Where to?

Looking for a good read for the upcoming festive season, I was actually stunned to find a small number of very recent publications that broadly cover the essential questions of humanity: Where do we come from? Where are we going to? The following presents something like my personal reading list that will keep my busy into the New Year: just four thought-provoking books that illuminate the nexus of how human ideas evolved, how they shaped technologies, economies, and societies so far, and where our journey might be going.

Let’s start with something –as I hope you’ll agree– really fascinating: the history of ideas. In A Culture of Growth, the economic historian Joel Mokyr investigates the origins of the ideas of progress and growth, which were essential of the advent of modern economies. He focuses on the period 1500 to 1700, when the cultural environment took shape that would give rise to the Industrial Revolution. Including a theory of cultural evolution as well as a comparison between Europe and China, Mokyr presents a compelling story for the very origin of modern economic growth. And while the when and where of the beginning of that growth are well known, his narrative of how the concept of useful knowledge developed to become the essential driver is truly insightful.

Closer to the here and now is The Wealth of Humans by the economics journalist Ryan Avent. In his account of the challenges of the digital era, he emphasizes that rapid technological progress and rising employment do not automatically guarantee increasing productivity and wages. Building on the striking similarities between the (past) Industrial Revolution and the (evolving) Digital Revolution, he sketches the main characteristics of the evolving digital economy. The increasing role of social capital in the generation of economic value poses two essential questions: How to grow social capital? And how to share the rewards of its investment? Avent’s answers, if implemented, could shake the foundations of our current economy and society alike.

A bridge between the historic dimension and the future perspective is offered in The Great Convergence by Richard Baldwin. A researcher in economics policy, he presents a history of globalization seen through the lens of mobility of goods, ideas, and people. This history is marked by three waves, each driven by technological revolutions at their time. The first wave occurred when the Industrial Revolution created the conditions to cheaply move goods around the globe. The second wave started in the 1990s, when information technology enabled the almost unconstrained flow of ideas. The third wave would come when people could move freely. While automation might be a technology that could support such a wave, the real challenge is not simply related to the physical relocation of individuals (which has been resolved since the Industrial Revolution). The real question is in the social integration of the mobilized individuals, and in the social integrity of sending and receiving societies.

Finally, Ian Morris and Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels. The historian and archaeologist once again delivered a the long-range analysis of the human condition. This time he focused on the evolution of human values. As he points out, the values we hold dear today are incompatible with and even opposed to those of our prehistoric ancestors. An additional reason that makes this book an interesting read is its form, which gives room to different perspectives by presenting a dialogue between the author and four of his peers.

Individually, these four books present insights and ideas on a broad spectrum of topics related to either historical or current developments in technology, economy, and society. Collectively, and even though the authors will not agree on every aspect of their considerations, these works cover the historic background of and potential future outlooks for the path our economy and society might take as the Digital Revolution unfolds.

I’ve only started reading, but I cannot wait to get through, as I’m sure that they’ll stimulate my thinking – and writing. And I hope that you’ll enjoy the inspiration they offer:

  • Avent, Ryan – The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century – St. Martin’s Press – September 2016;
  • Baldwin, Richard – The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization – Belknap Press – November 2016;
  • Mokyr, Joel – A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy – Princeton University Press – November 2016;
  • Morris, Ian – Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve – Princeton University Press – March 2015.

 

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