The optimist’s viewpoint

2011-04-13 00:00

THE author of this amazing and important book is not, it seems, inherently an optimist. But the researches he conducted for his book and the people he met helped him to become one.

Not that he ever underestimates the numbing extent of human suffering on this planet. But what he learned gave him considerable hope not only as regards the possible alleviation of suffering but also for real positive improvements in the general quality of life.

His basic process was to read widely, travel extensively and interview a large number of people, mostly scientific researchers or technology developers; and much of the book consists of those interviews. The titles of the four parts of the book are arresting: Man, Machine, Earth and Re-boot; and in each, he tackles most of the leading areas of technological advancement currently operating. These include the prolonging of life (and the conquest of illness), robotics, nanotechnology (which is, as I understand it, the manipulation of matter at the atomic level — a developing technology whose implications for medicine and industry and other production are truly staggering), communications, better and highly productive agricultural methods, solar and other power-sources, and global warming and several possible solutions to the problem. Although many of us probably blame advancing technology for most of the planet’s woes, this book suggests that on the contrary it may turn the world into a happier and more peaceful place, where the divide between rich and poor will narrow with the improvement and declining costs of various facilities.

This has already happened to a great extent through the spread of cellphones and the general availability of the Internet. It seems that research and creativity are exponential: the more you practise them the faster they develop.

This is an exciting, surprising and immensely informative book (to the extent of being somewhat indigestible at times; but Stevenson’s zippy sense of humour — he is a part-time stand-up comedian — gives the whole thing a bouncy sparkle). Figures show, astoundingly, that the level of violence on Earth has been declining for centuries. One expert consulted says that “something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.”

Apart from such startling and heartening facts, the book inspires because most of the experts interviewed come across as dynamic, highly positive, enthusiastic and socially as well as scientifically committed people.

Life on Earth is never going to be idyllic. But this book, almost to the author’s own surprise, suggests quite strongly that it is probably going to be a lot better than we thought.

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