Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Things are looking up!

Good news! John Tierney has an article in today's Science Times on Matt Ridley's new book The Rational Optimist. Its thesis is that homo sapiens are unique not because of bigger brains, nor because of our ability to cooperate, but rather because we created ways to exchange goods and information.
"The extraordinary promise of this event was that Adam potentially now had access to objects he did not know how to make or find; and so did Oz," Dr. Ridley writes. People traded good, services, and most important, knowledge, creating a collective intelligence..."
This lead to circulating the knowledge of domesticating crops, the development of alphabets, and number systems and, Ridley argues, the creation of measured time, because the worth of a good or service was measured in how long a person would have to work to pay for it. One might also argue that it circulated small pox and MacDonald's but that isn't mentioned.
"The modern world is a history of ideas meeting, mixing, mating and mutating and the reason that economic growth has accelerated so in the past two centuries is down to the fact that ideas have been mixing more than ever before."
His prediction is the spread of prosperity and happiness and the decrease of disease and violence. I will have to read the book to find out how he goes from point A to point B, and Tierney's piece certainly makes me want to, but I am not sure how mixing inevitably leads only to the progress of good things and the decrease of bad. One might argue that innovation is more likely to diffuse information, that is, that it will spread randomly until it becomes equally distributed. Is knowing more always better? The myth of Prometheus, pictured above, argued otherwise. What happens when bad things spread? The spread of what knowledge we have is inevitable, but is the eternal increase of knowledge inevitably positive? What happens the day that that knowledge includes the certainty of the destruction of our planet or the extinction of our species? But Ridley is a wonderful thinker and writer and amidst crashing markets, bombings, and the growth of the Tea Party, some unbridled optimism is welcome.


Marie said...

Sounds wonderfully thought provoking and fascinating!

stoirmeil said...

It would seem that the spread of Tea Party activity answers your question, but let things look up in spite of everything!

Criticlasm said...

I was listening to a podcast the other day (surprise), and some of those things you mention were spoken of as things we can't handle with our brains - more specifically that the spread of knowledge and capability is creating problems that our brains aren't able to handle - that all our decisions are still at base about fulfilling immediate needs. It's an interesting question...I'll be interested to see what you think of the whole book.