Thoughts About Recent Books I’ve Read

Average is Over, by Tyler Cowen

“Tyler Cowen may very well turn out to be this decade’s Thomas Friedman” was a quote on the back of the book. This quote is accurate.

In a more serious vein, while I have a ton of problems with his conclusions and writing, his heuristic for how to choose a career is very valid:
In your work, are you competing directly against something a slightly smarter machine could do (aka assembly line worker)? Yes? You’re screwed.
In your work, are you augmenting what the computer does and providing the human input necessary to ‘translate’? Yes? Ok, good, you’ll do great.

He doesn’t go into the deeper ramifications of this, however- what does society look like when we are listening to machines that we can’t even understand the inner workings of? (There is actually some good sci fi on this…) Is this different from what has been taking place since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, or is this a real, very different change? I’d just like more critical analysis.

I would read this, but only because people are going to reference it forever and you might need to know what they are talking about. OTOH, they are probably just going to say something like “Average is over” and you can nod your head and continue with your life without having to read this. Your pick.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

This is a great novel. It’s hard to not spoil it, but it’s amazing what he does and it is definitely something that at every page keeps you wanting to know what happens next. There are a million questions in your mind as you read this, and Mitchell lets you keep some questions still up in the air- very satisfying in a frustrating way! I absolutely hate when novels (and TV and movies) have no questions open- this is what makes the 6th season of the X-Files terrible, for instance. I should see the movie, although I doubt it can match the book.

You should read this book.

Future Perfect by Steven Johnson

This book speaks pretty strongly to how I believe problems should be solved in the world today. It in fact is pretty much intellectual wanking to read it, as I agree with everything there. I imagine that most of the people who are reading these words also agree, but I’ll summarize just in case.

Essentially, the models for how to organize human endeavors have traditionally been either a central state-based model or a market-based, anything goes model. The central model he refers to as a “Legrand Star”, after the French railway model. The market-based / libertarian model he refers to as the “Hayek” model. This gives us the usual conservative/liberal breakdown of suggestions to solve problems. Liberals have tended to favor centralized, controlled programs to (for instance) end poverty, while conservatives have tended to favor individual actions. However, neither works too well and in other parts of our society we have seen the benefits gained by another model: peer-to-peer, modeled after the internet.

Johnson argues that we should learn the lessons the internet has been teaching us and apply the same types of structures to our political realm. He coins the term “Peer Progressives” to label those who (like me) believe in various forms of social justice and who believe that the internet gives us better tools than the traditional duo to work with. He gives the example of art funding. The classic progressive way of promoting art is the NEA- large government bureaucracy. The libertarian way is private benefactors (hey, worked for Michaelangelo). The Peer Progressive way is Kickstarter, which currently passes on more funds than the entire NEA budget to artists every year, and arguably does a much better job at funding art that could never have gotten a grant.

I would recommend reading Future Perfect, but like most business books, you could read a long blog post and get the gist. The book is a fast read, though, and wonderfully self-validating, if you happen to be a “peer progressive” at least…

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