In the past few years, our societies have been shaken up by a series of events, and put on an uncertain trajectory.
Everyone is asking questions.
- Where will this lead?
- Will democracy survive?
- What about all the destruction of the environment?
- What will the advent of artificial intelligence mean for us?
- Will things improve or get worse?
No one has a crystal ball, and everyone will have to form answers for themselves. What I find is that reading books helps in providing clarity on these questions. Or at least it helps lift the fog of war that lies over the different issues.
There are different strands: political, environmental, medical, and technological. All of them are happening at pretty much the same time, with their own dynamics, often inter-playing with all the other strands.
By reading about events that happened in the past, learning about how pandemics spread, or what role chance plays in our daily affairs, you can get a better picture of the things that are unfolding before us.
You build knowledge by putting together different pieces, as if you were building a puzzle. The world is a complex web, and only by building these puzzles can you understand how it works.
Here are some books that can help you to untangle the web, and shed a light on current affairs.
Collapse by Jared Diamond
Humans have a hard time understanding how their actions can impact the environment around them. This is especially difficult to grasp when the destruction is not sudden as in a war, but instead gradual, a series of acts and decisions which at the moment seem insignificant, but eventually add up.
Even if they don’t appear so, most societies are quite fragile. Ecologist and anthropologist Jared Diamond set out to examine the factors that can lead to their destruction. The subtitle of this book is “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, which summarizes very well what it is about.
In history, several societies suffered catastrophic collapse, resulting in a drastic decrease of their population, as well as complexity and technological level. The Vikings had settled Greenland in the 9th century, and established a wide network of farms and settlements. Yet just a few centuries later, this entire society mysteriously disappeared.
Other places like Easter Island, or even entire civilizations like the Maya, suffered similar fates. While these people did not disappear completely, the complexity of their civilizations decreased significantly.
Diamond pins the blame mostly on environmental factors, and the decisions that these societies made in terms of the nature surrounding them. He discusses deforestation, habitat destruction, soil problems, as well as general mismanagement and overpopulation.
This is what did in many different civilizations of the past, and our current society seems to be repeating their mistakes. Diamond’s book is meant to serve as a warning sign. If we don’t change course, our fate could be dark.
Mortal Republic by Edward Watts
The Roman Republic survived for over 500 years, for the first 400 years of that period, with minor hiccups, it grew and prospered. However, in the last 100 years of its existence, it went on a steep downward spiral, where its institutions stopped functioning, and unscrupulous individuals tried to stir up the masses and gain individual powers.
The result was a series of civil wars. At the end, there was only one man left standing, Octavian. He finished the republic and turned it into an empire, a monarchy with one man rule.
Duncan Watts wrote a very readable history of those final years of chaos that engulfed the Republic. Reading it, you can find many parallels with how things are unfolding today. Mob-rule, populism, and the rise of narcissistic individuals seeking power for themselves were the driving forces then, and they are so now as well.
There are several lessons that we can learn from the collapse of the Roman Republic. Institutions can seem robust from the outside, but in reality they are quite fragile. It doesn’t take much to weaken them.
China Syndrome by Karl Taro Greenfeld
Historically, China has been the source of many global epidemics. It is the case now with the COVID-19 coronavirus disease, and it was the case in history as well. Many researchers have pinned that country as the source of the Spanish Influenza that hit in 1918, but also of the Black Death that devastated Europe in the Middle Ages.
Karl Taro Greenfeld is an Asia-based journalist, who got to experience the SARS outbreak of 2003. This virus is closely related to the current one, as it is also a coronavirus. In the book, Greenfeld weaves together a story of how SARS got started, how it was initially covered up by the Chinese government, and what the victims had to go through.
In many ways, it offers clues to the start of the current pandemic. By learning about the story of that earlier epidemic, we can see the mistakes that can be made when managing such an event. Mistakes, that unfortunately have been repeated.
The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe
Nathan Wolfe, is sometimes called the “Indiana Jones of virus hunters”, as he travels throughout the world hunting down different kinds of deadly viruses. In his book, Wolfe gives the basics on viruses and how they infect the hosts, discussing the dangers that they pose.
Many viruses have co-evolved with humans. They often jump from animals to humans, and then take off. These tiny pathogens have developed certain mechanisms in order to make the maximum impact. Viruses can time their release, as well as have unique ways of making sure that they are spread to other hosts. By highlighting these processes, Wolfe shows how easy it is for a pandemic to arise and overwhelm our global systems.
While the book dates from 2011, its subtitle “The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age” was in many ways prophetic. Less than 10 years after this book was published, we are seeing a pandemic wrecking our society.
The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb
A black swan is a highly-improbable, hard to predict event that can come out of nowhere and have a huge impact on society. The 21st century has been full of these types of events hitting at different times. It started with 9/11 and terrorism, continued with the Economic Crisis of 2007–2008, and has now been joined by the Coronavirus Pandemic.
Nassim Taleb is a former trader and statistician who focuses on risk. His hedge funds have implemented specific trading strategies that make him a lot of money when unforeseen crises hit. In the past few months, the fund he advises has had a 3600% return!
As a highly contrarian thinker, he has some interesting ideas on how the world works, incorporating luck, risk, and crises. According to him, humans like to focus on the familiar, and discard things that they don’t know. The problem, as Taleb sees it, is that people usually focus on specificities, without taking a step back and thinking in more general terms. This means that a lot of large events end up surprising them, catching everyone unprepared.
Taleb’s book can’t teach you how to predict unpredictable events. That is impossible. However, it can show you how to build systems that are robust enough to withstand them. This, according to the author, is the key to being able to overcome black swan events.
Mindf*ck by Christopher Wylie
Most people don’t know how much data there is about them on the internet, and how it can be misused by someone with nefarious purposes.
Populism has been on the rise around the world, and many of the demagogues have tapped into the power that access to personal data provides. Data from social media platforms like Facebook can be mined, and then combined with data from other sources in order to create psychological profiles of people.
Christopher Wylie, the author of the book, was one of the founders of the data science firm Cambridge Analytica. This company has been at the center of many scandals in recent years, including Brexit and the shady tactics behind the Donald Trump campaign. Using psychological profiling, and lots of data that they collected from many different sources, they were able to micro-target people liable for political messages.
The thing is, people don’t even realize that they are being manipulated. One eye-opening passage in the book talks about how the people at Cambridge Analytica were working on a campaign in the island nation of Trinidad. They were able to access the browsing habits of the inhabitants in real time. In the passage, Wylie discusses how they were able to target a specific house, and then watch how the guy living there was switching between searching for porn, and recipes for plantains.
Reading this book shows you that we have entered an era of zero privacy. People can watch you, know what you browse, what products you buy, and what you post on social media. In that way, they can misuse your data in order to do whatever they want. They can sell you useless stuff, manipulate your political opinions, or to steal from you. We need to be a lot more careful, because with the advent of AI, this will get even worse.
Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker
Luckily, not all is gloom and doom. In a counter-perspective to the previous books, it might be interesting to read this work by Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist and popular author. He is one of Bill Gate’s favorite writers.
Pinker wrote this book to show that the world isn’t really coming to an end. We have made a lot of progress throughout history. In many ways, he is right. Our society has levels of prosperity unprecedented in any era. Health and life expectancy have grown. In fact, they are probably at the highest levels ever.
The message of the book is that above all, we need to value reason, science, and progress, and defend them from the forces that are trying to counter-act them. Only in that way can our societies prosper.
Putting it all together
The world is at a cross-roads. We are facing numerous problems, whether in the political, economic, environmental, or health spheres. On top of that, technology is advancing, allowing us to do things we weren’t able to do previously, but also exposing our data, and ourselves to greater dangers.
All these things are tied together. Things change and evolve fast. In the book recommendations, I have included several books on viruses and pandemics. If I had written this article a few months previously, I doubt I would have had such a focus. Yet, now they are probably one of the biggest challenges that we will face.
All these different strands are linked. The way societies evolve is through a series of feedback loops that often end up reinforcing themselves. That is why you need to understand different domains. That’s the only way you will be able to make sense of the modern world and where it is heading.
We need to start making hard choices right now. What we choose will have a huge impact on where society will go in the future. Information is key, if we want to make the right decision. That’s why reading books is fundamental.