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Five Nonfiction Books Everyone Should Read
From the distant past to the far future
I'm a firm believer that in order to understand where we're headed, you have to be able to understand where we've been. As a result, I've included two books with a heavy dose of history, along with two books about futurology (the study of possible future outcomes) and one about the present. I love trying to step back and see the big picture with things, and these books have helped me to realize that everything works together, and nothing is truly isolated. Physics and history are related, just as social science is intimately interwoven with technology and economics. Here, I'm going to recommend books that will help us prepare for the coming years.
Without further ado, here are the five books, what they're about, and why you should read them now.
- The Better Angels of Our Nature by Stephen Pinker.
What: Angels takes a hard look at the pervasive notion that things are getting worse in the world with regard to how humans treat one another, especially with regard to violence. Pinker's startling conclusion: things are not getting worse. In fact, things are getting so much better that violence has declined exponentially since early human times, a trend Pinker and his team hammer home over the course of 832 pages (and 37 hours in audiobook format).
Why: In conjunction with some of the other "big picture" books about the past and future, this book really restored my faith in humanity, and- especially- in the direction in which we are heading, which is a much more civilized world. Anarcho-primitivists will argue against this concept, but they are utterly wrong, according to all of the data (and believe me, there is an absolute mountain of data Pinker is glad to present).
Years of data gives the big picture
The Age of Intelligent Machines by Ray Kurzweil.
What: Kurzweil is well known as the leading futurist in the world, having predicted the demise of the Soviet Union, the rise of the internet, and many other landmark concepts that sounded foreign to us years ago but are commonplace now. Written in 1989, Intelligent Machines makes really accurate predictions about the future course of humanity, like the aforementioned fall of communism in Russia, Deep Blue beating Kasparov, and wireless internet systems. But what makes Machines so good is the three sections in which it's laid out: past, present, and future. The past portion is absolute gold, with a thorough history of computing and artificial intelligence, going all the way back to Greek automata (2300 years ago), and starting an intensive study around the time of the 1890 census, where we can measure the efficiency and "price-performance" of computers smoothly since then, charting the trajectory of Moore's Law and four other paradigms Kurzweil famously discusses in his much more popular The Singularity is Near.
Why: In order to really understand how it might be possible to have nanotechnology inside our bodies within the next 30 years, instant connectivity to the internet (and vastly more intelligence as a direct result) inside of our brains themselves, and regenerative medicine, we have to start by examining how we got to where we are now. What do these long term trends really say, and can they be used to predict the future? Kurzweil makes a thorough case for what is likely to happen, and he wrote this over a quarter of a century ago.
Origins, a total score from the used book store for 2 bucks
Origins by Hubert Reeves, Joel de Rosnay, Yves Coppens, and Dominique Simonnet.
What: Origins breaks up its contents into three sections: the universe as a whole, life, and mankind. There are marked similarities in the beginnings and development of all three studies, and each brings different branches of science to bear in explaining in very plain, easy to understand terms, what has happened so far. Where we're heading from here is speculated upon only briefly, but the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions.
Why: Taking a look at the way the origin of man is inextricably tied to both the origins of the earth and of the universe itself is a very important study for us to make, especially as we head forward into the future (and, very tentatively, into colonizing space and other worlds). Further, are humans evolving into an entirely new species based on our technology? Are we creating a superhuman artificial intelligence that will be a new species in and of itself? Looking at where we came from will help us understand where we're headed.
Five really, really long ages
The Five Ages of the Universe by Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin.
What: Talk about big picture stuff. This book takes a look at vast expanses of time, all the way back to the beginnings of the universe itself 13.7 billion years ago (or ten "cosmological decades" in the past, a very convenient unit of measurement used throughout the book in order to help a novice understand super duper big numbers), and then forward so very far that the length of time the universe has existed so far looks like less than the blink of an eye compared to the amount of time the universe has been around. Prepare to have your mind blown, in other words.
Why: In order to really understand humanity's destiny, we have to examine what time really means, and how long the universe is likely to be around in a manner in which we comprehend it as such. Universe gives a really easy way to understand these mind-boggling concepts, and paints a beautiful picture of the far, far, far future.
Jaron Lanier on his book, "Who Owns the Future"
Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier.
What: A very insightful look into the fairly near future of economics. Sound super boring? Surprisingly, not at all. Lanier breaks down the current fallacies of our "siren server" based system of getting everything for free- and, consequently, not being paid for any of our own information. information is fast becoming the only important thing we have, in an age where material goods are becoming ubiquitous and virtually free.
Why: This potentially dystopian future is right around the corner, but we have the ability to shape the way things are happening. What we need to do is raise awareness that there is, in fact, another alternative to everyone either being super poor or super rich, and getting our information for free may not be all it's cracked up to be. This one very recently made me rethink how the next 20 years are going to go down.
Which of these books have you read?
Do you agree?
Have you read any of the five books above? Do you plan to in the near future? Did this article help you figure out what to read next? If so, please vote in the poll and leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you!