Age of Discovery: Navigating the Storms of our Second Renaissance by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna may be the definitive historical perspective on Trump, Brexit, and the entire era we live in.
Yes, I feel that strongly about it. I disclose gladly that Chris Kutarna is a friend of mine, but when he asked me for a review, I was filled with some dread. What if I didn’t like it, or disagreed with it in some substantial way?
Boy, was that fear misplaced.
The central comparison of the book, between the Renaissance and now, is made carefully and compellingly, backed with data that isn’t just useful for that purpose, but useful for the general understanding of the world today. There are figures and charts that anyone arguing about the state of our world should have access to, all wonderfully contextualized in the comparison to the time of Columbus and Da Vinci. After this comparison of facts, the book goes on to compare then and now based on the commonality of flourishing genius and risk between the two eras.
A not to miss in the revised edition is chapter 8, Prophets and Bonfires, where Savonarola is shown to have uncanny comparisons to Trump. I’ll not comment on the desirability of similar ends, but I will say that the book offers real insight into what we should expect, and what we should do, after Trump, Brexit, and the other great upheavals of the moment. Obviously, the resolution of these symptoms won’t be the end of the problems we now face, and the book provides real insight on the why, and the what we can do in response. The book concludes with broader advice on how humanity can win The Contest for the Future.
I might disagree with the book on some points: I think it’s more optimistic about technology than me. As I see it, the real message of today’s complex systems science (whether it be regarding economics, biology, or A.I.) is about the hard limits of human understanding. I could make a Renaissance comparison here: Gerolamo Cardano invented probability in 1564, which has led to our misplaced and arrogant belief that we can algorithmically characterize uncertainty (not to mention, by a largely unseen route that I hope to articulate in my own writing, eugenics, and eventually online algorithmic bias).
Thus, I’d add “humility” to the list of virtues that the final chapter of “Age of Discovery” recommends promoting as we navigate the Second Renaissance. We need humility to realize that our “understanding” of the role of DNA, or A.I., etc., is deeply, inherently, and permanently limited, to move to higher levels of perspective on these elements of highly complex systems. This is the real leap that the new Renaissance can contribute to the future, in my opinion: a new kind of human understanding.
The book actually agrees with that point in spirit, I believe. It really is an important read, that I would recommend to absolutely everyone.