For the past few months, I’ve had two toilet buddies that make my time doing # 2 a little less lonely. They are Edge’s What Have You Changed Your Mind About? and What Are You Optimistic About?, both edited by John Brockman.
These non-fiction books by the self-proclaimed intellectual online hub http://www.edge.org collect short essays from some of the world’s leading thinkers in their respective fields. The topics range from science, war and peace, world hunger, linguistics, economics, media habits, culture, among other things that matter in the world. These writings would take about three to five minutes to read, just enough time for that moment in between having your breakfast and taking a bath. You know, that time spent on the ‘throne’.
The thematic difference between the two books is mere semantics at best. The essays in both collections mainly point out what trends the thought leaders currently see happening in their field as of writing time and what they want to see happen next.
I’ve picked out some favorites from the books. From What Are You Optimistic About?, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and John Horgan, Director for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute for Technology, each have essays that assert that world violence has decreased since the dawn of mankind and continues to decrease. Mass media might have us believe that the world is spiralling into a dystopian state of hate and endless fighting but if we examine the statistics of war and death by violence in the world, we’d find out that humanity has become more conscious of human rights, that peace efforts are “overdetermined,” and that instances of violence are “widely condemned [today] when they occur.”
Physics professor Max Tegmark’s “We’re Not Insignificant After All” debunks the common notion that humanity is an almost negligible speck in the entirety of the universe. Since advanced evolved life such as ours seem to be very rare, that just means that we have a “huge growth potential” in terms of adding to the levels of consciousness of the cosmos. After all, stars and planets, as big as they may seem, do not possess consciousness or rational thought. So far, we are the ones who create meanings to otherwise inanimate objects in our galaxy and beyond. That alone means we are far from insignificant.
From What Have You Changed Your Mind About?, technology journalist Xeni Jardin states in “Noise on the Blog” that she once thought that handling hateful comments online would be nearly impossible to do. But recently, she found out that focused human attention combined with software applications such as vowel removers can neutralize online hate in forums and comments sections. All it takes is a little dedication.
Steward Brand once prided himself in the sentimentality of “Good Old Stuff,” things that seemed vintage, less technologically advanced, and therefore classier. This included preferring wooden boats over those that used fiberglass (they looked more legit, apparently), organic food over Genetically Modified Food, and natural healing methods over drugs. But a couple of bad experiences, particularly with the wooden boat (it kept leaking), reversed his attitude on the merits of technology. Surprise, surprise–technological advances actually made life easier and ultimately, “the best new stuff is invariably better than the best old stuff.”
Not all of the essays in the books are winners, however. A lot of them aim to push the obviously biased platforms of the writers instead of describing the trends and realities in the fields they are writing about. For example, I don’t particularly like how a good number of these “optimists” and “mind changers” constantly bash religion and spirituality in the name of pure science and evidence-based thinking. Some of them practically state, “I am optimistic that religion will be a thing of the past,” or something similar.
But then again, that’s why it’s best to leave these books near the toilet bowl. If you like what you read, then good. You learned something new and it only took five minutes of crapping to do it. Two birds, one stone, you know? If you don’t like it, there’s always the flush button.