Sunday, July 18, 2010

Matt Ridley's "The Rational Optimist" reviewed by Wray Herbert

by Wray Herbert

Washington Post
July 18, 2010

Early in this sprawling and ambitious volume, futurist Matt Ridley compares a modern computer mouse to a hand axe from the Middle Stone Age. Both artifacts have been designed to fit into a human hand, but there the similarities end. One is the product of a single person's ingenuity and labor -- and of a single substance -- while the other is a complex amalgam of materials and labor and strands of human cleverness. No single person knows how to make a computer mouse from scratch, yet it's as ordinary as that flint axe was half-a-million years ago. Ridley uses this example to illustrate the idea of the collective brain, a core concept in this rosy view of human progress. At some point in human pre-history, Ridley argues, people began to recognize the severe limitations of self-sufficiency. They started specializing their talents and efforts and swapping their services, creating a communal intellect that sparked innovation and progress. Indeed, that simple but profound shift in human sensibility has led to unprecedented prosperity, leisure, peace and liberty -- trends that will only accelerate in the century ahead.