Sapiens

img_1298As non-fiction goes this is right up there with the best. I can hardly imagine reading anything that was more fascinating. For me the study of humans and where we came from has always seemed such a high yield topic for getting that dopamine rush of understanding.

The resounding beauty of this book is the voice with which he explains society’s institutions. He really makes you understand them objectively, like an outsider looking in. He shows you where they originated and developed: in the cognitive revolution and agricultural revolution respectively. How they’re “myths” that form an intersubjective reality to bind us together. This would otherwise be impossible in such high populations. Yet these myths of institutions have become studied deeply, layer upon layer. Exacted through numbers. They’ve become the fabric for much of life. We’re the fish in the fishbowl that can’t comprehend water.

I like that he began from the very beginning. Physics. Then chemistry. Then biology. And by the end he had covered what might be expected from the future of humanity. Really venturesome ideas that aren’t apparent today at all; such as genetically engineering super humans which don’t share our failures. Like greed, hatred or perpetual discontent. He by no means skipped on the philosophical discussion of these new areas either, going the extra mile like this are what I believe earns a book rating that fifth star. I presume his other book Homo Deus covers the futurism aspect in greater detail and I look forward to reading it.

Some things that stuck with me after reading it were:

  • The cognitive revolution is what occurred in the human mind to give us our intellect, including the ability to communicate and pass knowledge down the generations
  • The agricultural revolution sparked writing, marriage, class system etc
  • Total number of civilisations is decreasing as they merge into larger ones – trend towards globalism
  • Money, empire and religion are what first “globalised” the world
  • Capitalism and science are basically why Europe became most developed and conquered the world. Capitalism liked empire
  • Expected economic growth is a recent phenomenon but it underpins the modern economy and financial system (Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations). Constant growth becomes necessary to keep functioning properly because why borrow or invest otherwise?
  • Constant growth of demand requires consumeristic society and culture. It permeates our minds and controls our behaviour in profound ways
  • The market has replaced the family/community for meeting most of the needs of individuals: it demands individualism though
  • The poor have a consumerist ethic but the rich have an investment ethic, two sides of the coin
  • People may not be any happier now than in the Middle Ages, because of expectations, beliefs about an afterlife etc. What’s the point of progress without happiness?
  • Mathematics has brought exactness into life, hence why they teach it to everyone. Not a priori knowledge apparently
  • Standardised time replaced natural time and regional times. First standardised time was in Greenwich, England. Used initially in factories, then schools and shops naturally followed suit. In this way time is an extension of capitalism? Now time is incredibly exact, virtually inescapable.

The End of Power by Moisés Naím

I got this book as a gift last Christmas and have finally gotten around to reading it. I’m happy about getting it because it taught me a lesson I wouldn’t have “chosen” for myself. Thus I am more changed by it than I usually am by a book (which usually just agrees with my current worldview).

The book is The End of Power by Moises Naim. It’s styled in a rather aggressive red colour with black, imposing block letters. It has a review by Bill Clinton on the front. It also has reviews by Martin Dempsey, Jack Immelt, George Soros and Arianna Huffington. Sometimes I wonder if you read the books that such big shots read, would that somehow make you more successful? Perhaps it’s best to read what people who will be successful in the future are currently reading. Or just follow your best instincts.

I feel that this book had profound and extensive impact on my worldview. As non-fiction books go this one is remarkably high quality. It didn’t at any point feel as though he were reaching or trying to fill pages. The prose was immaculately written. Masterfully articulated and precise. A few moments of humour or feeling would have been nice. I was impressed with how objective he was. It was unbelievable that one man could produce such a high quality book. As it turns out though he had a team of editors. A remarkable achievement all the same.

The book’s central point is that power in the traditional sense of the word is fundamentally changing, decaying, ebbing away. It’s easier for the average person to use power. It’s harder for big shot people to use and it’s more difficult for them to hold onto it. Essentially the “Mega-players” such as kings, CEOs, monopolies and corporate behemoths are increasingly subject to a “cloud of Micro-powers” i.e. The average person.

It’s tempting to suggest that the internet is responsible for this change in dynamic. Naim argues that we should look deeper, and makes a good case. He names three global trends which are the basic cause of the change in power: The More Revolution (higher standards of living), The Mobility Revolution (power needs a captive audience) and The Mentality Revolution (people are more aware and demand more).

He identifies four types of power: muscle, moral, reward and persuasion. MacMillan’s taxonomy is another a useful mental tool for thinking about power.

Max Webber was the thinker most credited with sprouting the capitalist bureaucracies that would dominate the 20th century, such as General Electric. For a long time this was the most effective organisational structure. It centralised power to the top. This top down organisation is also the organisational style that won both World Wars. The top people in these systems would wield enormous power without being constantly checked by different interests – the traditional power elite. According to Naim that prestige feeling of having power of others is becoming increasingly rarefied.

Power in big business is diminishing because as barriers to entry go down; small, nimble players enter. They nip at the heals of larger firms and sometimes much worse. Investors own much of companies and they collectively have a lot of sway over business leaders. Nowadays a company is much more likely to have a PR disaster because of social media. Lawsuits may come from inside the company or outside.

The “prestige feeling” that Max Webber identified in politics has leaked away. Majorities in parliaments are becoming rarer and politics is becoming increasingly fractional. The judiciary is increasingly checking executive power. Donors and interest groups are often obliged an audience with heads of state. Hedge funds can move huge sums of money out of a country which can be really bad for the economy.

Military power still exists but now there are micro powers all over the place. Such as terrorist groups and pirates. Drones are the state of the art air force equipment and they are much cheaper than fighter jets. Irregular warfare is becoming the new norm. IEDs have been the most devastating weapon over the last few years. Al Qaeda spent $500,000 on 9/11, the US spent $3,500,000,000,000 (at the time of writing) and they still haven’t won. There’s a worrying trend that soldiers are becoming more “in it for the money”.

Hegemony isn’t as easy as it used to be. Smaller countries will often drag their feet, and make it very difficult or expensive to get anything done. The time of hegemony may very well be over according to this book. The world has become much more multipolar. “Elevator thinking” is a faulty way of thinking about geopolitics in this climate. There are vetoes to worry about. Alliances are becoming hotchpotch and many are outdated.“Alliance of the willing” is the new paradigm. Diplomats are increasingly obsolete since countries communicate online so extensively. G-zero is the idea that no country or coalition is up to the challenges of hegemony anymore.

The Catholic church is rapidly losing adherents to smaller churches such as Pentecostals. Giant philanthropic organisations don’t dominate like they used to – there’s a myriad of nimbler operations and direct donations.

In many ways the changing nature of power is a good thing. It’s much more equal, and evenly distributed. People are generally more fulfilled. Although there are negatives too. Governments are quite ineffectual without power, everything becomes gridlocked. This same environment is also ripe for radicalisation. Naim mentions five key risks of decaying power: disorder, deskilling/loss of knowledge, banalisation of social movements, greater impatience/loss of attention span, alienation. This section described contemporary problems all too well.

Political parties (just like businesses, churches, militants and philanthropic organisations) need to get with the times. They need to modernise and get people energised again to effectually deal with the negatives that we’re seeing. The book ended on a high point. Great, revolutionary changes tend to come all at once, in large waves . For example most of the US’s political innovations came all at once in the 18th century. Greek democracy and the French revolution were two very important examples. He thinks that we’re moving towards another wave of great change based on humanity’s need to adapt to this new power dynamic.

“Driven by the transformation in the acquisition, use and retention of power, humanity must, and will, find new ways of governing itself.”