Review: "What is Your Dangerous Idea?"

When I was a kid, my dad would buy books he thought he ought to read, popular science mostly, read the introduction, and then hand them to me. This let him get back to watching the horse racing, and ensured I'd be quiet until at least the four thirty-five at Ascot.

These days I'm more likely to be "handed" a link to a website he hasn't read. The past couple of years he's sent me a link to www.edge.org, seemingly after Radio 4 has hyped it up. Both times I've followed the link and decided that it wasn't the kind of thing you'd want to read on the web and forgotten about it. Turns out, though, that they've been making dead-tree snapshots too: "What We Believe but Cannot Prove" and "What is Your Dangerous Idea?". I came across the latter in a surprisingly good bookshop in Santa Cruz called, judging by the receipt, Bookshop Santa Cruz. The bookshop was interesting in that it wasn't a Borders/Barnes & Noble, didn't have a built-in coffee shop, and wasn't the wall-to-wall new age crap you might expect given the hippies and acid casualties that litter the streets outside. In fact, the CS books (and I actually mean CS, not "iPod for Cretins" and the like; a book on software transactional memory sticks out in my mind) had print-outs of slashdot reviews poking out of their pages.

That's one of those cases where I'm really not sure if it was done as a joke or meant seriously, but on reflection it's pretty cool either way.

Where chains often have "staff recommendations", there's no sign of any vision; just random books that random people have liked for their own random reasons, and that doesn't help you all much because you're probably not all that much like this particular store's random collection of staff (unless you're an arts student working part-time in a bookstore), even though you may have tastes very similar to one or two of the individuals, and definitely have tastes exactly like some subset of the customers.

This is one reason why netflix recommendations rock and amazon recommendations are mostly spam; netflix does a great job of clustering me with people like me, and amazon offers me 32 different editions of the same damn book. Ironically, netflix doesn't obviously make any money off making awesome recommendations, since they're a subscription service, where amazon could make a ton of money off me if they'd actually advertise stuff I might actually want. I guess what netflix gets out of it is that they give me a strong reason not to switch to Blockbuster, despite the fact that there's a Blockbuster right outside my front door, and they get free word-of-mouth advertising like this.

I don't know if small bookshops are going to survive, and my guess would be they won't, but if they do, it's likely to be because of this "fuck you, man; you don't like my fucking music, get your own fucking cab" style. It's hard to imagine it not being beaten by a website that's "amazon but with netflix-quality recommendations", which may be amazon themselves, should they pull their finger out instead of stagnating, like a sourceforge.net that actually makes money. Personalized recommendations don't scale unless you automate them, and unless you have large amounts of raw data to start with. I realize amazon's database is way dirtier than netflix's, but still...

Anyway, in the here and now, I still tend to buy my books from bookshops that happen to have the kind of thing I like and, getting briefly back to the point, I picked up "What is Your Dangerous Idea?" a few weeks back.

Do you remember watching Star Trek as a kid? Maybe it wasn't Star Trek [TNG] for you; maybe it was reading all of Asimov's short stories? Or maybe you had a more varied diet of Heinlein and Dick, Philip K? But if you're the kind of nerd who I imagine reads my ramblings, there was probably some canonical source of all sci-fi themes you were exposed to at a young age, that effectively spoiled all sci-fi since. You go these days and watch a sci-fi movie, for example, hoping against experience that this one won't suck, and twenty minutes in you've realized which Star Trek episode this story is a retelling of, and from then on, you're mainly there for the lasers, robots, kung-fu, spacecraft, and boobies (or combination thereof) that they're relying on this time round.

You'll note, as an aside, that the new Battlestar Galactica gets an almost perfect score there. There's no kung-fu as such, but there are guns and other militaristic paraphernalia, and that's a common and perfectly acceptable substitute. The fundamental story of Battlestar Galactica is quite simple, and it's a mix of a few of those core sci-fi stories ("what happens to society if there's suddenly very few of us left? what makes humans human? when is a machine alive/human?"), but it's spread out nicely over a long period, has more economics, law, marital [not just martial] drama, and politics than is usual for sci-fi, and has relatively few dud episodes. If only George Lucas had these people's talent, or these people had George Lucas' money, how much quality sci-fi might we have had this last decade?

"What is Your Dangerous Idea?" is like watching the complete Star Trek TNG in fast-forward in that it's a compressed form of a bunch of ideas, but without the detailed exploration of any of them that you'd get from something with a thematic focus. Assuming you read popular science books/magazines (or just sci-fi), you've probably come across a good number of the ideas before, but if you've come across all of the ideas before, you read more than I do. The ideas were grouped by theme, and it was fairly obvious that I, for example, had thought more about traditional sci-fi stuff like impact of technology than about economic or medical stuff.

Two of my favorites were fairly familiar ideas. David Gelernter's "What Are People Well Informed About in the Information Age" worries that people are becoming more ignorant; Daniel Goleman's "Cyberdisinhibition" that our brain's evolution doesn't help it cope with social interaction over the Internet (the difference from the telephone, say, presumably being that it's easier to be part of a group on the net), and Geoffrey Miller's "Runaway Consumerism Explains the Fermi Paradox" that advanced societies that don't reject such things end up investing ever more effort in improving access to fast food and porn (and analogs). Kai Krause worries about what happens to the anthill (society) if all the ants want to be queens (reality-TV stars/rappers/whatever it is the youngsters of today consider the easy way to the top).

It's similar concerns of my own that always leave me baffled when people (nerds) get excited about personalized news. I remember reading in the early 1990s about such a thing from somewhere like MIT, where the over-excited nerd was banging on about how great it would be to only see news stories that interest you. Even then, a non-American would have been likely to find themselves thinking "dude, that's 80% of what's wrong with the US". But it's what we got, one way or another, all of us. I largely gave up on news because I was sick of the stories being factually incorrect or editorially misleading, whenever they covered a topic I knew anything about. I found it hard to believe that was just coincidence, and that all the stories I couldn't easily judge were correct. It's possible, but Sturgeon's Law provides a simpler explanation. So what do I read now? Stuff on subjects I already know about, from the handful of sources that aren't too often incorrect or misleading. People like me, I guess, talking about stuff I already know. Unlike the guy from MIT, I think this is a bad thing. A more acute form of the cause of many of the world's troubles. A deliberate atrophying of our abilities to empathize.

I'm always surprised, for example, when I meet someone who believes in a god. Because people like me don't believe in gods. I never have, and short of serious brain injury, never will. The people I spend my time with, and talk to, and whose books I read (with the exception of Knuth) don't either. So meeting someone who believes in a god is like meeting someone who doesn't have electric lighting. You realize that such people probably exist, but they can't really be many in number, can they?

In their places of worship, they're probably thinking the same things about atheists right now.

Anyway, if you liked Raymond Carver's ability to get across a person's whole life in half a page, and you liked Star Trek as a kid, you might like this book. Don't be deceived by how short the chapters are; apart from the blatantly mad ones, it's easy to let your mind wander and fill in your own sci-fi story for each one. At least if your medication's as strong as mine.

Battlestar Galactica and netflix.com also come highly recommended. Santa Cruz much less so.