Daniel's Reviews > Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker
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it was amazing

This is the best book I have ever read which is something I’m not saying lightly.

It makes you so optimistic about the state of human progress and it makes you truly appreciate how much progress we have made over the past couple of centuries. It is really mind-blowing. If you weren’t already, it will also make you very optimistic about the likeliness of this progress continuing in the future with the help of, among other things, technology and today’s widely available information resources.

Pinker goes through a wide range of subjects from Life expectancy, Peace and Safety to Equal rights, Knowledge, Quality of life and Happiness. He backs it up with rigorous research and clearly shows how almost every relevant parameter is going in the right direction. The only two areas that as of now haven't shown clear-as-day improvements over time are Terrorism and Global warming. (Another area, which Pinker didn’t include in the book, that could be considered a blip in the otherwise steady drumbeat of progress, are the recent reports of increasing death rates among middle-aged Americans over the past decade.) Focusing on the bigger picture analysis that Pinker provides all throughout the book rather than the daily news and shorter-term trends, you get the true picture of how well humanity is doing.

One fascinating example of this is what Pinker calls the consumer surplus. Think about the washing machine. It saves us 10h per week compared to 1920 and costs a few hundred dollars. Now, if you think about how much someone would have to pay you for you to give up your washing machine, the number is clearly not in the hundreds of dollars anymore. Many people in developed nations would say that there is no price that would make them give it up. So not only are we richer but many of the utilities (and other things) that we use everyday can be bought for almost nothing compared to their actual value to us. This wasn't true 50 and 100 years ago.

Another example is that today the average American worker retires at 62. Hundred years ago the average American worker died at 51.

Pinker thinks (and I agree) that the media is responsible for a large part of today’s unfounded, but in many parts of the Western world, prevailing pessimism. As he puts it “When voters are inches away from the news, optimism can seem naive.” He points out that if newspapers would have elected to report more good news, they could have run the headline "Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 since yesterday" every day for the past 25 years.

The book is structured in such a way that you can easily read only one chapter that you find interesting and skip the rest. There is for example a very good chapter on the environment and climate change if you want to read up on that.

I do think Pinker misses some of the big potential risks in his discussion on AI, for example advanced AI systems in the wrong hands. And I think you can safely skim through the final three chapters without missing too much of an otherwise wonderful book.

As a side note, the reason I decided to read this book was Bill Gates' glowing review of it some time ago. As you can see, I wasn’t disappointed. In his review, Bill said that he read the book very slowly because he loved it so much, but that he thought “most people will find it a quick and accessible read.” Perhaps he wrote the review in the ensuing euphoria after having just finished the book because I can assure you of one thing: this book is a lot of things, an easy read for most people it is not (it’s all relative I guess). But it is enormously fun reading and often highly enlightening so it's well worth your time.

A big thank you to Pinker for putting things in the right perspective and allowing readers to see the bigger picture so clearly.
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Reading Progress

September 29, 2019 – Started Reading
September 29, 2019 – Shelved
November 28, 2019 – Finished Reading

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