Einstein and Feynman ushered me into grad school, reality ushered me out.
Years ago, when I started writing in English, my husband asked if I understood the implication of the decision. What he meant was not the practical concerns, though there were plenty: the nebulous hope of getting published; the lack of a career path as had been laid out in science, my first field of postgraduate study in America; the harsher immigration regulation I would face as a fiction writer. Many of my college classmates from China, as scientists, acquired their green cards under a National Interest Waiver. An artist is not of much importance to any nation’s interest.
My husband, who writes computer programs, was asking about language. Did I understand what it meant to renounce my mother tongue?
For the last few years, the professional conference circuit has been overrun by keynote speakers from San Francisco, bearing job titles like chief optimist and commanding five-figure fees to tell us how lucky we are to be living in a glorious new technological era. From coast to coast, every insurance-sales and dental hygienist convention now features one of these puffy paeans to technology. Robots! Augmented reality! The Internet of Things! All of these innovations will leave us richer, happier and more productive, the futurists tell us, and why not believe them?
But futurism in the time of Donald Trump feels fraught. After all, the techno-optimists completely missed the signs of an impending revolution in their backyards: the spread of fake news enabled by social networks; the megaphonic power of Trump’s Twitter feed; the rise of the so-called alt-right, a racist, neo-fascist clique that festered on 4chan and Reddit before emerging as a viable political movement. As a result, we fawned over self-driving cars and next-generation artificial intelligence while questions about the politics of all this new technology — the emotional backlash from manufacturing workers losing their jobs to automation, the interference of foreign hackers in American elections, the ability of partisan opportunists to flood Facebook with propaganda — went mostly unanswered.
Bloom is on what he calls an “anti-empathy crusade.” He does not mince words. “When some people think about empathy, they think about kindness. I think about war.” (As someone who has represented the pro-empathy perspective, I have at times been a foil for his arguments — including in this book.)
Much of Bloom’s vehemence stems from the very narrow way he defines empathy as being distinct from compassion or sympathy, even if most people think of these as synonymous.
Together, Robbins and Masumoto blur the lines between what lies inside, and what lies outside, the official boundaries of Yosemite National Park — where past, present, and future all flow together.
Bullshit is much harder to detect when we want to agree with it. The first and most important step is to recognise the limits of our own cognition. We must be humble about our ability to justify our own beliefs. These are the keys to adopting a critical mindset – which is our only hope in a world so full of bullshit.