But if technology blinds us with its magic, the magic can wear off. By the time my third Kindle rolled in, I found myself returning to paper. My reversion wasn’t self-conscious. It happened slowly. I never really stopped collecting physical books. Because I worked for a magazine, review copies would arrive in the office with the postman. And there were old books that I couldn’t find on the Kindle, which I ordered from used-book sellers. The paper editions began to beckon. I didn’t think much about my transition back to paper. It just magnetically occurred.
I have no principled or scientific objections to screens. The Internet is my home for most of the day. Twitter captures a huge share of my attention. I’m grateful for the rush of information, the microscopic way it is possible to follow politics and soccer and poetry and journalistic gossip. It’s strange, though, to look back and recall a day’s worth of reading. Of course, I could probably pose the question to my computer and find a precise record. But if I sit at my desk and try to list all the tweets and articles and posts that have crossed my transom, there are very few that I actually remember. Reading on the Web is a frantic activity, compressed, haphazard, not always absorbed.
If you could fast-forward some 1,000 years and peek into a college science textbook from the year 3000, what would you see? I doubt you’d find many of our current theories still in there. Today, the Standard Model of particle physics and Albert Einstein’s general relativity seem like twin pinnacles of human intellectual achievement. Tomorrow, they might be cast into history’s dustbin, relegated to mere footnotes alongside old ideas about the Earth-centred solar system and the deterministic Universe. It would be a humbling sight – and a tremendously reassuring one.
Given the choice, I would prefer to see our current theories not validated. I’d much rather live in a Universe where we discover that today’s view of physics is comically naïve. If I am so lucky as to live to see deep new discoveries about the true nature of reality, I hope to find them bizarre and shocking. In 1,000 years, physics and mathematics will probably have progressed so far that the very nature of the questions will be incomprehensible to us. Researchers will have moved on to bigger, more mind-blowing questions that today’s deepest thinkers are not yet even equipped to ask.
I’m a weatherman, but actually, I never predict, I’m the rugged correspondent, I get out of bed when the network calls, I don’t sit around and primp, I go. Very often I wear jeans. Weather happens, then I work, not the other way around. I don’t know how to predict anything, so don’t blame me if the sky clouds over your Sunday afternoon sail; I do know what a story is, which means I’m never wrong about the weather. People don’t hate me or make jokes about me, because I don’t represent to them the scientific sorcery of meteorology, trying to create order where it’s impossible. My wife, Carolyn, says I’m likeable because I have a sympathetic face. I like to think it’s more certain, my face, which is a geological kind of face, all its parts anchored together and slow to move, stable.
Science and technology: we tend to think of them as siblings, perhaps even as twins, as parts of STEM (for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics”). When it comes to the shiniest wonders of the modern world—as the supercomputers in our pockets communicate with satellites—science and technology are indeed hand in glove. For much of human history, though, technology had nothing to do with science. Many of our most significant inventions are pure tools, with no scientific method behind them. Wheels and wells, cranks and mills and gears and ships’ masts, clocks and rudders and crop rotation: all have been crucial to human and economic development, and none historically had any connection with what we think of today as science. Some of the most important things we use every day were invented long before the adoption of the scientific method. I love my laptop and my iPhone and my Echo and my G.P.S., but the piece of technology I would be most reluctant to give up, the one that changed my life from the first day I used it, and that I’m still reliant on every waking hour—am reliant on right now, as I sit typing—dates from the thirteenth century: my glasses. Soap prevented more deaths than penicillin. That’s technology, not science.
In “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States,” James C. Scott, a professor of political science at Yale, presents a plausible contender for the most important piece of technology in the history of man. It is a technology so old that it predates Homo sapiens and instead should be credited to our ancestor Homo erectus. That technology is fire. We have used it in two crucial, defining ways. The first and the most obvious of these is cooking. As Richard Wrangham has argued in his book “Catching Fire,” our ability to cook allows us to extract more energy from the food we eat, and also to eat a far wider range of foods. Our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, has a colon three times as large as ours, because its diet of raw food is so much harder to digest. The extra caloric value we get from cooked food allowed us to develop our big brains, which absorb roughly a fifth of the energy we consume, as opposed to less than a tenth for most mammals’ brains. That difference is what has made us the dominant species on the planet.
In “Private Government,” Anderson explores a striking American contradiction. On the one hand, we are a freedom-obsessed society, wary of government intrusion into our private lives; on the other, we allow ourselves to be tyrannized by our bosses, who enjoy broad powers of micromanagement and coercion. Anderson believes that many American workers are constrained by rules that would be “unconstitutional for democratic states to impose on citizens who are not convicts or in the military.” She estimates that more than half are “subject to dictatorship at work.” In “Private Government,” she asks whether this might be a failure of our political system—a betrayal of America’s democratic promise.