Roy Tang

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I forget where I got this book recommendation from, but it did go on sale for Kindle a while back so I got a copy. The full title is “Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World”.

Summary: I really like this book, though I think it falls short in providing concrete steps for how to get from where we are to the idealized utopia he presents. Still, in this world of ever-increasing bad news and crises, the optimism of this book is a welcome respite.

The book covers a number of “utopian” scenarios worth striving for, namely:

  • universal basic income
  • shorter work weeks
  • open borders

Even before reading a book, I was already a believer in these ideals, well aware of the justifications. But the book covers that and more, providing a history of those ideas and what was tried before and why they failed and why we aren’t there yet. The history is particularly interesting, as before this I had no idea how close the US came to implementing something like UBI in the middle of the last century.

As I said, there’s very little concrete suggestions as to how to get there though. The author wails a bit about how progressives are stuck trying to protect the status quo instead of pushing forward truly progressive ideals such as these. The book also briefly covers such topics as biases and how difficult it is to push truly progressive ideas forward in the face of those biases. Aside from that, most of the advice seems to be “keep on bringing these issues up, their time will come.”

Taking a critical eye to these issues leads me deeper into my disagreements with the hyperefficiency of capitalism because even though with detailed analysis these ideals may tend to hold up in terms of value, it will still be difficult convincing a society to pursue them when said society is focused on profit over all things.

Probably a more detailed discussion of each issue is beyond the scope of this post and each one may even merit multiple additional posts on their own.

Instead, here are some passages/quotes I found myself highlighting from the book:

On worrying about what other people think:

  • On inequality affecting people’s self-image (explains a lot about the Philippines):

Take bullying. Countries with big disparities in wealth also have more bullying behavior, because there are bigger status differences… the “psychosocial consequences” are such that people living in unequal societies spend more time worrying about how others see them. This undercuts the quality of relationships (manifested in a distrust of strangers and status anxiety, for example). The resulting stress, in turn, is a major determinant of illness and chronic health problems.

  • On why performance-driven societies may not be optimal (i.e. capitalsm’s focus on efficiency may not be best):

As the writer Kevin Kelly says, “Productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring.” Governing by numbers is the last resort of a country that no longer knows what it wants, a country with no vision of utopia.

  • On shorter work weeks:

What Ford, Kellogg, and Heath had all discovered is that productivity and long work hours do not go hand in hand. In the 1980s, Apple employees sported T-shirts that read, “Working 90 hours a week and loving it!” Later, productivity experts calculated that if they had worked half the hours then the world might have enjoyed the groundbreaking Macintosh computer a year earlier. There are strong indications that in a modern knowledge economy, even forty hours a week is too much. Research suggests that someone who is constantly drawing on their creative abilities can, on average, be productive for no more than six hours a day. It’s no coincidence that the world’s wealthy countries, those with a large creative class and highly educated populations, have also shaved the most time off their workweeks.

  • On the cult of busy:

Nowadays, excessive work and pressure are status symbols. Moaning about too much work is often just a veiled attempt to come across as important and interesting. Time to oneself is sooner equated with unemployment and laziness, certainly in countries where the wealth gap has widened.

  • On “bullshit jobs”:

Bizarrely, it’s precisely the jobs that shift money around–creating next to nothing of tangible value–that net the best salaries. It’s a fascinating, paradoxical state of affairs. How is it possible that all those agents of prosperity–the teachers, the police officers, the nurses–are paid so poorly, while the unimportant, superfluous, and even destructive shifters do so well?

  • This one I highlighted because I found it a questionable ideal at best, he offers no explanation for why this should be true:

If we restructure education around our new ideals, the job market will happily tag along. Let’s imagine we were to incorporate more art, history, and philosophy into the school curriculum. You can bet there will be a lift in demand for artists, historians, and philosophers.

  • On how even smart people are not immune to cognitive dissonance:

Smart people, concludes the American journalist Ezra Klein, don’t use their intellect to obtain the correct answer; they use it to obtain what they want to be the answer.

  • Never give up!

But Solomon Asch made another discovery. A single opposing voice can make all the difference. When just one other person in the group stuck to the truth, the test subjects were more likely to trust the evidence of their own senses. Let this be an encouragement to all those who feel like a lone voice crying out in the wilderness: Keep on building those castles in the sky. Your time will come.

  • On not focusing too much on work:

A few years ago, Australian writer Bronnie Ware published a book titled The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, about patients she had tended during her nursing career. 2 And guess what? No one said he or she would have liked to pay closer attention to coworkers’ PowerPoint presentations or to have brain-stormed a little more on disruptive co-creation in the network society. The biggest regret was: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Number two: “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”

Overall a very good read, despite my criticisms, and a lot of his thought appeal to my own ideals personally.

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