The authors of a book charting the birth of a brave new world temper optimism with caution, says GORDON PARSONS
Age of Discovery by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutana (Bloomsbury, £18.99)
“WHAT we see depends on how we look at it.” The authors of this impressive work, festooned with accolades from the wise and the good — as well as Richard Branson and Christine Lagarde — might do well to heed the words they quote from Brunelleschi, one of the 15th-century Renaissance’s luminaries.
Yet their buoyant arguments that our present age has all the potential for becoming a new Renaissance, with a similar flowering of talent, achievement and progress towards a brave new world, does recognise the accompanying dangers which arise from our not being able to appreciate and seize the opportunities.
Among the welter of statistics demonstrating how “the world is dramatically healthier, wealthier, more educated” than ever before, they note “stumbles” in the new Renaissance progress, which can be the results of “bad business.”
Mirroring the 16th-century plundering of the Americas, modern corporate business has been responsible for atrocities committed against those developing countries “on the margins of public attention,” such as the 1984 Bhopal Union Carbide disaster, the suppression of workers’ rights and the support for dictators.
The paradigm shifts evidenced by the great progress made in so many areas in the earlier Renaissance are reflected in our own contemporary Copernicus-scale shifts, particularly those from closed to open political and economic systems and from the analogue to the digital communication medium.
The phenomenal development of quantum computers offers future answers to questions beyond our present understanding, such as what the ultimate fate of the universe may be.
More mundane questions relating to this welcomed “flexible progress” — including the nature of work transforming from full time to temporary contracts — could well be more relevant to most workers.
Similarly, the authors find the present-day migratory movements positive, claiming that the evidence shows both the exporting and the receiving countries benefit.
It’s questionable whether the former, deprived of their youthful energies, or the latter, deprived of work owing to the influx of cheap labour, would see it that way.
The authors bewail the ever-widening global wealth gap but see this as a regrettably negative side of general progress.
Here lies the elephant in the room. There is hardly a mention of the C word, capitalism.
In comparing the pros and cons of the original with our new Renaissance, they fail to recognise that where the earlier Renaissance flourished with the birth of a powerfully creative mercantile and later industrial capitalism, our own world is witnessing the dying struggles of a moribund financial system eating itself, to everyone’s cost.
This encyclopaedic book asks what our legacy will be for the future. For all the authors’ calculated optimism their realism, coupled with the daily diet of gloomy news, leaves this reader informed but deeply worried.