Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance
May 30, 2016
Two award-winning Oxford scholars redefine the present day as a New Renaissance—a rare moment of flourishing genius and risk that promises to reshape all our lives.
"May you live in interesting times." It's often said to be a Chinese curse, but there's no evidence such a saying exists, or ever has existed, in that country. The best research today suggests that it probably dates to English businessman and politician Joseph Chamberlain, who said just before the turn of the 19th century that:
"I think that you will all agree that we are living in most interesting times. I never remember myself a time in which our history was so full, in which day by day brought us new objects of interest, and, let me say also, new objects for anxiety.
Humanity seems to almost always have such sentiments, at every time in history, but a new book by two award-winning Oxford scholars suggests that it is especially true today, and true on a global scale:
The present age is a contest: between the good and bad consequences of global entanglement and human development; between forces of inclusion and exclusion; between flourishing genius and flourishing risks. … [W]hether the twenty-first century goes down in the history books as one of humanity's best or worst, depends on what we all do to promote the possibilities and dampen the dangers that this contest brings.
The book is Age of Discovery by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna. They argue that the time is ripe for large-scale change and progress in ways that match the conditions of the Renaissance. Appropriately, the subtitle of the book is "Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance," and tell us that "The forces that converged in Europe five hundred years ago to spark genius and upend social order are present again in our lifetime. Only now they are stronger, and global."
What they propose is needed to capitalize on the immense possibilities of our times and avoid its pitfalls is a simple, yet often difficult to attain: perspective. Age of Discovery aims to provide that perspective. In Part I, they set the scene by explaining the parallels to the Renaissance they place in Europe from 1450 and 1550. (There are many others renaissances the world has seen; they chose the one we popularly call "the Renaissance" because it is the most recent, largely created the balances of power, prosperity, and the world as we know it today, and offers the most "connective tissue" to today). Part II makes the case that we are in the midst of a flourishing of creativity and genius that is "even greater scale and scope" that the one that occurred in Europe 500 years ago. in Part III, they discuss the risks inherent in such historic moments, because:
The same connective and developmental forces that fuel human imagination also breed complexity and concentrate our activities in dangerous ways. These twin consequences heighten our exposure to an especially perilous species of risk—"systemic" risk. Five hundred years ago, systemic shocks caused some of the moments of greatest grief—strange new diseases that struck and spread with terrifying speed; ruinous financial collapses in new credit markets; the obsolescence of whole communities built along the Silk Roads as the new sea route to Asia diverted trade away. The 2008 financial crisis has already taught us to respect this class of threat, but we do not yet appreciate how widespread it has become.
They discuss how rising extremism and xenophobia, protectionism and popular discontent threaten the promise of this moment just as "the Bonfire of the Vanities, religious wars, the Inquisition and ever-more-frequent popular revolts tore at the peace in which genius labored and smothered some of the brightest light of the age" in Renaissance Europe. It is for that reason that the authors turn to how to avoid that as a society this time around in Part IV of the book—laying out their blueprint for realizing the possibilities, even glories, this new age is pregnant with, while learning from and avoiding as much as possible the agony and misery associated with most great ages.
It is a brilliant, "big-think" read of serious scholarship and keen observation of our present moment. It is a prescient warning, a call to action to the better angels of our nature, and a map for a new age of discovery.
We have 20 copies available.