Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead? – Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Alain de Botton & Malcolm Gladwell

[The opposition, pro-statement] are believers in the victory of knowledge over ignorance. Ignorance, a big scourge of our times, will be resolved through the light of reason … The great promise of the Enlightenment was that if you tell people what the right thing to do is they will do it, that evil is the result of ignorance. It’s not. Idiocy is more stubborn than that.

Alain de Botton

… as a society, we have been engaged not in the reduction of risk but in the reconfiguration of risk. You don’t have to worry about a famine every five years, but you have to worry about a mega-hurricane coming along and wiping out Miami. You don’t have to worry about a guy in Romania stealing your credit card, but you have to worry about North Korea coming in and shutting off the power for two weeks.

Malcolm Gladwell

How to critique a transcription?

Should we watch a recording of the debate first? After? At all? My grandfather enjoys telling me that Shakespeare’s work was written to be heard, viewed, though I have never known him to attend performances; his shelves are stuffed with worn, loved, often quoted copies of the Bard. Is this also true, then, of the drama and reaction of a debate; that there is something to gain, too, from the transcript, even when claiming true spectacle and impact is found in the live moment?

Debate transcriptions burn away the panel’s public speaking abilities and, to a degree, their context as people. Words are isolated, so that we may measure their weight, albeit in hindsight and away from the action, in their own context – like studying historical war strategy. (I have no idea whether this is true, of course, having never participated in war – the image just seems fitting – gun butts for rebuttals.) The debate as transcript becomes an entirely different creature. Once isolated as text, if this is the correct way to think about it – after all, it is now a book! – do we critique the effectiveness of a point made, like we might an essay? Or do we judge the publisher’s presentation of the discussion as the conversation to read on the question at hand?

In the end, I decided to read the introductory speeches from all four speakers, unaffected by anything other than their research into the central question, both one’s own position and the likely position of your opponent, and the effective communication of points to be made. I then chose to watch the rest of the debate online.

The transcription (Transcription Divas, for those interested) douses some of the heat, not to mention the inevitable, sometimes indecipherable layering of speech. This is a clean conversation sequence..

It is too painful to not use my position in the debate, before and after, to make my conclusion – albeit after many questions I intend to explore further. Gladwell and de Botton channel pragmatism through justified pessimism about humanity’s future, while Pinker – with Ridley as little more than a top-up for ‘comedic’ effect, seen particularly on the screen but also in his vague, hollow contributions – seemed to be labouring under the delusion of his / their privilege (the wealthy, comparatively-untroubled folk saying ‘everything is much better than it used to be, and it’ll only get better!’ is grating). Though the audience crowned them ‘winners’ that evening, I couldn’t help but think this book, as a result, gained immeasurable worth as an example of the dangers of humanity: it is not information that prevails, but the dramatism of the speakers, shrouding easily the ignorance clownishness of some (mentioned in de Botton’s quote above, and seen with the current Conservative Party opposing this were either two weak and, in de Botton’s phrasing, brittle to make their sunny attitudes more flexible.


6 / 10 – in my context: (you can watch the debate here by signing up for free.) immensely wealthy, born-into-privilege people arguing that the world is only getting better was always going to grate on me, punctuated by Gladwell’s point: no women were on the panel, and this was 2015. i tried – and i hope didn’t fail – to take personal preferences away here for the sake of critiquing whether the debate was worth putting to paper. haven’t read a transcribed book before; certainly now aim to read more. an idea also came to me: a series of books that asks a question, but doesn’t say who the speakers were on the topic – though, they should be notable in their field – until the end. it gives readers the opportunity to consider their position and side without the prejudices of knowing the people and their contexts.

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