Book Report by Molly Green
In the year 2020, there is an air of unease in the United States about what the future may hold. 2020 included the first global pandemic in a hundred years, an unstable economy, a nightmarish election looming before us, and shed light on hundreds of years of blatant racism and prejudice. Further, with the incontrovertible evidence that our last presidential election was influenced by Russian hackers on social media sites, as well as dire warnings from TV shows like Black Mirror, which feature a dystopian future, it almost feels like the apocalyptic future portrayed in such narratives is coming to fruition. Is humanity doomed? Enter Infinite Progress: How the Internet and Technology Will End Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger, and War, by Byron Reese, a book antithetical to the notion of the apocalyptic future. From the start, Reese heavily emphasizes his case for optimism. He sets the stage with a quote by Craig Venter, “I’m not sure whether the optimists or pessimists are right, but I do know this: the optimists are going to get something done”, followed by his reasoned arguments for optimism. His case for optimism is so well rationalized, that when I was reading it, I began to wonder why he was putting so much effort into ensuring I understood and agreed with his logic. As I continued through the book, however, the reasoning became clear: in this book, optimism is the axiom from which the rest of his arguments stem. Without it, the entire book falls apart, so he must first get his reader to choose to accept optimism as their starting point. Reading reviews of this book, I found that many people shared the sentiment that this book was overly optimistic, and almost childlike in the belief that the future could be so grand and wonderful. Yet, reading the book for myself, I found that once the case for optimism has been accepted, the rest of the book flows seamlessly. It became clear to me, therefore, that the reviewers with those complaints had not allowed themselves to suspend their (quite pessimistic) beliefs, and therefore, could not see the true beauty that is Reese’s vision.
One example Reese uses for his case for optimism is when president John F. Kennedy gave a speech about putting a man on the moon:
“But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun — almost as hot as it is here today — and do all this — and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out — then we must be bold.”
Reese says that in going to the moon, humanity looked at a task that was seemingly impossible, and just…decided to make it happen. Reese states that if we ever wish to surmount these problems, we must approach them with the same level of optimism felt in Kennedy’s speech.
After making the case for optimism, Reese partitions the core of his book into sections based off of its title: “The End of Ignorance”, “The End of Disease”, and so on, until “The End of War”. Each piece begins by first clearly defining the problem humanity is facing, followed by a history lesson or two on how similar problems were solved before modern technology, and finishing with how today’s technology can be used to solve this problem in the near future. Throughout each section are carefully sprinkled quotes from significant historical or modern-day figures along with rhetoric on how their quotes apply to solving this problem. Each section builds on the previous, and the book comes to the logical conclusion that eventually, technology will naturally lead humankind into a utopian state. Reese is not so naïve to brush off concerns about technology—in each section, he acknowledges how it can be used nefariously to (i.e.; violate privacy), yet, he also makes the point that in a future like this, there would be no real incentive for such behavior. If no one is ignorant, sick, poor, hungry, or angry, there is no real need for them to abuse the technology. Further, if due to “human nature” they so choose to abuse it, there will be countermeasures in place to stop them. At times, it feels like Reese has too much faith in humanity, and yet, as he pointed out with the Kennedy speech, it is possible, so long as we simply make the choice to do it.
The most enjoyable aspect of this book was how refreshingly positive it was. So often in media we are plagued with dire warnings and apocalyptic predictions about the future of technology, and this book provides some much-needed relief from the soul-crushing weight of those predictions. This book is one of the very few that not only describes how a wonderful future is possible, but also that it is, in fact, inevitable. After reading this book, I felt so empowered and ready to make a change in the world, but I didn’t really know where to start. That, I think, is the sole pitfall of this book. There is so much information about how technology can be used to improve society and conquer mankind’s greatest problems, and yet there is nothing on how an individual can begin their own journey towards making Reese’s visions a reality. Pointing the readers towards websites or organizations geared towards improving society would, I feel, truly complete this work. Overall, however, this book is an excellent pick-me-up. This book will instill its readers with sanguinity, the feeling that anything is possible, and the realization that humanity is not doomed after all.