Story behind the Book Choice
As I mentioned last week, I decided to improve my reading habits again by reading (at least) one new book per week. “New” means: new in my list of read books. It does not have to be a newly published book. Many of the books that are still waiting to be read on my shelf are quite “old.” But good books never become old in the sense of outdated.
Factfulness was recommended to me last year by a senior executive in the healthcare business. She described it as fascinating and really mind-changing. So, I immediately ordered a copy. Now, it has taken me more than a year to finally start reading it. But I am more than happy I did.
Counter to my practice on regular blog days, my book discussions in the “Book of the Week” series on Sundays will be different in terms of structure and focus. Instead of choosing one passage, I will choose several. But I will not do a close reading of key sentences from these passages. Instead, I will just quickly share my thoughts on major topics related to these passages.
This also also tells you that my “Book of the Week” entries will be neither reviews nor book discussions or summaries in the familiar sense. As you know, I never do any of this, also on my daily blog. My conviction is that nothing can replace the actual reading experience. So, all I can do is share some of my thoughts in response to the books. All the other stuff, i.e., evaluations, rankings, short feedback, important quotes, etc., you can find all over the web already. I do not need to add to this sing sang.
Obviously, the entire book is about numbers and the truths these numbers tell us about the world. Yes, I know, some of my hyper constructivist colleagues from the humanities will now jump up and say: “No, there is no objective ‘truth,’ we all construct our own reality, it all depends on the perspective.” Well, or maybe they would not say this because I am exaggerating here to make my point. And this is exactly what you learn from the book — exaggeration is hardly ever in line with the data.
Rosling’s book severely raised my interest in numbers again. And not only in numbers: in maths and in the natural sciences, especially technology studies. I was partly trained in the social sciences and I like reading numbers. But I was never into conducting empirical studies that have numbers as their basis and as their results. I increasingly regret this while knowing that nobody can do it all. Still, it is time for me to dig deeper. If there is one thing that Factfulness can teach us, at least from my perspective, it is that human progress is happening everywhere all the time. And this progress raises the income levels across the world and this in turn changes everything.
All this would not be happening without technology. I do not even mean high-tech, I mean ordinary technology, e.g., running water, heat, electricity. I feel quite close to Rosling throughout the book because most of his stories and examples come from Africa and this is the continent that I visited most often in my lifetime so far. I know what it means to be living without water and without electricity. But for me, this ways temporary. For many people around the world, it still is not. But as Rosling shows: These are exceptions because the world is so much more “advanced” than we think — than we are made to think.
Still, I notice that I do not know enough about the history of technology. And I do not know enough about the current status of technology and the many emerging technologies out there. Yes, my fascination with startups was very much motivated by the fact that I like being around people who invent the future. But I am not satisfied with the philosophical meta-level in this case anymore. I want to get deeper into this in the weeks and months to come.
This passage occurs in the last chapter on “Factfulness in Practice.” Education is one of the fields for which the authors make specific recommendations as to what to teach about factfulness. When speaking of education, we tend to think of children, usually. But I am currently much more concerned about the education of (young) adults. I think, people still have not understood that learning is something that you need to do constantly, that all the information you gained back in school or university is most likely useless or even dead-wrong 10 or more years later.
I therefore completely support this need for coming up with “ways to update adults’ knowledge,” as the authors put it. And my special concern here is with the basics: writing and reading. I am seriously worried that people, grown-ups, are losing the ability to properly read and write. And since you need both to record and pass on knowledge, this to me is like going back to the chimpanzee level of civilization (Rosling always uses chimpanzees as a reference group). Maybe I sound conservative or too pessimistic but what I see in companies and even among university students makes me worry.
Maybe the technologies that are causing this shift of learning habits and methods in the networked age will also be the ones to invent completely new “languages” and methods of communication. I do not know. What I do know is that I will invest many hours into studying all the data on adult reading habits to then come up with more pragmatic tools to help people learn throughout their lives. This is the only way that they will not fall into the trap of just listening to their instincts which usually have very little to do with the facts.
This “Outro” by Anna and Ola Rosling really touched me. Not only because it was tragic that Hans did not live to see the book published. It touched me because I felt ashamed. Especially these past weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the changes in the book market. And while I am completely in favor of people sharing their knowledge at low costs and without barriers by institutions, I think, I have come up with an informed opinion now. And this informed opinion is still limited because I have not gone through all the available data.
What I do know, however, is that the fact that everyone is publishing books now via self-publishing is not making the world smarter. Yes, more books are being published but I am not convinced that these books are actually being read. And even if they were: So much of the stuff is just a bad copy of the original material from 10 to 20 years ago. You can check it out yourself. It does not take much research to find what is behind most of the fancy-looking “models” and “how to do xyz” publications. I truly think that the lack of real public sciences publications by scholars who are care EDUCATION aggravates this problem. It invites dumb heads to fill the gap.
Now, why would all this make me feel ashamed in relation to the passage above? Originally, I had wanted my business to help digital entrepreneurs share their knowledge. Increasingly, I got into this swirl of self-marketing and bullshit branding. Fortunately, I always pulled the break before getting caught. Still, for a while, after also learning a lot about the rules of the established book market, I was very tempted to believe that the future is all about self-publishing.
I was wrong because I see that writing loses all quality and seriousness. This makes me sad and upset at the same time. When I then read a passage like the one above which talks about how valuable writing the book for Hans Rosling was in the final days of his life and how much it meant to the two co-authors to complete “his legacy,” I am reminded of what book writing really means: You want to share your “worldview” with others and you put months even years of work int writing and editing it. And to me, this can only be done with an educational mission in mind, just like Rosling’s.
So, in the future, I am still willing to help people who really have something new to say which is based on facts and original thinking. But I will never ever participate in bullshit publishing just because I know you can sell books this way. This simply ruins the established publishing houses and destroys any control mechanisms to limit the number of bullshit books out there. This attitude of “everyone can be an author” will not make society smarter even if single readers might still benefit from this — simply because they are too stupid or lazy to research the original
1) How important are numbers for you?
2) Does it make sense to divide the world into “developed” and “developing” countries?
3) Which book are you currently reading?