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Five Books about Big History

Andrew enjoys taking a look at where the future is leading us by zooming out and taking a look at the big picture.

My bookcase


From the distant past to the far future

I'm a firm believer that in order to understand where we're headed, you have to be able to understand where we've been. As a result, I've included two books with a heavy dose of history, along with two books about futurology (the study of possible future outcomes) and one about the present. I love trying to step back and see the big picture with things, and these books have helped me to realize that everything works together, and nothing is truly isolated. Physics and history are related, just as social science is intimately interwoven with technology and economics. Here, I'm going to recommend books that will help us prepare for the coming years.

Without further ado, here are the five books, what they're about, and why you should read them now.

Stephen Pinker



  • The Better Angels of Our Nature by Stephen Pinker.
    What: Angels takes a hard look at the pervasive notion that things are getting worse in the world with regard to how humans treat one another, especially with regard to violence. Pinker's startling conclusion: things are not getting worse. In fact, things are getting so much better that violence has declined exponentially since early human times, a trend Pinker and his team hammer home over the course of 832 pages (and 37 hours in audiobook format).
    Why: In conjunction with some of the other "big picture" books about the past and future, this book really restored my faith in humanity, and- especially- in the direction in which we are heading, which is a much more civilized world. Anarcho-primitivists will argue against this concept, but they are utterly wrong, according to all of the data (and believe me, there is an absolute mountain of data Pinker is glad to present).

Years of data gives the big picture



The Age of Intelligent Machines by Ray Kurzweil.

What: Kurzweil is well known as the leading futurist in the world, having predicted the demise of the Soviet Union, the rise of the internet, and many other landmark concepts that sounded foreign to us years ago but are commonplace now. Written in 1989, Intelligent Machines makes really accurate predictions about the future course of humanity, like the aforementioned fall of communism in Russia, Deep Blue beating Kasparov, and wireless internet systems. But what makes Machines so good is the three sections in which it's laid out: past, present, and future. The past portion is absolute gold, with a thorough history of computing and artificial intelligence, going all the way back to Greek automata (2300 years ago), and starting an intensive study around the time of the 1890 census, where we can measure the efficiency and "price-performance" of computers smoothly since then, charting the trajectory of Moore's Law and four other paradigms Kurzweil famously discusses in his much more popular The Singularity is Near.

Why: In order to really understand how it might be possible to have nanotechnology inside our bodies within the next 30 years, instant connectivity to the internet (and vastly more intelligence as a direct result) inside of our brains themselves, and regenerative medicine, we have to start by examining how we got to where we are now. What do these long term trends really say, and can they be used to predict the future? Kurzweil makes a thorough case for what is likely to happen, and he wrote this over a quarter of a century ago.

Origins, a total score from the used book store for 2 bucks



Origins by Hubert Reeves, Joel de Rosnay, Yves Coppens, and Dominique Simonnet.

What: Origins breaks up its contents into three sections: the universe as a whole, life, and mankind. There are marked similarities in the beginnings and development of all three studies, and each brings different branches of science to bear in explaining in very plain, easy to understand terms, what has happened so far. Where we're heading from here is speculated upon only briefly, but the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions.

Why: Taking a look at the way the origin of man is inextricably tied to both the origins of the earth and of the universe itself is a very important study for us to make, especially as we head forward into the future (and, very tentatively, into colonizing space and other worlds). Further, are humans evolving into an entirely new species based on our technology? Are we creating a superhuman artificial intelligence that will be a new species in and of itself? Looking at where we came from will help us understand where we're headed.

Five really, really long ages


Five Ages

The Five Ages of the Universe by Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin.

What: Talk about big picture stuff. This book takes a look at vast expanses of time, all the way back to the beginnings of the universe itself 13.7 billion years ago (or ten "cosmological decades" in the past, a very convenient unit of measurement used throughout the book in order to help a novice understand super duper big numbers), and then forward so very far that the length of time the universe has existed so far looks like less than the blink of an eye compared to the amount of time the universe has been around. Prepare to have your mind blown, in other words.

Why: In order to really understand humanity's destiny, we have to examine what time really means, and how long the universe is likely to be around in a manner in which we comprehend it as such. Universe gives a really easy way to understand these mind-boggling concepts, and paints a beautiful picture of the far, far, far future.

Jaron Lanier on his book, "Who Owns the Future"

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Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier.

What: A very insightful look into the fairly near future of economics. Sound super boring? Surprisingly, not at all. Lanier breaks down the current fallacies of our "siren server" based system of getting everything for free- and, consequently, not being paid for any of our own information. information is fast becoming the only important thing we have, in an age where material goods are becoming ubiquitous and virtually free.

Why: This potentially dystopian future is right around the corner, but we have the ability to shape the way things are happening. What we need to do is raise awareness that there is, in fact, another alternative to everyone either being super poor or super rich, and getting our information for free may not be all it's cracked up to be. This one very recently made me rethink how the next 20 years are going to go down.


Do you agree?

Have you read any of the five books above? Do you plan to in the near future? Did this article help you figure out what to read next? If so, please vote in the poll and leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you!

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2014 Andrew Smith


Andrew Smith (author) from Richmond, VA on September 22, 2014:

Billy, what did you think of "The Age of Intelligent Machines"? Very cool that you read those first three!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 22, 2014:

I've actually read the first three...guess I'll have to order the other two so I can at least be close to "cool." :) Thanks for the recommendations.

Andrew Smith (author) from Richmond, VA on July 29, 2014:

Thanks, kalinin1158! I agree completely. Our lives are really good right now, and we should take a moment from time to time to reflect upon that. Doesn't mean we shouldn't seek to make things better, of course!

Lana Adler from California on July 29, 2014:

Fascinating collection! As a futurist myself, I'm always interested in the big picture stuff. #1 is especially intriguing, I think I've seen the author on Colbert... I really like the message of the book. I guess if you look at the entire human history, our times don't seem so bad, at least in terms of wars and violence and human rights in general but...tell it to the Palestinians in Gaza or to Somali refugees in Dadaab or to Indian child brides ... :-0 Voted up!

Andrew Smith (author) from Richmond, VA on July 26, 2014:

Thanks, Jaye! Let me know what you think as soon as you get a chance to read any of them. I'd love to discuss what you thought.

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on July 26, 2014:

While I haven't read any of these books yet, your short reviews make each one seem interesting in a way I would enjoy. I'll be checking at my local library for them. Thanks for the recommendations.

Voted Up++


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