Reviewed by Jed Cruz
By Steven Johnson
256 pp. Riverhead Books.
The act of decision-making is a unique and remarkable thing. It is a discipline, but it is also a chore. It is something that all people engage in multiple times a day, and its impact on everyday life cannot be denied. It’s also something that very few people actually study in a systemic, academic manner.
Steven Johnson’s Farsighted seeks to be a step towards remedying this, offering a logical look at how people make decisions, and more importantly, how people can make better decisions.
The author begins with an engaging tale of New York City history, and goes on to discuss the circumstances around several key decisions in history, including the American revolutionary war, Charles Darwin’s life, various city planning-related scenarios in New York, and most notably, the Obama administration’s planning for the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. These stories are spread out and explored over the course of several chapters, weaving in and out as necessary to support each chapter’s central idea.
The stories are well-researched and packed with detail — taken without the greater context of the book, they would still be entertaining reads. However, it is the way that the stories illustrate the key concepts that Steven Johnson has identified that make them fascinating.
There are five main chapters in the book, with each acting as a scaffold of ideas that support all the ones that follow. In Mapping, the reader is made to understand how complex decisions are not binary, all-or-nothing choices and are instead wide-open, far-reaching, and full of potential — decisions that the author calls “full-spectrum” decisions. According to Steven Johnson, the first step in making an informed choice is being aware of as many of the consequences as possible.
The chapters that follow gradually build upon this idea: Predicting presents evidence- and simulation-based approaches to making educated guesses: where they may or may not work, where they’ve succeeded, and where there’s still room for improvement. Moral Algorithms gets to the decision-making part of the process and discusses several techniques of weighing potential choices against each other based on the data gathered with the methods in the previous chapters. The Global Choice looks at the effects of these full-spectrum decisions on a macro scale (what are the potential consequences of trying to get in touch with extraterrestrials?), and The Personal Choice does the same on an intimate level (should I move to a different city, and will my children like it there?).
It is in the final chapter where the book falters slightly. The historical anecdotes end abruptly, and the author suddenly begins arguing for fiction as a tool for making better-informed life decisions. The points are well-made as always, but his analysis of George Eliot’s Middlemarch is inconsistent with the rest of the book, and delves far too deeply and far too long into English Lit territory.
Farsighted is an optimistic book. It’s not perfect: Johnson reveals his political bias by ranting about the Trump administration’s failings without a full-spectrum look at the issue. Many of the stories drawn from history deal with America. This is obviously a book written primarily written for Americans. He also champions diversity as often as possible, with the topic being brought up constantly throughout the book. In this case, it is this reviewer’s opinion that he has succeeded on every level in that regard, offering sound arguments and observations that prove that a diverse group of people will always be more likely to make the better decision over a similar but homogenous group. Ultimately, it is optimistic: Farsighted sees humanity as an ever-improving force for change — one that is only beginning to understand how to properly make the kinds of choices that will affect the lives of people hundreds or thousands of years from today.
Read Farsighted for the science and the theory, but expect a rough and uneven ride with many unexpected tangents.
Farsighted by Steven Johnson will be available soon at Fully Booked stores. To reserve in advance, email us at email@example.com.
Jed is one of the co-founders of Popsicle Games, a game development studio based in the Philippines. He has worked as an animator, web designer, and college instructor, but he continues to dream of writing for a living. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @jrevita.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]