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Acceleration by Ronald G. Havelock

01/06/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Acceleration in the USA - or Buy Acceleration in the UK

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pub: Prometheus Books. 363 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: $28.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61614-212-4).

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The title ‘Acceleration’ has nothing to do revving up your favourite transport so you have to look to the sub-title, ‘The Forces Driving Human Progress’ speak for itself. In contrast to some authors who think we might be going too fast, author Ronald G. Havelock thinks we ought to embrace change and shows the elements that propel it forward.

He produces an interesting comparison between humans and other members of the animal kingdom in not only do we have language but being able to write it down, no matter what the medium, so information can be passed from generation to generation as being the most significant step-up in our evolution. ‘Course, that can create its own problems, especially where the Bible is concerned, where the religions used it to prevent scientific development and even book burning as with the great library at Alexandria. However, once scientists persevered the balance for progress persevered and progress has brought us the world we have today and where it will take us in the future.

Havelock explores all kinds of things from what motivates us to get through our lives and what is most important to us although I’m not sure if I’d qualify in all of them. He also points out that orderly grouping of people hierarchy is a natural thing even with the dismissal of slavery and serfdom and most people will still accept someone else taking charge of their lives. I would have thought that would just have indicated a normal order of things. The only difference is most people can decide where they want to be in society and outside of inherited wealth, those who become wealthy by their own efforts allow themselves to move up through the tiers. Quite where that puts people with natural talents doesn’t seem to have that kind of elevation unless they make money and then there appears to be a limit to the number of people at the top at any one time.

I think I would contest breeding selectively. I mean, all parents would like talented pretty children but no one really knows what will turn out, figuratively speaking. Likewise, the taboo against nudity appears to be more a northern continents thing but generally I think the cold might contribute to that as much as not wanting to appear as a sexual object.

The chapters explaining how problem-solving is achieved in normal use and scientifically aren’t that far removed from each other and Havelock explains how it works. I tend to treat such things as a matter of course but for any of you having difficulty sorting things out are likely to find this useful. Finding a balance between logic and emotional or ethical guidance in making the right decisions is something I don’t think is fully sorted out yet.

What I do find interesting for an American book is Havelock going through ethical advantages and showing how the USA has fallen short in its health safety net for the poorest and medically dependent segment of their society. Let’s hope Obama can finally get that problem sorted out for your folk across the pond.

When it comes to looking at the future in part three, everything depends on Gaussian graph curves. For those who don’t know what these are, these are graphs that look like a bell or hat with the maximum and minimums either side and the average in the centre. I can’t see many things falling outside of such perimeters. Over the generations, the only things that have changed is raising the goalposts.

Havelock also points out that civilisation is the story of inhibition whereas I tend to think it’s the leaders, political or religious, who realised that keeping the majority of the population ignorant or only needing to know some things is the best control. After all, the biggest changes have happened when social structure falls down or changes. Is it any wonder why China’s leaders are so fearful of the way the Internet is encroaching on its population’s lives?

I’m also not sure about developments of the learning process. Mostly because today if people want to know something, the first place they look is the Internet. Whether they will remember later what they’ve learnt or even widen their knowledge base is still work in progress but it could end up being a world where there won’t be enough experts. Along with learning, I would have thought understanding would be useful as well as knowledge application. Both things really should be taught in schools.

I’m not quite sure if I go along with the need to make Science Fiction completely optimistic although I agree that it needs some balance with pessimism. SF, purely as fiction can’t be lovey-dovey about the future. By showing some possible dangers, it stops us being too rash. The time when the future was depicted as all technological, vacuous and we all wore white is long past. SF often shows what happens when a supposed utopia isn’t so perfect and breaks down but it also shows civilisation picking itself up and trying again. If that’s pessimism then one of us might be reading the wrong books. If anything, this is re-enforcing Havelock’s theory that civilisation needs a certain order of things.

I thought Havelock’s book a rather easy read and was amazed how much I’d absorbed without having to do much heavy thinking. It was only when I was typing this review that I’d realised how much I remembered. The significance of this shows how good a writer Havelock is but there is still a need for conscious reflection afterwards.

As with all non-fiction reviews, the length of my reaction is a reflection on how much interesting I take with a book. You don’t want passive readers after all. Havelock’s book is optimistic that we will find light at the end of the tunnel and important that we ensure we allow scientific growth to continue and I doubt if no one here will disagree with that.

GF Willmetts

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