Plenty of books offer useful advice on how to get better at making quick-thinking, intuitive choices. But what about more consequential decisions, the ones that affect our lives for years, or centuries, to come? Our most powerful stories revolve around these kinds of decisions: where to live, whom to marry, what to believe, whether to start a company, how to end a war.
Full of the beautifully crafted storytelling and novel insights that Steven Johnson's fans know to expect, Farsighted draws lessons from cognitive science, social psychology, military strategy, environmental planning, and great works of literature. Everyone thinks we are living in an age of short attention spans, but we've actually learned a lot about making long-term decisions over the past few decades. Johnson makes a compelling case for a smarter and more deliberative decision-making approach. He argues that we choose better when we break out of the myopia of single-scale thinking and develop methods for considering all the factors involved.
There's no one-size-fits-all model for the important decisions that can alter the course of a life, an organization, or a civilization. But Farsighted explains how we can approach these choices more effectively, and how we can appreciate the subtle intelligence of choices that shaped our broader social history.
Science writer Johnson (Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World) looks at decision-making, on both the individual and collective level, persuasively arguing that it should be approached not intuitively, but deliberately, rationally, and even scientifically. A wise decision-maker, he believes, should engage in "full-spectrum mapping" of the alternatives at hand. As an example of a collective decision, he returns repeatedly to the painstaking process by which the Obama administration concluded that Osama bin Laden was holed up in a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and chose to storm that house. Johnson is particularly interesting on some of the momentous collective decisions facing humanity today, such as whether to make superintelligent machines that might ultimately outsmart their creators. Regarding individual decisions, one should build mental models of the repercussions, both for oneself and for others. Johnson also observes how great literature, such as George Eliot's Middlemarch, helps readers broaden their emotional frame of reference and develop understanding and empathy for the sensibilities of others. Johnson is a succinct, colorful, and skillful writer, and this book is one of those rare works that is highly relevant to the daily functioning of just about everybody.