December 1st 2018


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Will Morrison and Shorten remove freedoms from faith-based schools?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Immigrants caught in English-language nether world

CANBERRA OBSERVED China's pushiness provokes pushback among neighbours

FOREIGN AFFAIRS U.S. midterm elections leave Trump in charge

DEFENCE Perth Defence conference prioritises Indo-Pacific

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Countering fake news: Jair Bolsonaro may just save Brazil's democracy

GENDER POLITICS Small signs of a turn in the tide of the transgender flood

FOREIGN AFFAIRS European Union's winder of discontent

AUTOBIOGRAPHY Wynand du Toit: writing into the sunset

ASIAN AFFAIRS China uses salami tactics to isolate Taiwan

ENERGY Hydroelectric power and pump storage

LEGAL MATTERS Universities put themselves above the law

John le Carre, Smiley and the spy novel

MUSIC The mercurial Freddie: Power without emotion

CINEMA Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

BOOK REVIEW Commentator has got it right

BOOK REVIEW We are ill equipped for next big shift

BOOK REVIEW The father of the Reformation

FICTION The Lonely Man

LETTERS

VICTORIAN ELECTION Coalition collapse in Victoria

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BOOK REVIEW
We are ill equipped for next big shift




News Weekly, December 1, 2018

THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: History for a Techno-Human Future

by Judith Bessant

Taylor & Francis, London
Hardcover: 250 pages
Price: AUD$242

Reviewed by Colin Teese

Judith Bessant, the author of The Great Transformation, Professor at RMIT University, Melbourne, and Adjunct Professor at the School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, has an impressive record of research and publication. In this latest work, she has set herself a formidable task, even by her high standards.

Bessant believes that technologies now embedded in our society have created what she calls the Techno-Axial Age, and represent one of only three fundamental changes in the way humans have interacted in the last 150,000 years.

Few would disagree with her conten­tion that today’s technologically driven transformations impact on every aspect of our work and social interactions covering, among other things, finance, economics, politics, science and entertainment. She is convinced that we are intellectually ill equipped to deal with the challenges that are associated with these transformations.

Professor Bessant believes we are now experiencing transformations at least as important as those that characterised earlier periods of revolutionary change, including the Axial Revolution.

Each of the earlier transformations, she points out, did not dislodge what followed, but built on what had gone before. By far the most important of the earlier transformations was the Axial Age.

Put simply, it was the time when thinkers began thinking about thinking. Thinking, that is, as much about abstractions as realities. In the beginning it was without books. Socrates, one of the earliest thinkers, wrote nothing, but was constantly exchanging views and ideas with others.

American sociologist Robert Bellah, one of Bessant’s many sources, describes the Axial Age as pivotal in human intel­lectual and spiritual development. The beginnings of the “theoretical” stage of human thinking, or reflexivity, introduced us to philosophy, theology and science, the bases of modern civilisations.

Another Bessant source, Merlin Donald, advances the idea that the Axial Age marks a shift from a Myth culture to a Theoretical culture. On this view, human cognitive development has passed through three stages: Mimical, Mythical and Theoretical. Earliest man without the capacity to speak could only communicate by gesture. Next came speech, and with it a limited capacity for thinking in the context of a world guided by mythical gods.

The Axial age allowed the development of theoretical discourse, first by means of oral communication, then later with the help of written texts. Books became the means by which ideas were recorded and able to be reviewed: a kind of memory bank of knowledge that continues, though somewhat diminished, into our digital age.

Bessant accepts that the current technological age rests upon methodological foundations established in the Axial Age. However, contemporary technologies, especially those associated with artificial intelligence, necessarily change the way we must think about our future, in the same way as happened in previous transformations – in particular, the Axial Age.

In her discussion of this new age, which she has christened the Techno-Axial Age, and in particular the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution aspects of it, Professor Bessant is revealed at her most interesting and persuasive. Unlike so many others, she is deeply concerned about the impact of robots on jobs, the economy and, indeed, on the entire future of the human condition. She accepts that most jobs will disappear and, along with others similarly disposed, is worried about how this will play out.

But she does offer one comforting observation: the possibility of robots taking over entirely is not, in her view, on the immediate horizon. Many aspects of how the brain delivers outcomes on things such as consciousness, sympathy and other abstract values remain unknown. So long as those cognitive processes go unexplained, the total human condition will be beyond the reach of robots.

Perhaps the least satisfactory part of the book is where the author turns to how and why she believes we cannot adjust our thinking to new realities. By means of what I believe to be of questionable relevance, she attempts to draw on responses to the three great economic crises we have experienced in the last 120 years as an indication of our inability to adjust our thinking to confront changes in revolutionary magnitude.

Of course, it is true that humans were slow to react positively to crises she mentions. Beyond that, she further asserts that our inability to understand the 2008 crisis is attributable to the unshakeable commitment of today’s leadership to neo-liberalism.

I am no defender of neo-liberalism, but I wonder whether Judith Bessant is not trying to make it all too complicated. Would any of the earlier transformations she identifies have met any less resistance to change than we are witnessing now?

Do societies, or rather those guiding them, ever easily accommodate to change or crises? In particular, is it not so that those in positions of influence will always resist change if it threatens to disturb benefits or advantages they currently enjoy?

Perhaps recently deceased scientist Stephen Hawking, whom Bessant quotes, has it right in his comment on the AI revolution: “Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if machine-produced wealth is shared: or most people can end up miserably poor if machine owners successfully lobby against wealth distribution.

“So far the trend seems to be towards the second option, with technology driving ever increasing inequality.”

All that being said, Judith Bessant must be commended for having made a well-documented and important contribution to our understanding of the technological age.


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