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Nicholas Agar
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This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Nicholas Agar, a professor of ethics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Project Syndicate: If, as you recently noted, human ingenuity is tied to our desire to understand and control nature, has hubris contributed to the current pandemic? How might this reminder of humanity’s enduring vulnerability affect the path of innovation?

Nicholas Agar: Wouldn’t it be great if we viewed our vulnerability not as a problem in need of a technological solution, but as an opportunity to see past our differences and make the most of our evolved sociality? It’s clear that some suffer more than others from COVID-19. But I hope we can still view it mainly as a shared challenge for our species. If we come through this together, we’ll be better prepared for the next shock, which may well have nothing to do with infectious disease.

Technological solutions can be excellent when they arise. (Thanks, penicillin!) But when we imagine future fixes, we often omit the messy human element. It’s jarring to read now about how the digital gig economy was initially marketed: as an innovation that would turn disempowered employees into flourishing micro-entrepreneurs. Attempting to refocus innovation, in order to control for some specific future scenario, is a recipe for disappointment.

Agar recommends

We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Agar's picks:

  • Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

    Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

    This book describes social neuroscientist Cacciopo’s pioneering research on the deleterious effects of social isolation on an obligatorily gregarious animal, memorably comparing the health effects of loneliness with those of smoking. Cacciopo’s ideas had such a big impact on my thinking as I was writing my own book, How to Be Human in the Digital Economy, that I formulated an appreciative email to send him, only to discover that he had just died.

  • The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality

    The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality

    This book adduces impressive data charting rises in inequality that seem to abate only with tragedies like pandemics and mass warfare. The bubonic plague was a big enough shock, over successive generations, to make things better for working people. It seems sociopathic to lament that COVID-19 may make things worse for poor people by not being enough of a shock.

From the PS Archive

From 2019

Agar shows why toxic ideals are often more effective in galvanizing humans than “utopian” ideals that could improve the world. Read more.

From 2020

Agar warns against allowing technological advances to inflate our expectations of forthcoming breakthroughs. Read more.

Around the web

In his latest book, How to Be Human in the Digital Economy, Agar explores how to make a place for humans (and humanness) in the future digital economy. Find it here.

Agar argues that, instead of meekly surrendering the right to work to machines, we could aim for a social digital economy. Read the article.