Saturday, December 15, 2012

David Hochfelder

David Hochfelder is an assistant professor of history at The State University of New York, Albany.

His new book is The Telegraph in America, 1832-1920.

Recently I asked the author what he was reading. Hochfelder's reply:
I read very broadly, though with definite preferences, if that makes sense. I cycle between non-fiction, usually dealing with economics and technology, and fiction, particularly science fiction. I am fortunate to have a wonderful public library and access to a good university library, so I rarely need to buy books for my leisure reading. I own a Kindle and iPad and love them both, but I really think it’s important to support public libraries.

I am a big fan of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. They take place in a far future in which humanity lives in a post-scarcity galaxy. The Culture is run by artificial intelligences and it’s unclear whether humans are equal partners or merely indulged pets. Perhaps both. I recently read his most recent Culture novels, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata. What I find most appealing about Banks is that he asks serious philosophical questions about what life would be like in a world where leisure, abundance, and immortality are assumed to be the normal state of existence. And what life would be like in a world run by machines.

After Banks, I turned to several books dealing with the future of technology and sustainability. As an engineer turned historian, I oscillate between optimism and pessimism about humanity’s future. So I read widely on topics that help me to understand our mid-term and long-term prospects. On the one hand, I think we are facing some major civilizational challenges—resource depletion and climate change. On the other hand, humanity has progressed considerably in the past 500 years and we may continue to do so.

I began with the pessimism, starting with two titles by Martin Rees. From Here to Infinity: A Vision for the Future of Science is a short book based on Rees’s BBC Reith Lectures. He reflects on what the scientific enterprise will likely look like in the context of these civilizational challenges. After that, I read his Our Final Hour, in which he rates our chances for surviving the 21st century at 50%, thanks to global warming and the increased ability to kill ourselves off with weapons of mass destruction. Rees claims he’s an optimist, to boot! Along the same lines, I read Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species after that.

To balance Rees and Hamilton, I read Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and Jorgen Randers’s 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. I am assigning Randers for a course on future studies, so I thought I ought to read it first.

After all that, I am returning to fiction with Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Orhan Parmuk, The Museum of Innocence. I’ve wanted to read both authors for awhile but never got around to them.
Learn more about David Hochfelder's The Telegraph in America, 1832-1920 at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue