Matt Ridley is one the best non-fiction writers of his generation ... His latest book is a pleasure to read: he carries his considerable learning with an engagingly light touch ... Few readers will fail to be surprised and delighted by at least some of these stories ... Ridley stands further toward the libertarian wing of politics ... but freedom is not a straightforward commodity ... Ridley has some difficulty explaining the widespread expectation that 'in the coming few decades China will innovate on a grander scale and faster than anywhere else' ... That does not capture the full story. Anyone who has done business in China knows that the party and the state are often closely involved in commerce ... Fortunately, Ridley makes some rather perceptive remarks about AI ... 'The idea that innovation destroys jobs comes around in every generation. So far it has proved wrong.' Which is true, so far. Ridley's evidence that this will remain the case is flawed.
For dedicated science readers, Ridley’s lessons may have a glancing and derivative feel. He knits together stories many of us have probably heard before...but somehow misses the opportunity to enliven these sketches with a sense of wonder and surprise. More seriously, he skirts the opportunity to footnote his summarizations, leaving only a skeletal guide to sources in his back pages. What becomes clear, though, is that Ridley is focused less on exploring the pageant of history than on fashioning a new belief system. I don’t necessarily mean this as a critique; in fact, the second half of his book—where he looks closely, chapter by chapter, at the factors that shaped the innovations he’s spent his first 200 pages describing—is more polemical in its approach but often more engaging, even as one might disagree with a narrative direction that arises from what I would characterize as the libertarian right ... Ridley’s most important chapters, and his book’s most interesting, are where he calls attention to 'surprisingly consistent patterns' that describe the process of making new things. Innovation, he tells us, is usually gradual, even though we tend to subscribe to the breakthrough myth ... Innovations that involve academic or state funding are given short shrift by Ridley, leaving one to naively presume that whatever governments do by way of investment or regulation hinders rather than helps the cause of progress ... Indeed, his book consistently plays down the influence of public funding ... Ridley’s final pages focus on esoteric debates that probably mean little to most readers ... It is, in many respects, indicative of this book’s inefficient approach to solving the puzzle that innovation presents.
An enthusiastic history ... Throughout the book, the author delivers fascinating histories of technology that we take for granted ... Ridley makes a convincing case ... Opinionated, often counterintuitive, full of delicious stories, always provocative.