Ten Thinkers Who Shaped My Worldview

Posted by Jesper on March 10, 2024

I believe it is our responsibility as world citizens to help building a better world and to protect those who cannot easily protect themselves. However, our world has become so complex and confusing that it is often not clear how we can help. Well-intentioned action can miss their target or even have the opposite effect. Everyone is either trying to convince you that they are on the good side or accusing you of being on the bad side.

In the midst of this chaos, I take refuge in books, blog posts, and long podcasts. They do not hold all the answers either, but there are many nuggets of wisdom out there to be found. To highlight some of these nuggets, I would like to introduce you to ten of my favorite authors, bloggers, podcasters, activists, and visionaries. For each of them I also have a recommendation for a book or other piece of media for you to dive into. Some of these recommendations are works of fiction, but I promise each one of them has something important to say about our own world.

If there is one thing that connects all of these people, it is their optimism. Not optimism in the sense of “it will all be okay” (it won’t) but optimism in the sense of “it is not too late to make a difference” (it never is). Rather than just pointing out problems, they all point out solutions. So without further ado, here are ten people - in alphabetical order - whose ideas played a major role in the development of my current view on life and the world.

Ada Palmer

Recommendation. Too Like The Lightning (book 1 of the Terra Ignota series)

Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet by only dwelling in the past we might lose sight of how tomorrow could be different. Hence it is fitting that the first person on this list is a historian turned science fiction writer.

In particular, Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series is a work of political science fiction which clearly demonstrates her deep knowledge of the Renaissance, and the history of censorship in particular. While the books have flying cars and space elevators and kitchen trees growing any kind of food you want, it is not really about those things. Rather, it is about a society five centuries in our future, which feels as strange as our society would feel to someone from the 16th century. It has different norms, different taboos, a different interpretation of gender, different organizations, different politics, and different laws. And like all the best sci-fi, it gives the reader a new lens to look at our own society and question our assumptions on how these things should or even could be.

Audrey Tang

Recommendation. What we can learn from Taiwan’s experiments with how to do democracy (on the 80,000 Hours podcast)

Democracy is one of the greatest inventions of humankind, and yet it feels more fragile than ever. Are we doomed to slide back into autocracy or worse in the coming years and decades? I don’t think so, but then we will need to stop lamenting democracy’s inevitable demise and start updating it to the 21st century.

Audrey Tang is Taiwan’s minister of Digital Affairs and has big ideas on how to build a more direct, less polarized, and more digital democracy. What’s more, she has been putting these ideas into practice, through the g0v project (showing how existing government services could be improved) and the vTaiwan project (building new social media models to build consensus rather than disagreement on big political questions). Oh, and she is also the first transgender person in an executive position in Taiwanese government, and she is involved in several open-source projects, among which GHC. How could I not be a fan?

Becky Chambers

Recommendation. A Psalm for the Wild-Built (book 1 of the Monk and Robot series)

Another science fiction writer on my list? Well yes, but Becky Chambers’ sci-fi is of a different kind. She tells stories that are small, personal, philosophical, cozy, and real. Not real as in realistic, but real as in built from real people’s struggles and emotions.

In a pair of novella’s titled Monk and Robot (consisting of A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy) she tells the story of a traveling monk who offers tea and kindness to the people they encounter, and a robot who has lived in the wilderness for a long time and has now returned with a simple question: “what do humans need?” Through this story, Becky shows us a different way we could relate to the natural world, technology, and each other. It is beautiful and thought-provoking, and I haven’t read anything else quite like it.

Brother Pháp Hữu

Recommendation. Space, Time, and the Ultimate Dimension (on the The Way Out Is In podcast)

At first, this spot on my list was reserved for Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen master and peace activist who is often credited with “bringing mindfulness to the West”. In a sense, it still is. However, most of his lessons have not reached me directly but through one of his students.

Brother Pháp Hữu was a long-time student and attendant of Thich Nhat Hanh, and is the current abbot of the Plum Village Monastery in France. He is also the co-host of The Way Out Is In, a podcast about mindfulness, activism, self-care, leadership, community building, transforming our suffering, and finding happiness. During long conversations with journalist and leadership coach Jo Confino, they take deep questions about what it means to live as a human being and how to make a difference in the world. The answers to these questions draw upon the deep wisdom of thousands of years of Buddhist tradition, and update that wisdom to our present circumstances. Since the Plum Village tradition is one of engaged Buddhism, peace and climate activism are also regular topics on the podcast.

Cory Doctorow

Recommendation. Let the platforms burn

I first encountered Cory Doctorow through his 2008 book Little Brother, in which he tells a fictional story about a near-term future with constant surveillance, giant tech companies controlling the lives of people, and the decay of our civil rights. We now live in that world. Since then, he has written a collection of both fiction and non-fiction books on topics such as digital rights, copyright, surveillance capitalism, and climate change. You might also know him for being the one who coined the term enshittification to describe the process in which big companies inevitably evolve to mistreat their customers and business partners alike.

Computers and the internet are only small a part of our lives, but it has become so integral to many other parts. Hence I believe it is worth to fight for a free and open internet that works for us rather than the other way around. More than any other person I know, Cory Doctorow is the one who can tell us how to build it.

Jay Dragon

Recommendation. Wanderhome

Tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) are one of my big hobbies and an important part of my life. If you’ve only heard about one TTRPG, it is probably Dungeons and Dragons, a game about heroic action and violent magic and exploring trapped dungeons and fighting big monsters and taking their treasure. However, there is so much more that TTRPGs can be, and nowhere is this demonstrated better than in the games designed by Jay Dragon.

Jay designs games that are playful, nonviolent, radically inclusive, and intensely emotional. Playing one of them is less like playing a board game and more like one of these elaborate games of make-believe you (or I, at least) played during the breaks at primary school. My favorite of Jay’s games is Wanderhome, a game where you play as animalfolk traveling through a beautiful pastoral country that was recently ravaged by war but is now at peace. It is a game where you tell stories about travel, meeting new people, helping each other, being vulnerable, and processing grief. Even if you have never played any TTRPG before and have no intention of playing one, it is still worth it to read through Wanderhome to absorb the vibes, enjoy the poetry, and admire the beautiful art and layout of the book. And it you ever do get the itch to play, just let me know.

Julia Galef

Recommendation. The Scout Mindset

The way we think about the world around us has large effects on how we treat that world, and how it will treat us in turn. Hence it makes sense to try to spot mistakes in our thinking and gradually come to more accurate beliefs. This is the idea at the root of the rationality community, probably best known from the Less Wrong community blog. A lot of ideas and projects - both good and bad - have arisen from this community (most notably Effective Altruism), but in a sense much of this obscures the core ideas of rationality which I believe are quite interesting and useful.

Julia Galef is one of the leaders of the rationality community who has been teaching these core ideas incessantly over years, and she has written them down in her book The Scout Mindset. In it’s essence, the book is about moving from a soldier’s mindset of “how can I best defeat my enemies” to a scout’s “how can we get the most accurate picture of reality?” The book is full of practical lessons about how you can apply the scout mindset to notice your own biases, make more accurate predictions, motivate yourself without self-deception, influence others without misleading, and escape from echo chambers. It is one of these books that I regularly think of in my daily life when I feel stuck or am faced with a difficult decision. If you ever wished that the world would just make more sense, then this book is for you.

Rob Hopkins

Recommendation. From What Is To What If

Rob Hopkins is the founder of the global Transition community, a network of grassroots organizations of people who are unhappy with how humanity is handling the current climate and ecological crises. Rather than getting angry and protest, these Transition Towns demonstrate that there are many solutions we can implement right now, if we can only imagine them. It started in 2006 with Transition Town Totnes in the UK, and there are now over 1000 groups in over 50 countries (it’s hard to find precise numbers).

In his book From What Is To What If, Rob writes about the vital importance of imagination in tackling the largest challenges of our time. After all, how can we solve a problem if we cannot even imagine how things might be different? The book vividly illustrates this role of imaginations through examples of how it made a real difference in education, healthcare, social media, politics, storytelling, and of course taking care of nature. Rob’s enthusiasm is infectious and will instantly cure you of your apathy or cynicism. Just imagine that.

Scott Alexander

Recommendations. My Presidential Platform, In Continued Defense of Effective Altruism, The Rise and Fall of Online Culture Wars, Idol Words

Scott Alexander is a psychiatrist and writes a very popular blog called Astral Codex Ten (formerly Star Slate Codex). He writes a continuous torrent of blog posts about psychology, society, politics, economics, philosophy, rationality, and effective altruism, mixed with the occasional quasi-comprehensible fictional story.

What makes his blog really special to me is Scott’s skill at nuance and careful thinking without getting pulled into easy stories on either side of a controversial topic. He consistently manages to question hidden assumptions and is never satisfied with easy answers. If there is one thing about Scott to critique is that he writes so damn much that it is really hard to keep up with all the different topics he writes about.

Thomas Piketty

Recommendation. A Brief History of Equality

Lots of ideas for a better future sound really nice and convincing, until you realize that they would never work in practice because of simple economics. So let’s talk about economics. The economy is what has more than doubled our average lifespan and increased our material standard of living beyond imagination over the past 150 years. Yet it is also the source of the increasingly large gap between the haves and the have-nots of this world. So talking about economics isn’t possible without also talking about inequality, and who better to talk about the economics of equality than Thomas Piketty?

Though many years of research, Piketty has traced the origins of wealth and inequality throughout history. He is probably most famous for his big book Capital in the 21st Century, however I found out about his ideas through the more recent and much more accessible A Brief History of Equality, as well as by reading his blog. What I admire most about Piketty is his ability to take seemingly radical ideas about how we could reshape our society and show them to be not just real options but actually the only reasonable course of action. Some of these ideas are a progressive wealth tax, paying reparations to formerly colonized countries, and a universal inheritance for every person when they turn 18. He shows us that while the economy that shapes much of our lives, it is us who shape the economy, and we have it within our reach to shape it for the better.