Questioning the Quantified Life   /   Summer 2020   /    Book Reviews

O imitators, you slavish herd!

In the event you needed any further bad news in this year of the coronavirus pandemic, you’ll find it in this piercing, distressing, and shaming account of our tendency to follow the herd.

Christopher Sandford

Islandstock/Alamy Stock Photo.

Reading Under the Influence, Robert H. Frank’s collection of discursive meditations on the way in which social environments affect our behavior (on the whole, much for the worse) took me back to the dark ages of the 1970s when I was an undergraduate reading history at Cambridge. The doom-mongers were in the ascendant in Britain back then, and with some reason. It was an era of Dickensian gloom, when much of the country lay quite literally at a standstill. Much of the nation’s road and rail network was immobilized either by snow or labor strikes. Britain’s coal miners walked off the job in a protracted dispute that crippled the national power grid, leaving us to sit around in unheated rooms, our televisions off, reading flimsily produced newspapers by candlelight. There may have been no village in the remote Carpathians quite as primitive as London in the hangover years following the Swinging Sixties.

As I recall, the leading lights at Cambridge never spoke about a “topic” or an “issue,” but rather of a “crisis,” a word that Frank, professor of management and economics at Cornell University, also uses at frequent intervals throughout his book as he guides the reader—with dramatic asides, furious double takes, and unceasing cries of surprise—through the ways in which social influence has corrupted our daily lives.

“It is compellingly in our interest to exert at least some collective control over the social forces that shape our choices,” Frank informs us early on. “We face [an] existential threat from the climate crisis,” he continues later, before uncritically quoting the first line of David Wallace-Wells’s 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth, with its fuzzy and scientifically questionable remarks such as the one referring to “satellite data showing the globe warming since 1988, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.” Frank adds, “If temperature increases come anything close to the [United Nations’] projections, many hundreds of millions of people will die.… Much of the earth’s wealth will be destroyed.”

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).