As the Future Catches You : How Genomics and Other Forces Are Changing Your Life, Your Work, Your Investments, Your World (2001)
As a man of reason and logic, I am all for reform;
but as the unworthy inheritor of a great tradition,
I'd rather be ruled by the first hundred names in
the Cambridge phone book than by the faculty
There is nothing quite so chilling as the prospect of an intellectual looking ahead to the future and describing for we poor benighted masses both how it will look and what we have to do to get there. In my own lifetime alone (a mere forty years) this has included pronouncements that communism was a permanent rival of democracy, perhaps even its superior; that a Silent Spring was coming; that central planning made Japan a more formidable economic power than America with its free market economy; predictions of a new Ice Age in the sixties and, alternatively, of Global Warming in the 90's; dire warnings of a Population Explosion followed by today's obvious underpopulation crisis; and so on and so forth, ad nauseum. In those four short decades, I've lived through the Sexual Revolution, the Third American Reawakening, the New Age, Women's Liberation, Animal Liberation, Black Pride, Gray Pride, Gay Pride, Handicapped Pride, the Nuclear Age, the Space Age, the Green Revolution, the Information Age, the Digital Revolution, the Imperial Presidency, the incredible shrinking presidency, yadda, yadda, yadda... Comes now Juan Enriquez to inform us that we're about to live through the Genomic Age :
THE DOMINANT LANGUAGE ...
Those who remain illiterate in this
And like all of his predecessors, Mr. Enriquez wants to make sure that we completely restructure our lives and our society around the notion that he's right.
The quotation above is in roughly the form that Mr. Enriquez uses in the book, apparently believing that in the future we'll treasure almost random typesetting, variable capitalization, incomplete sentences and the like. Instead, this style feels incredibly condescending, as if big print, bold lettering, and broad, easily comprehensible ideas are the only way to reach the hoi polloi.
In this spirit, Mr. Enriquez does not offer many specifics about how we can prepare for this genomic future, but those he does include seem to indicate that he may have completely missed the point of the 20th Century. He focusses heavily on the educational end of the equation, apparently believing that having a population that is literate in the language of genomics will suffice to allow nations to participate in the potentially explosive economic growth that genomics may bring. But the Soviet Union, Cuba, and many other countries expended huge amounts of energy, time, and resources on educating their people in the science of the day and it served for nought. For one thing, what your people know really doesn't make any difference unless they have the free institutions--capitalism and democracy--in which to utilize their knowledge.
For another, states simply lack the flexibility to determine which knowledge will be needed tomorrow and government bureaucracy is too inefficient at the actual educating process. Perhaps Mr. Enriquez is right about the long term importance of genomics and the revolutionary economic impact it will have, but if he's not, imagine how long it will take a government, once embarked on his project, to realize its mistake and change the emphasis of its curriculum. Mr. Enriquez himself says that :
Many are unprepared for...
Through all the "revolutions" and "ages" listed above, be they real or imagined, the one thing that remained constant in America, though not as constant as we might like, was the adherence to the idea of freedom. The ability of democracy and capitalism to adapt to all of these social, scientific, political, and intellectual forces seems to indicate that a climate of freedom is the necessary condition for a society to handle these violent and sudden changes. Yet he's suggesting locking ourselves into an education system premised on a belief that genomics is necessarily the future : that's pretty sketchy.
Finally, who cares if all of us speak the genetic code, so long as enough scientists do? The digital revolution is humming along quite nicely and not many of us are fluent in binary. There does not appear to be anything so unique about genetic engineering that it will require widespread knowledge of the genetic code. Even if genetic manipulation allows me to grow wings, I won't be the one doing the engineering, any more than I know how to fix my own car.
There's another element to all of this that is far more sinister, and that's Mr. Enriquez's suggestion that we be prepare ourselves philosophically and ethically to fully exploit the possibilities of genetic technology. Thus, contemplating the prospect of human cloning, he says that :
The Christian moral and ethical system is ill-equipped
to address some of the choices and dilemmas
We may all want to pay some attention to the beliefs and consequences...
Explored by religions like Hinduism and Buddhism...
Where reincarnation remains a central tenet...
Funny, it would seem more appropriate to me to require that uses of new technologies conform to the traditional moral standards of Western Civilization, not that we ditch those ethical prohibitions that might inconvenience our full exploitation of the science. If you extend Mr. Enriquez's logic to its inevitable end, doesn't our prospective ability to clone ourselves make every one of us expendable? Why punish murder if the scientists can just duplicate us? Maybe that's the point, that this technology holds out the promise of a world where we can finally free ourselves from the moral codes that have restrained us for thousands of years, but is that really a consummation we wish for?
It may well be that Mr. Enriquez does not mean quite what these flippant statements of his seem to mean, but the discussion of most issues in the book is so general that it is hard to know for sure. But we do know this, liberal democratic capitalism has proven uniquely adept at withstanding potentially transformative technologies and social movements. By allowing people the freedom to study whatever they desire, to band together into cooperative business endeavors, to buy and sell the products and services of their choosing, and by rewarding winners extravagantly and punishing losers harshly, the free market has been able to route these various forces into productive channels. No matter how great the promise of genomics, it seems awfully unlikely that our current system, or something approximating it, will not be able to deal with it quite effectively. And because democratic capitalism is so distinctly a phenomenon of the Anglo-American world, the dominant language of the 21st Century is likely to be the same as it was of the 20th, and the 19th, and the 18th : English, specifically that of John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Burke, Lord Acton, etc.. And the force that makes the single biggest difference in our lives will continue to be not genomics but freedom. By all means read the book, there's plenty here that's interesting and it's an easy enough read. But be wary of taking any of it at face value. As a general rule, it's helpful to be profoundly skeptical of anyone who advises wholesale changes to the culture, particularly to its moral foundations, just because there's a new idea in town.
-Juan Enriquez (Harvard Business School)
-ESSAY : Transforming Life, Transforming Business: The Life-Science Revolution (Juan Enriquez and Ray A. Goldberg, March/April 2000, Harvard Business School)
-INTERVIEW : A conversation with Juan Enriquez, author of As the Future Catches You (Crown Business)
-PROFILE : The Age of Disruption : Still not convinced that there's much "new" about the new economy? Then spend some time with Harvard's Juan Enriquez. In his new book, and in an interview, he explains how business and economics are changing -- and what it means for you. (Alan M. Webber, August 2001, Fast Company)
-ESSAY : Healing from the Inside : Scientists forecast a revolution in medical care as surgery gives way to manipulating DNA and restoring damaged cells (Laurie Garrett, Newsday)
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