03 April 2007

Heaven, Hell, or somewhere in between?

Months, if not years ago, Chip Hauss sent along a review he did for another publication. I doubt that there's much overlap between the readership of Reading and that of Highlands Review, so here's an intriguing book to think about. I am likely to look for it.

Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies-and What It Means To Be Human by Joel Garreau

Garreau is a staff writer for the Washington Post and the author of two earlier books. The Nine Nations of North America convincingly made the case that the real lives most people lived in the United States, Canada, and Mexico should be divided into nine regions which cut across state and national boundaries. Edge City explored the way American social and commercial life was changing in the late 1980s away from the center cities to housing, shopping, and business complexes in the distant suburbs. For those who know the Northern Virginia region, the inside cover of the hardback had a photo of Tyson's Corner in 1988 with all its gleaming office buildings and malls (but not its traffic). The back inside cover has a picture of Tyson's Corner in 1948. Two dirt roads and a gas station. 'Nuff said.

Radical Evolution is an even more profound book. It starts with a New Yorker cartoon with a nebbishy man on what looks like the fifth step of a very long staircase with four apish creatures below him. The most advanced ape says, “I was wondering when you would notice that there are a lot more steps.”

The overarching argument of the book is that the future of our species and our civilization (maybe the other way around) depends on how we handle the next stage of our evolution. As Tom Lehrer argued on disk 40 years ago, that is not about how we grow a sixth finger (he tells us Millard Fillmore had one) but how we grow our minds.

The book begins with a chapter on DARPA and thinkers who eddy around its work on new technologies and national security: public intellectuals like Frank Fukuyama; and first responders like Dr. Dave Warner and Dr. Commander Eric Rasmussen who have been harnessing technology to help civilians and the military cope with complex emergencies, whether caused by nature or humans.

But the real value of the book lies from p. 45 onward where Garreau examines the broader implications of the DARPA-driven trends for our society as a whole. Put simply, he claims that change -- and thus human evolution -- is occurring asymptotically at an ever-accelerating rate.

That argument, itself, is not a new one. It goes back at least to the work of Alvin Toffler, which he repeated many times since he first published Future Shock in 1970.

What sets Garreau apart is that he interviews technologists like Ray Kurzweil (heaven) who think we are heading into an era of tremendous progress and Bill Joy (hell) who thinks we are literally heading there in a handbasket. He outlines two other scenarios. The most plausible one is that we will muddle through (prevail) which he builds through the work of Jaron Lanier and others. But, he also holds out the possibility that we will make a quantum leap as a species and civilization and use our brains and technologies to “transcend” our current predicaments.

Since I found each of the four visions convincing, I decided the best way to review the book… was to interview Joel Garreau at one of his (and my) favorite haunts, the Tabard Inn on the edge of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. It was an odd place to have this conversation, since the Tabard Inn is a throwback technologically. The rooms, for example, do not have either telephones or televisions, and the dining room has the kind of funky elegance one finds in the best British bed and breakfasts.

I got more than I bargained for. Garreau is wonderful to work with for two reasons. First, he is one of those unusual journalists who make complicated issues come to life because he is very good at letting people tell their stories. Second, he has one of the most wide-ranging and fruitful minds I've ever encountered.

During the course of two hours (he and my wife had Tabard's wonderful crab cakes; I had fish and chips), the conversation ranged from our similar childhoods in small town New England, our experience as conscientious objectors in the late 1960s, our common interest in technological change and how it impacts conflict and management within all organizations, and, of course, the implications of all this for national security writ large.

On one level, after the chapter on DARPA, security issues recede from an explicit part of the core discussion. However, they lurk just below the surface in each of his four scenarios. In fact, I found the DARPA projects (including one man who describes himself as a combat zoologist) less convincing. They are technologically neat, but like many DARPA projects, many never end up with any practical use. Indeed, it is hard to see how even successful versions of the robotics or most of what he covers in that chapter would help troops cope with the kinds of insurgencies we face in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it is just as clear that whichever of the scenarios-or some variant of them-pans out, our security environment will change. The kinds of accelerating change Garreau discusses dwarf those covered in conventional books on globalization, for instance in the three recent books by Tom Friedman, the well respected but columnist at the New York Times.. The security risks would be most obvious in his “hell” scenario. However, how we deal with what Friedman calls a “flat world” in which the political “distance” between any two countries is sharply reduced will be an issue in any event. How will we govern ourselves if we simply get by, let alone meet his transcending goals? How will we deal with threats from people who don't share those goals, especially those who will be the losers in what will be global processes of change?

Garreau doesn't answer these questions. As a journalist, that's not his job.

But it is a book that we should all read since it forces us to ask some of the deepest questions about who we are as a species and how we relate to each other.

Put simply, every spring, I teach a political science seminar in which I have to assign both a novel and something on science. I focus on cooperation and confrontation in political life. Finding a novel is no problem; choosing among many great ones is a problem. Over the last three years I've used three different books by scientists, which my science phobic students despised.

I've found my book.

No comments: