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As the Future Catches You September 17, 2009

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What stood out for you in reading As the Future Catches You: How Genomics and Other Forces Are Changing Your Life, Work, Health and Wealth by Juan Enriquez?

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1. cindy333 - September 19, 2009

In As the Future Catches You, Juan Enriquez highlights the major disruptive trends of the last century, from the rise of the knowledge economy to genetic coding to the industrial revolution. While the book covered many topics, I was left unsatisfied by the shallowness of Enriquez’s writing and the overall “sound bite” feel. Perhaps it was due to the typography and layout, but I felt like Enriquez was often “shouting” (shouting = large typeface) and the real examples and content were relegated at the bottom of the page, in tiny typeface, in parantheses. At times, I also felt like Enriquez went overboard with playing around with the text at the detriment to the content; I was distracted by the text waterfalls and brackets, parantheses, italicization, etc. While graphic layouts can be powerful in communicating key messages, As the Future Catches You was not a book that effectively used the space and text well, or in moderation.

Ignoring the aesthetics of the book, I felt that Enriquez had some powerful examples that emphasized his key thesis. Ones that stood out in particular were the mosquito & vaccine needle and the orange & floppy disc. By picking individual items that were seemly disparate and then creating a compelling argument for why they were similar, I was really struck by how DNA/genetics (A,T,C,G) and computer coding (1,0) were nature- and human-created tools that could re-shape every living thing in our world.

2. Katie Swinerton - September 19, 2009

Reading Juan Enriquez’s book As the Future Catches You I found myself, more than once, raising my eyebrows and shaking my head, thinking, “is this guy for real?” For instance – “If you can grow computers organically, it will be much easier for them to fix themselves” or “Gene chips will lead to personalized medicine…You will be able to test whether one medicine or another works better for you…Before you take it.”

And then I started to realize, that this shuddering reaction is sort of his point. I believe Enriquez wants us to confront our fear of change and of the acceleration of technology so that, instead of being blindsided, we can adapt appropriately to what will surely be a changed world (within our lifetimes). In recent conversations with friends of my generation, I’ve been surprised by a strong attitude of wanting to protect the status quo – they do not like the idea of Google’s store of personal data or the concept of electronic medical records. As a Haas student, I am one of the lucky few who is receiving an education about the forefront of the knowledge economy. I think the knowledge that we are receiving endows us with a responsibility to be stewards of the system wide changes that are, as Enriquez points out, all but inevitable.

Another thing that struck me is that, as Haas students, we have the relatively unique opportunity to explore and experiment with the convergence and integration of different disciplines. We have 240 individual backgrounds in our class and are surrounded by a campus full of leading edge research institutions. Enriquez sees a clear convergence between computer code and genomics, two disciplines that developed completely independently but actually have much in common. I wonder what breakthroughs members of our class could come up with if we thought through the merging of other fields.
While I am not sure that I agree that the future success of economies will revolve solely around “digital-genomics”, I think Enriquez is right in that those individuals and societies that will succeed most are those that understand and can harness system wide change instead of ignoring and denying it.

3. Mili Mittal - September 20, 2009

The idea that wealth is increasingly created by one person (or a small group of people/empire) that are selling ideas rather than exploiting natural resources really strikes me (read: bothers me). It is inspiring in a way, as I try to start my own business, but also defeating in that its natural conclusion is that humans are less and less dependent on one another for success. As technology advances and we map genomes, we watch ourselves shrink further and further from human interdependence.

I struggle with the implications of technology on our interconnectedness: on one hand it brings us closer (in a minute I can pull-up a live on-screen video chat with dear friends in Columbia, Japan, Scotland), and on the other it distances us (I ride the BART with an ipod plugged into my ears, completely numb to the people on my train). But to claim that those who create and legitimize this technology are those that create all the world’s wealth and knowledge is insulting and unfair to the majority of the people on the planet. There are armies of people (teachers, non-profit workers, farmers, merchants, laborers), who may not be on the cutting edge of technology but whom we are without a doubt dependent upon – even those clever and privileged few who keep pace with cutting edge science and technology.

What Enriquez fails to recognize are the cycles of history and human patterns: yes, the agricultural revolution brought tools to automate and scale farming, created wealth, and launched us into the modern age. Today, however, the most educated of our society are turning not to genetically modified tomatoes, but to the good old-fashioned tomatoes they are growing in their own backyards.

While Enriquez paints the picture that technological advancement is a series of events that build upon one another and continually move us forward, I would argue that it is in fact a series of actions and reactions, a pulse; and that we as humans cannot depend solely on the latest technological or scientific advancement for our success as a species. We must depend a little more on our own humanity – and I believe we will.

4. Sehoon - September 20, 2009

Overall, the book read like a threat rather than the communication of new knowledge or perspective. Therefore, I couldn’t help but being surprised to find out 41 readers did log on to Amazon.com to give book four stars in average.

It was interesting that we were asked to read this text primarily “online”. This declarative text with somewhat threatening tone actually seemed to have been written and edited with non-immersive reading habits, which is typical among readers familiar with PC-based reading, in mind. The declarative and threatening nature of the content was well matched with the format that conveys the content. I guess this integration of content and format of the book is what led many readers hail for this book.

Three interrelated ‘devices’ of the text caught my attention.

(1) It was not just the format of the text. The author intentionally chose story telling rather rigorous academic discourse as the major tone of the book. Logically read, the book seems be full of false causality or hasty conclusions. (For instance, I don’t think he is proving that countries’ development and underdevelopment can be all traced back to the emphasis on technological literacy of their people. The text is alleging but not proving properly that technological, especially genomic, literacy is the foremost thing to develop an underdeveloped country.)

Rather than resorting to logic, he chose to evoke fear or worries in readers. And he does so very persistently throughout the book. Talking about the hope that the technology can bring to mankind was not the author’s appetite. In most of the chapters, he makes certain countries or a person as a tragic protagonist who had to go through the downfall due, allegedly, to the lack of technological literacy. I felt I was helplessly enforced to identify myself with them. Simplification (i.e. “Technology is THE engine for growth”, “Genomics is THE technology”, etc), repetition and analogy were dominant way of fortifying the story.

To make this story even stronger, the author and the editors effectively utilized some formatting tools.

(2) Images and graphs were fun and striking to enhance the effectiveness of the argument. Quoting numbers exaggerates the righteousness of the story. There remains, however, much room for arguments about whether those data really support author’s argument.

(3) The variation in typography was effectively laid out throughout the book to make the text more daunting and catchy.

Despite all these efforts and those devices in the book, however, I don’t feel persuaded or moved by the book. Monolithic or reductionistic view of the world and life is not usually very persuasive. I feel unpleasant rather than inspired and invigorated to go out and grasp the horizon of new possibilities.

5. Sean Simplicio - September 20, 2009

I’m not sure it was Juan Enriquez’s intention for it to be so, but what stood out for me most about his book “As the Future Catches You” was its format—the way in which he highlighted certain words or paragraphs, minimized others, deliberately played with the positioning on the page. I’d expect (and appreciate) this in an e.e. cummings poem, but not in a scholarly work. Invoking Marshall McLuhan, in this case for me the “medium became the message.” I can’t imagine that’s what the author had in mind.

Enriquez’s use of ellipses (…), usually indicating an omission of text or a pause in its reading, were especially frustrating:

“If new companies…
And new economic sectors can appear…
In just a few years…
Entire economic sectors…
And dominant companies…
Can also disappear…
In a few years.

What would be wrong with: “If new companies and new economic sectors can appear in just a few years, entire economic sectors and dominant companies can also disappear in a few years.” The point is powerful enough on its own without the creative license.

But after setting the format of the book aside—a challenge in itself—its message is clear. Enriquez asserts that many countries are missing a key ingredient to progress: namely, the education of a technologically literate workforce who have the resources to experiment and develop their ideas at home. He uses his own passion—the field of genomics—as the background to elucidate this quandary.

I do disagree somewhat with Enriquez, who views this ingredient as THE determinant of national progress. The knowledge economy has changed our world, to be sure, but the knowledge economy alone cannot power our world. It helps us communicate with one another; it helps us design the structures and systems around us; it facilitates learning. But it does not build those structures, move us from place to place, grow our food, raise our children, or defend us from threats. It does assist us in those endeavors, to be sure (and the author makes a convincing case that those countries more steeped in the knowledge economy do these things better).

Enriquez essentially lays the blame for international poverty and conflict at the feet of those governments that have rejected the information economy. Is a technology-poor country by default an impoverished one? The buck does reign supreme, he asserts, and offers countless examples of western CEOs making exponentially more money than the lowly factory workers in foreign countries who assemble their products. We’re shown how patents for new technologies skew heavily to developed nations, and specific companies within them. We’re shown examples of IPOs for new technology products and service companies that make college kids billionaires overnight. This, we’re told, is progress. Get on board or drown.

With the benefit of some hindsight (the book was originally published in 2000), we can see that not all that glittered was gold. Technology alone can’t change the world; people must be responsible in their use of it, as well as in how they choose to finance their endeavors. Are fortunes built on ideas, or false promises or hopes alone, really fortunes? Is this something to which we should aspire?

To be fair, countries (and companies) need to invest in their people. Education is the silver bullet to improving one’s situation in the world. Enrique isn’t wrong here. But I believe there are other forces at work that are just as important: most notably, access to a healthy, safe environment. Is the abject poverty in Africa due to the fact that its people aren’t technologically skilled? Or is it due to selfish and myopic dictators and a history of colonization and pillaging that sucked the continent dry for 500 years? How can you “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” when you don’t have any boots?

I do agree with Enriquez on a fundamental point: the ease at which our societies can become interconnected is rapidly increasing due to our technological advancement. And, interestingly, his work in genomics, and the work of the individuals he profiles in his book, have made us realize just how much we are all interconnected—not just to each other, but to the myriad other species on this planet.

But we’ve always implicitly known this—it didn’t take the technological advancement of the past 25 years to tell us that we’re significantly interconnected. Look at the repercussions of some of our past actions: how the native populations of the New World were decimated after European arrival; the continuing impact of slavery on both Africa and the West; how we chose to rebuild Europe and Asia after the Second World War. My point here is that if, indeed, “the world is flat” according to Tom Friedman, then it’s been flat for a long time. The route to improving one’s own situation lies through the improvement of everyone’s. If the gap between the information “haves” and the “have nots” is as extreme as Enriquez describes (and, in my opinion, it is), then we cannot expect that each knowledge-impoverished country can improve on its own. Perhaps we need to look at the wealth that’s being created thanks to the information revolution and determine better ways to spend it.

6. Ornwassa Siamseranee - September 20, 2009

Knowledge-based Economy and My India Experience

I should have read “As the Future Catches You” by Juan Enriquez before summer of 2009.

Back in March, I received an offer to join Infosys Technologies Limited for my summer internship. Infosys is a great company – it is one of the biggest companies in India with over 100,000 employees, the first Indian company to be listed on NASDAQ, and the most admired Indian company for 10 consecutive years. With all these credentials, I should be all excited and happy, right? Well, not exactly.

I came to do my MBA in the US with an initial hope to get a job here, with better compensation and better reputation. For me, the US is really the center of the economy and full of opportunity. India is never on my radar. This made me hesitate and contemplate whether I should take the offer, and wonder what I would get out of this internship.

My India experience changed my perception, and this book confirmed it.

One of the central themes in this book is that we are now in the age where service becomes the dominant source of economic wealth and that most value created within the service economy is knowledge-based. This makes “Knowledge” the most valuable resource, especially knowledge in science and technology. India and Infosys exemplifies this notion. India is the hub of IT talent – each year over 400,000 Indian IT graduates enter the job market. IT accounts for over 40% of the country’s GDP and Indian government heavily promotes IT education. Infosys also recognizes the importance of IT and knowledge creation and retention. It has the largest education center producing engineering graduates with the equivalent of a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from an American university. It has a dedicated department called Education & Research focusing solely on generating new knowledge and practicing and promoting Knowledge Management within the company.

With the right focus on knowledge in IT, India and Infosys have been growing tremendously over the last 10 years. It is forecasted that from 2007 to 2020, India’s GDP per capita will quadruple, and that the Indian GDP will surpass that of the US before 2050. India and China are becoming the new center of the world economy.

Understanding this concept and experiencing India widen my education and career focus. I now choose to take courses that help build soft skills and allow me to learn more about service industries, and also expand my career focus accordingly.

I’m glad I decided to go to India.

7. Aaron Schwartz - September 20, 2009

I found myself frustrated with this book. Until the end, that is, when Enriquez notes: “I apologize for simplifying so many debates and concepts. My objective is not to teach you everything you need to know about technology but, rather, to start a debate.” This made the work come together for me.
The book is about change, and rapid change; this is encapsulated by the phrase, “Future catches up to the imagination too quickly”. First it was improved communication. Then the Internet. Then micro-knowledge (genes, nano, etc.). He’s not just pointing this out for us to digest, but almost as a warning. Those countries, people, companies, families, groups that do not value technology and that do not prepare themselves to understand the movements that are going on (let alone lead those changes) are shooting themselves in the foot. Some think you have to run to stay in place. Enriquez thinks you have to be on a rocket ship to stay in place, and figure out something faster to move ahead of others.
I was interested in his thought that national resources are actually a constraint, because resource-rich countries end up being intelligence-poor. Similarly, I’m encouraged by his take that, the more you learn how to learn, the better off you’ll be. As a liberal arts undergrad, that makes me happy . . .
He has one point that is probably true, but which I think he would approach differently if he were writing in 2009 in Berkeley. The top 20% of society that understands technology is getting richer, faster, than ever before. True! But what that 20% do is what matters in this situation, and if social entrepreneurship takes off, if “doing good by the world” wins out, then that acceleration may not necessarily be a doomsday scenario.

8. Hannah Davies - September 21, 2009

“What makes us special is not the number of genes…
Or the fact that we share many of these with worms, plants, bacteria.
What is particular to humans is the complexity with which we network…
Our biological selves.”

Wow. I don’t know whether to feel elated or depressed after reading this book. It is a great celebration of our uniqueness as individuals, our closeness to other animals through the whole circle of life, and the impressive capacity of the human mind to figure it all out.
But what a terrifying indictment of human nature, if such advancement in knowledge is for the exclusive gain of the ever-decreasing chosen few, at the greater expense of the many. Can it possibly be true that such enlightenment is leading us down the path to greater global injustice? And that such technological and scientific innovation is suppressing, rather than catalysing, social innovation and improved social structures? How eerily ‘Brave New World’.
What struck me most about this book though, was President Clinton’s quote:
“We are learning the language in which God created life… without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind.”
Above all, the book has left me feeling uncomfortable about the moral issues it raises. Are genomics a fulfilment of our creative potential as individuals, or a step too far in our desire to play God? Coming from the EU, where the debate surrounding genomics is particularly fierce – from our distaste of genetically modified food to a deep unease with ‘test-tube’ babies – I find myself troubled by our constant craving to control and manipulate the very essence of what we are. Especially if such ‘advancement’ is not for the greater good, but only the privileged few.
And yet, in the final call, I can’t help but admit that I’m one of those so-called golden billion, with much more to gain than to lose from genomic and technological advances. One of my best friends was diagnosed with a brain tumor eight years ago. Three operations and extensive radiotherapy later, the tumor is in temporary remission but the long-term prognosis is fragile. Morality and global injustice aside – if genomics holds the potential key to a permanent cure for my friend, do I want to be part of it? Yes, of course I do. For better or for worse, it seems the desire for survival is a more powerful element of human nature than any ethical considerations. I guess that’s written in our genes, too.

9. Tony Mignot - September 21, 2009

“The future is catching us”, is a very worthy piece of reading. Its author Juan Enriquez has done an amazing work gathering data that stretches across millennia and presenting it in a pleasant non intimidating manner, using creative fonts and layouts to educate the reader and support his view.

The world is changing tremendously, whether we like it or not. We now live in a knowledge-based world dominated by digital information and genomics. According to the author, if you don’t export knowledge, you don’t get rich. Therefore, the ability to innovate is the most valuable asset and education is the key to success.

J.Enriquez makes a good case convincing the reader that genomics is the way to go. Technically, manipulating genes is nothing more than decoding/encoding information. Millions of people are already doing this everyday when they send an email or download a file over the internet. We should all embrace genomics as the next “big thing”. It’s not a matter of whether it can be done, but how it can be done. Hence the need for more educated people.

The author envisions genetically modified food that will serve as drugs, or mosquitoes turned into flying needles that will inoculate people against diseases. He claims that doctors will as a consequence focus much more on prevention in the future, just like dentists do today.

For the faint hearted that is reluctant playing sorcerer’s apprentice, he argues that we’ve always been “domesticating” nature in a way or another – natural dogs are wolves after all.

But J.Enriquez also admits being concerned about the case of Europe where genetically modified organisms are prohibited. To him, Europeans are missing the obvious. They will eventually be forced to either close their borders and will end up being isolated from the rest of the world, or to change their point of view. According to his reasoning, more education should help Europeans toe the line.

But wait a minute. People are pretty well educated in Europe. J.Enriquez must be missing something…

I personally would argue that because they are educated, Europeans know enough to know that they don’t know enough about GMOs. It seems to me that what Enriquez is missing is the precautionary principle, that is a compulsory principle of law in Europe. Avoiding a problem is better than trying to fix it. Sounds familiar? Think about your dentist again.

Enriquez goes into details explaining that genomics can be done, how it can be done, and what it would enable. However, he never questions whether or not it should be done at all.

We may be facing one of the most dramatic revolutions in human history. It will be our responsibility and that of our children to shape the world we want to live in. While the book serves well as an introduction to the biotech industry, it shouldn’t be considered a panacea. More debate is needed to question the ethical issues related to genomics.


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