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As the Future Catches You…beware of technological determinism September 24, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in As The Future Catches You.
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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.

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