My three-year old son has watched Old Yeller hundreds of times and thinks he’s Travis (“Tavis,” he says), a wild west boy who knows how to track hogs and says “Get ‘im boy,” to his dog. (Our puppy, Bee, is enthusiastic but doesn’t have the instinct to run a fox to ground.)
As part of Will River’s developmental acquisition of language, in addition to the frontierisms, he has somehow picked up a useful if inappropriate expletive, “Oh, sh*t!” I’m chagrined that he uses it, but at least he does so at the right times, like when he drops a cup of juice all over the floor.
I felt like Will when I read Juan Enriquez’s As the Future Catches You, the school-wide book assigned over the summer at our science and tech high school. A dyed in the wool humanities guy like me feels like he’s in the wrong era and has just splattered Cran-Tangerine all over the hardwood when it finally hits him that most of what he knows a lot about is insignificant or obsolete.
The image on the cover is an almost burnt match. Just the tip glows orange. The subtext seems to be that the future has already flared brightly and burnt your finger tips. Something else one notices right away is that the book isn’t written in prose, per se. Each page is a series of linked ideas in different fonts with occasional graphics and charts. In other words, it’s written in powerpoint.
Disconcerting, but one finds it’s very easy to pick up and put down at odd moments. I read a few chapters while loading stuff on to blackboard, for example, when the server was a little slow. I don’t damn the book as reductive. It’s actually economical. One doesn’t have to follow a thread too long to be get that burnt fingertip feeling.
The main idea is that the recent near-complete mapping of the human genome is a historic turning point in society, and the world will never be the same again. Technology, geopolitics, and culture are all being driven by this breakthrough, according to Enriquez, creating an ever more rapidly expanding schism between techno haves and have-nots. Woe to the salt of the earth in this kinetic knowledge-driven global economy.
In addition to lionizing modern pioneers like Craig Venter, the biologist and business mogul who accelerated gene-mapping by trying to turn a profit on it with his own private company, Enriquez casually blows your mind with factoids from fields you didn’t quite know existed. Biocomputing, for example, harnesses massive computer power to map genes. Celera, Venter’s company, had the biggest computer in the world working around the clock crunching 1’s and 0’s, amassing “teraflops” of data (which are apparently less than petabytes, exabytes, and zettabytes.) “According to a U.C. Berkeley study,” writes Enriquez in fairly fine print, “… all words spoken by all human beings throughout history could be stored with around 5 exabytes.” Though I wonder if he accounted for my wife’s phone calls with her mother and sisters, this is still the sort of stat that makes a guy who teaches old books for a living feel small.
Without getting wishy washy about all the billions of people on the wrong end of it, Enriquez gushes over the idea that mind workers in modern countries today produce 427 times more (what?) than poor people in developing nations. He makes the same case with another counting bean, the number of citizens of a country it takes to produce a patent: in 2003 there were 3,308 U.S. citizens per patent but over 23 million Indonesians per patent. To be honest, I wanted to start taking notes at this point on companies to invest in, although the author later points out that change is so rapid that these same wildly innovative companies could go bust tomorrow as they get gobbled up by even more aggressive, cutting-edge corporations. (Stuck again: an English teacher who not only doesn’t understand what they’re doing but can’t ride the bubble with my mutual fund.)
It’s not just companies that are cannibalizing one another. Enriquez makes a convincing case along the way that geopolitical lines are being erased as if the map were drawn on sand before a rising tide. He borrows Churchill’s phrase, “empires of the mind,” to describe what countries need to build if they want to succeed, creating havens for mind workers rather than exploiting limited natural resources or cruder forms of human capital (unskilled labor). Another eyebrow-arching stat: three quarters of the members in the U.N. today did not exist 50 years ago.
By the end, Enriquez gets into some far out but just around the bend stuff, like the idea that soon we’ll be able to clone our kids or, even sooner, have individualized medical treatment based on our personal genetic code. Ethical dilemmas we can’t yet imagine will arise, making my current concerns (will Will get kicked out of preschool for cursing?) inconsequential. Come to think of it, maybe all of this technological transformation will allow us to travel back in time to the frontier days so Will really can hang out with Travis. Or maybe I can escape my 86’d job by growing old time cowboys in Petri dishes from microscopic bits of dandruff trapped in their hats. The possibilities in this new economy are endless--Oh sh*t, kids are coming back from lunch. Time to train the next generation of genomists how to read and write, skills which might still come in handy for at least a few more years.