Sunday, June 10, 2007

Book Review: Radical Evolution

Heaven, Hell, Prevail & Transcend. These are the four scenarios discussed within Joel Garreau’s “Radical Evolution”. The scenarios are possibilities for our future based on the promise & peril of the emerging GRIN technologies: Genetic engineering, Robotics, Information and Nanotechnology. The author presented each scenario with very even-hand and was especially balanced in comparing both the different scenarios & the personalities advocating each. He also managed a truly rare feat, to make his opinions clear without hijacking the argument to advocate his take on the whole thing. At each of the chapter breaks there was a short synopsis, including some broad guidelines for determining which scenario is beginning to appear.

Overall, this book is exactly the kind of thoughtful and balanced review of technological change that I’d been hoping for when I bought it. You come away with a desire to learn more and a heightened awareness of technology in your own life. The author makes excellent use of both academic citations, widely-published references, statistics and anecdotal evidence. In one of the most telling signs of my enjoyment, I read the notes & suggested reading sections. Indeed my “To-Read” list has several new entries today. This is one of those bibliographies that you keep score on: Books I already own or have read = 4, Books on my To-Read List Already = 10.

What made the book so enjoyable for me, was my own reaction to it. This reaction was not surprising, given my personal & political beliefs. Neither Heaven nor Hell appealed. I was equally disturbed reading both sections. The “Heaven” scenario struck me as bland and uninspiring, almost horrifying in its reductionism. The Hell scenario, while all-too-plausible, renders humanity into a mob to be controlled, dictated to and ultimately, robbed of possible enlightenment in the name of precaution. Both mind-sets express a similar arrogance, that individuated humanity can be reduced to extreme futures of uniform salvation or damnation.

But, such extreme prophesizing reminds me of an old quote (which I believe is originally Greek), “Nothing in Excess”. In the balance between optimism & pessimism, Prevail & Transcend options are so more intuitively-reasonable to me. Both readily acknowledge the complex individuality of volitional human nature. These scenarios and their followers demonstrate a greater comfort with that which they cannot control, know or predict. And, especially appealing to me, both tie moral development to humanity’s future. In creating this future, we will be morally and ethically challenged to be better, not “just” making ourselves smarter, faster or healthier.

Both the Heaven & Hell scenarios, as presented in the book, ignore this aspect of the problem. The Heaven scenario acts as if as we become more machine such questions will cease to apply. The Hell scenario assumes humanity must be bound, restricted and held down for our own good because the consequences of bad moral judgment are too high to bear.

Needless to say, this book made me think while also being hugely entertaining. I will definitely be turning the ideas presented over in my head for some time to come.

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