A version of this article appears in the BSA‘s “People and Science” magazine
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard senior scientists lament the lack of appreciation for science in the general populace. “If only people valued science we wouldn’t have all these problems with…” and here you can fill any number of our current scientific Bête noirs – climate change scepticism, the belief that homeopathy is any better than placebo, vaccine denial etc.
I sympathise with this point of view, which is why it makes my blood boil that some of those same senior scientists treat science communication either in the way Lindsay Lohan treats the highway code (as a rather troublesome bore) or pay it lip service, thinking the odd public lecture to the already interested somehow gets them off the hook.
It still amazes me that Carl Sagan was ridiculed by many of his peers who regarded his work in public engagement as something that devalued him – when the exact opposite was, of course, true. Richard Feynman suffered similarly from short-sighted colleagues – although, to be fair, he was also shagging some of their wives, so this may have had an impact. But I’ve had this conversation with brilliant scientists and communicators like David Eagleman and Robin Lovell-Badge who tell me they often suffer the same disdain from many of their peers if they engage in communicating with the public.
Things have improved, though not enough. If I had a pound for every time in the last year I’ve heard Professor Brian Cox being lightly dusted down (out of his earshot) for “not really being a proper scientist” I could probably buy him quite a nice dinner. (Obviously I wouldn’t tell him how I funded it). The people who so readily attack Cox don’t realise he isn’t making programmes for them. He’s making pop videos about physics – and thank God. We could do with a few more pop videos about physics frankly. I do a lot of work with schools and I can tell you that Brian does more to inspire teenagers about science than our current education system (more on our how our schools stifle creativity to follow).
Part of the problem is, I suspect, a widely held belief that you can only really appreciate, value (and therefore truly champion) science if you’ve put in some serious hours actually doing it or, at the very least, reading a lot about it – so the answer to getting the public on science’s side is to have more of us take scientific subjects at school, and reading the weighty tomes of Roger Penrose and the like.
Really? Well I’m not gay, but I believe discrimination based on sexuality is abhorrent. My bookshelf has no volumes by Armistead Maupin, my DVD collection none of the films of Derek Jarman. I hate musical theatre. I once considered seeing Judas Priest in concert, but didn’t go. You don’t have to be gay to care that society enshrines equal rights regardless of sexuality, and you don’t have to do science to be concerned that our society is evidence based.
So, perhaps we should ask ourselves: how did the gay community manage to get most people to care about something that, statistically, they have no personal investment in, while science is still battling to be valued by so many?
I’ll tell you why. Because the gay community went out fighting, and science needs to do the same. Oscar Wilde once said “As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular”. Lazy pessimism and lazy thinking are vulgar and it’s about time all of us stood up and said so.
Which is why, finally, it’s so nice to hear the likes of Government Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington saying, “We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality… We are not—and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this—grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method.” I’m heartened by the popularity of Ben Goldacre. I applaud Simon Singh’s recent libel battle. I look forward to Mark Henderson’s Geek Manifesto. Things are getting better, but it’s taken far too long – and there’s still a long way to go. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Max Plank famously said “Science advances one funeral at a time.” Let’s make sure science communication doesn’t carry on advancing at a similar pace. Particularly when we have a planet to save.
It changed the way we organised society, it changed the way we educated ourselves, it changed the idea of work, and it changed the way we did business. We built infrastructure the like of which had never been seen before. Railways, roads, sewers, waterways, ports. These were new technologies. Today we don’t think of the road as a technology, or a sewer. But they are. As Google’s ‘Internet Evangelist’ Vint Cerf says, “If you grow up with a technology, it’s not technology. It’s just there.”
In 2009, John Seely Brown ex-Chief Scientist of the Xerox Corporation told a crowd of Silicon Valley business leaders how deep the industrial revolution was embedded in their high-tech business structures. “The structure and architecture of the firm reflects the structure and architecture of the infrastructure on which the firms are built,” he said. “Organisational infrastructure leverages the properties of infrastructural architectures.” Now, as a couplet this may fail to grab you as much as “You killed my father!” / “No Luke, I am your father!” did me when I was six, but Brown (paraphrasing the work of Harvard’s Alfred Chandler) is saying something profound.
Society is built on top of those roads, railways and schools, rather than those things being created underneath us as a means of support. Seely is saying that roads and schools shape us far more than we shape our roads and schools.
Educationalist Sir Ken Robinson points out that, “there were no systems of public education around the world before the nineteenth century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism”. We built our school systems on top of the industrial revolution. We didn’t build the industrial revolution because of the collective effort of a pre-existing state-wide school system. (If you haven’t seen Ken’s TED talk, I recommend it. Not only is it a revelation, he’s also very funny).
We develop new technologies, that became infrastructure that shape society – and the infrastructure of the industrial revolution is still with us. That infrastructure grew rapidly and then reached a plateau. Cars are not radically different, nor are trains or indeed aircraft from their counterparts a generation ago. Neither are roads, railway tracks, airports, the judiciary, the school system or our systems of government. “Our infrastructure has been stabilised for a shockingly long period of time,” says Brown, “and we have now built institutions on top of that that expect that kind of stability.”
Our institutions are also still promoting a educational mindset that is born of the industrial age too. Ken Robinson says:
Every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. Every one, doesn’t matter where you go, you’d think it would be otherwise but it isn’t. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. Everywhere on earth.
Skills that will get you a job in an industrial society are valued the highest. The problem with this is that we’re moving from the industrial age to the information one and our institutions and education needs to shift. This isn’t to say that mathematics and languages aren’t valuable, but that those qualities that come from studying the humanities (understanding social systems for instance) or the ability of the arts to promote creativity and curiosity will become more so.
“We have a brand new type of infrastructure,” says Brown – and that infrastructure is the internet technologies that allow us to tease out and manipulate the world of data in a way never before possible. This new infrastructure will shape us just as profoundly as our industrial infrastructure did.
A man walks into a shop and picks up a packet of kitchen roll. As he does so an image appears on the packet telling him how much bleach was used in its manufacture. He picks up another and compares. The second gets a ‘green light’ that appears as ghostly image on back of the packet, signifying eco-friendliness. He chooses the latter as his purchase. Now he makes a phonecall, holding out his hand where the numbered buttons of a keypad appear sketched in light on his palm. He dials the number by tapping his own skin. Later, on the way to the airport, he pulls out his boarding pass and across the top some text appears telling him his flight is twenty minutes delayed.
This sounds like a scene from an (admittedly quite dull) science fiction movie, but it is not. These are scenes from a demonstration of a new device developed at MIT’s Fluid Interfaces Group – a combination of mobile phone, wearable camera and tiny projector that the lab’s director, Pattie Maes, calls ‘Sixth Sense’ – a technology designed to provide seamless and easy access to “information that may exist somewhere that may be relevant, to help us make the right decision about whatever it is we’re coming across,” to help us “make optimal decisions about what to do next and what actions to take.” (Click on the video below to see ‘Sixth Sense’ in action).
Everything is surrounded by a cloud of data you can’t see. A piece of clothing isn’t just the physical garment. In the shadow-world of data it is also how much it costs, whether it was manufactured ethically, the instructions for how best to wash it and so on. Crucially, your behaviour towards it may alter with access to any one of these pieces of data. Imagine walking into a trainer shop and being able to instantly see, by looking at a product’s bar code, whether it was made in a sweatshop or not, or if the shop around the corner had the same shoes on sale.
We are already beginning to layer this world of data on top of our day-to-day experiences. Download the ‘Better World Shopper’ App onto your iPhone for instance and it will give you an instant rating of a manufacturer’s record in regard to human rights, environmental policy, animal rights, social justice and community involvement. Google Goggles makes use of your mobile phone’s camera to recognize landmarks, book covers, even wine labels and return internet searches that relate to what you’re pointing it at. This is data layered over reality, or (depending how you look at it), reality revealed by data.
At a rapid pace we are becoming used to the idea that data should be accessible wherever we are, and on whatever subject we demand it, yet at the same time it’s hard to comprehend that the Internet is younger than I am, and the World Wide Web younger than my eldest niece. The ability of Internet services like the web and e-mail to connect both humans and machines has already had implications for society that we’re only just beginning to wake up to, implications as profound as those of the Industrial Revolution. We are now in a relationship with Internet-based technologies that we can’t get out of. Physicist and computer scientist W. Daniel Hillis has written:
We have linked our destinies, not only among ourselves across the globe, but with our technology. If the theme of the Enlightenment was independence, our own theme is interdependence. We are now all connected, humans and machines. Welcome to the dawn of the Entanglement.
As Vint Cerf said to me recently, “This is not new. We have always been entangled with our technology, we’ve always been entangled with knowledge. It may be more obvious now, because of the way it manifests. But if you were a cave man you might have become quite dependent on tools that you built, because without them you might be able to feed yourself, so you needed the knowledge to make those, or you needed the knowledge to find somebody who could make them. And then you also had to know that that thing over there was a sabre tooth tiger and it was a really good idea to get away from it, because the people who didn’t understand that didn’t survive to put their genes into the gene pool.” In short, entanglement with knowledge and technology keeps you alive.
Technology’s story is our story. Knowing how to turn Entanglement into Symbiosis and how the new infrastructure of data and networks can shape us, will determine who wins and who loses as we continue our shift from the Industrial to Information age. Countries that do not grasp the shift, especially in the way they educate their citizens will suffer. “We need to rethink a whole set of institutional architectures,” says Brown, to enable us to build organisations that focus on what he calls “scalable peer-based learning”, and what you and I would call ‘staying smart enough to keep up.’ Last year in Boston I met Juan Enriquez, author of As the Future Catches Youand a seminal speaker on how technology and knowledge are transforming us.
“I worry that if you’re not educated in this stuff, you’re toast,” he said. He’s very clear that new technologies quickly change the fate of nations, especially as knowledge becomes ever more accessible. “You don’t have to own a large piece of land or a lot of resources to get rich very quickly, but you do need to go to school. That didn’t use to be true. It used to be that it didn’t matter how smart you were, if you weren’t the king or part of the noble classes you were toast. Now you can get wealthy, and you can do it very quickly, but you have to do it through education. You see, the consequences of not being educated today are far different from what they were. You know, in the 1950s you had a high school diploma, you went to Detroit you did fine. That’s not true anymore.”
As Ken Robinson remarked to his audience at TED. “You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don’t do music, you are not going to be a musician. Don’t do art, because you won’t be an artist. Benign advice. Now profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution.” He continues,
Our education system has mined our minds in the way we strip mine the earth for a particular commodity and for the future it won’t suffice. We have to rethink the fundamental principals on which we are educating our children. What TED celebrates is the gift of the human imagination. We have to be careful now that we use this gift wisely … and the only way we’ll do it is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are and seeing our children for the hope that they are. And our task is to educate their whole being so that they can face this future.
In short, critical thought, creativity, curiosity are the skills that need to get up the educational hierarchy as society shifts to a fluid infrastructure built on data and the links between it. Where we were taught to be arithmeticians now we must become mathematicians. Where we were taught vocabulary now we must learn semiotics. Where we taught to accept the industrial infrastructure as a fixed edifice we must now learn that the information infrastructure is a fluid tool to be pulled and shaped. Where we worked in silos, now we must learn to harness the crowd, to play our part in manipulating our collective creativity to solve the world’s problems and embrace its opportunities. Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There is no such thing as society.” She was entirely and completely wrong.
Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems by thinking at the same level we were at when we created them” and by the same token we cannot solve our problems by leveraging the same infrastructure we used in creating them either. Politics, education and the press must, and will, out of necessity, change. Already we are seeing this shift, as the press wonder how to survive spreading a meme of division and conflict in a world that is increasingly collaborative. We are turning away from our newspapers and turning to each other. MIT is placing its courses online for free. TED is putting the world’s greatest speakers at our fingertips. Politics is the luddite. It’s not just industrial, it’s pre-industrial. It’ll change the last and it’ll hurt the hardest. Those nations who fail to understand this, that fail to change their institutions and equip their populaces by shifting to an educational paradigm born out of the coming information age instead of one made of the old industrial one, face a bleak future. Some nations will leapfrog ahead, offering a unprecedented opportunity for the developing world, perhaps taking something of story of the 60s most notable failed state (Singapore, now a knowledge powerhouse) to heart.
I call it the ‘Knowledge Combustion Engine’ and you are the fuel in the tank.
I’ve spent the last year being assailed by new ideas and ways of seeing the world at an unprecedented (for me) rate. The coming revolution in personal genomics, the project to create artificial life, the Transhumanists’ journey to ‘transcend our biology’, robots that get mood swings, machines that demonstrate curiosity, a post-scarcity world promised by atomically precise manufacture, holidays in space and our continued entanglement with the world’s biggest machine (the Internet). All of these are to one degree and another coming down the line, as long as the Maldives (and the rest of us) can stay above water, using our technologies and ingenuity to remove carbon-dioxide from our atmosphere (while simultaneously ushering in an energy revolution). I’ve met scientists, philosophers, gone diving with a president and invented a cocktail on the way. Now as I approach the end of my journey I’m looking for people who can help me make sense of it, to somehow pull all these strands together into a coherent view.
In his book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology Eric Drexler approaches the future by asking three questions – what is possible? what is achievable? and what is desirable? The question of what is possible seems easy to answer. As we learn to control the very atoms of matter, the mechanisms of biology and the power of computation there is, in fact, very little that we can’t do, in a physical (and indeed virtual sense). Solutions to climate change? Already developed. An end to the energy crisis? No sweat, sign on the line. Holiday in space? Why not, join our frequent flyer progamme. World peace even? Seems only reasonable.
But when we ask what is achievable, well that’s a different story. Because what we achieve will largely be determined by what we collectively decide is desirable. As George Church told me all those months ago at Harvard Medical School as we discussed personal genomics, “The only thing that puts this kind of medicine far away is really will, right? The question is, how motivated are we?” Do we, as a planet, have the will to take the bounty on offer while mitigating the risks? To get the medicine but not the weapons? To enjoy abundant clean energy while dealing with climate change? To use our technologies to bring us closer together, rather than isolate us?
It’s to ponder questions like these that I’ve come to meet Chris Anderson, the CEO of the TED Talks, the pre-eminent meeting of, as Chris puts it, “people who can offer a lens through which to see the world in a different way.” Every year Chris and his team gather together the world’s leading thinkers from every discipline and give them 18 minutes to tell the rest of the world how they see things. The results can be found on TED.com. Here you can see Ray Kurzweil summarise his law of accelerating returns, or Kevin Kelly talk about his idea of ‘The One Machine’ that the internet will become, or Hod Lipson demonstrate his robots (along with a host of other mind-shifting presentations that make you see things from a different angle). TED tells a different story of our world than the one we’re used to seeing, and it’s the same story I’ve seen on my travels. There is no shortage of fresh ways to see our future. It turns out we’re not necessarily looking at a damage limitation exercise, but a possible renaissance. But first we have to see it. Only then can we have to make it happen.
Seeing it is a revelation. We’re so used to being told that everything is getting worse, that the planet is doomed or that the next pandemic to finish you off is just around the corner, or that technology will subjugate us. It’s a world where a book called Is it me or is everything a bit shit? becomes a best seller. And it’s not true. Or at least it doesn’t have to be. Klaus Lackner has a machine, that works now, that takes CO2 out the air. George Church has co-developed a process that can take that CO2, mix is with sunlightfor pity’s sake! and create gasoline. Thin film solar technologies will soon take power to where there is no grid, while at the same time mobile devices will continue to take the world’s knowledge (accessed on billions of mobile devices) to every corner of the globe. Solar power continues to show exponential rises in efficiency while nanotechnology is already changing the face of manufacturing and will continue to do so. Medicine may soon see an end to a host of the things that kill us. This story is not being told, which is perhaps the biggest threat to our future. Not that it couldn’t be better, but that because we can’t see it, we don’t know it’s an option.
“The history of ideas is a really thrilling history,” says Chris, “and ultimately that is what will drive all of our futures. There’s a very boring view of the world which is that ‘things happen’ and you can’t really do much about it.” It’s something he’s experienced himself. “After I left university I became a journalist, then I started a company… and then fifteen years were taken over by all the stress of working. I didn’t have much spare time to think. When the whole ‘dot com’ bust happened the huge gift I got was discovering, holy crap, there’s so much amazing new thinking out there.” I know what he means. Before I decided I actually wanted to answer the question “what next?” I was on the same treadmill, too busy to look up to realise that the story we’re told wasn’t necessarily the only game in town. This book didn’t start off with the word ‘Optimist’ in the title. It was my agent Charlie, who when I told him the sort of thing I was finding out, remarked on how uplifting some of it was and suggested the change.
We communicate through stories. It is stories that grab us the most and it stories we identify with. Hollywood knows this, political spin doctors know this, newspaper editors know this. “What the story?!” ask editors pointedly when young journalists bring well written pieces that lack a narrative. My own editors were keen to make sure this book had a personal story, and encouraged me to make sure it wasn’t lost in the rush of facts. Chris is very interested in stories, and how the Internet, as it continues its prodigious growth across the globe, can help us, for the first time, tell a story that includes everyone.
The most memorable thing for Chris about the 2009 TED conference was a dance troupe called The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers. “This troop could not have existed ten years ago. They exist because kids who used to just dance down on the street corner started filming themselves, putting it up on YouTube and suddenly the community that they’re comparing themselves to is a global community. This kid in Tokyo sees a move from Detroit and innovates within hours, puts it online and so on, so the pace of innovation is dramatically increased.” John Chu, who created the troupe from finding the most popular of those YouTube clips says, “Dance has never had a better friend than technology. Online videos and social networking have created a whole global laboratory online for dance.” It’s not just in dance. “This is happening in hundreds of areas of human endeavour,” says Chris. “I’ve started to call it ‘crowd accelerated innovation’ and I find it incredibly exciting.”
Chris thinks rather than letting go of our humanity, we are re-discovering it. What could be more human than the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers? Kids from diverse backgrounds from across the world, innovating and collaborating to bring a new dimension to an art form as old as society, using technology to help them express themselves and innovate physically with their bodies, to meet, to collaborate, to just dance – and then show the world. Look what we did. Here is something of the exponential growth in wisdom, community, understanding I was looking for to go with Ray Kurzweil’s accelerating technologies.
“The acceleration of knowledge and ideas made possible by the fact that humanity is connected for the first time is vast,” says Chris. “The re-discovery of the spoken word as a tool for communicating is a big deal. If you think about it we evolved as human-to-human communicators. It was the village camp fire, the elder standing there with his painted face on a starry night, fire crackling, drums beating and telling a story and every eye locked on his and all those mirror-neurons in all those brains syncing up with what he was saying. By the end of this story his whole village would go to war against another village or make peace.”
“So TED is one of the new storytellers?” I ask
“It’s one of them. That mode of communication kind of got lost in the print age because it didn’t scale, it was a village-sized technology at best. To me it’s thrilling that it now scales and so one great teacher can inspire many people. One of the things that we see as our role is to try and help nurture that process of re-discovering how to do that, because I think we got to a place where lessons became a person in suit mumbling behind a lectern reading their notes for an hour while a class of people snoozed.” Suddenly, horrifying images of my ‘O’ level economics class come pouring into my brain. I shudder. “It shouldn’t be like that,” says Chris. “So, one of things we see, and this was a big kick for me, is TED speakers competing. An unexpected consequence of putting this stuff online is speakers are looking at what other speakers are doing and are putting in far more preparation time than they ever used to.”
Just as YouTube became a laboratory for dance, TED is becoming a laboratory for the art of oration. Here you will see a statistician blow your mind and end his talk with some sword swallowing. Here you will find Steven Pinker explain that the world is getting safer, and Robert Wright mix philosophy, sociology and stand-up comedy to give one explanation as to why – a theory he calls ‘the non-zero sum game’. I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of lesson I can get on board with.
“We’ve actually got to bring back real creativity and find a way of nurturing that in the education process,” says Chris. “In the age of Google the notion of having to cram all these little brains with facts is bonkers. What’s needed is to build skills like how do you stimulate people to ask the right questions? how do you stimulate people to have a meaningful conversation? to think critically? What are lenses you give people to think about the world? I mean, if I’d have been taught Robert Wright’s non-zero view of history that would have had tremendously more value to me than endless facts about French kings.” It seems that the two things Artificial Intelligence needs the most if it’s ever to stop playing chess and start playing Madlibs, are the two things we need the most too: curiosity and creativity.
What is our collective story today and who tells it? The storytellers of our day-to-day lives used to be the press and our politicians. Like all good storytellers they used emotion to hook us into one of two, on the face of it, very uninspiring, dull stories. Story one: life happens to you, the future is not going to be very good (especially if you vote for that guy), it was better in the old days, you’ve got to look after yourself, the world is violent and unsafe, your job is at risk, the generation below you are feral and dangerous, things are changing too fast and you can’t trust those immigrants/ scientists/ left-wingers/ right-wingers/ nerds/ geeks/ religious people/ atheists/ football fans/ the rich/ the poor/ what you eat/ your neighbour. You are alone. Make the best of it. Vote for me. Buy my paper. I understand. (Story two is, in summary: ‘Shock! People have sex.’)
It’s hardly inspiring is it?
But the story is beginning to be told by other people now, by the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, by speakers at TED talks, by Mohamed Nasheed who battled dictatorship to the brink of his own death and then got on with battling climate change, by Cynthia Breazeal who wants to build robots that help children learn, by Vicki Buck who quit government to create jobs to take on global warming, by George Church who wants you to stay healthy longer, by Eric Drexler who wants to usher in a post-scarcity world using technology on the nanoscale, by the good people at Konarka who take electricity out the sky and give to the developing world. A story being told by the curious and the smart, that inspires the curious and the smart in all of us, by people who wonder and ask the kind of questions that haven’t been asked before. Crucially, none of them wait for permission to ask those questions, or then to find the answers. It is being told through writers who find themselves traveling across America and readers of blogs who might say in the pub, “did you know the technology exists to make petrol out of the air?” It is being told by the cult of the possible, who seek to achieve, to bring us what we desire. Peace. Understanding. Space to love each other. People who encourage us to evolve.
Eric Drexler has written, “As the Web becomes more comprehensive and searchable, it helps us see what’s missing in the world. The emergence of more effective ways to detect the absence of a piece of knowledge is a subtle and slowly emerging contribution of the Web, yet important to the growth of human knowledge.”
I think we’re beginning to see, collectively, what’s missing, and crucially we’re now able to do something about it. Technology doesn’t give you permission like your teachers did. It gives you agency – to ask, to learn, to connect, to do. It says, “go on then, show me what you’ve got”.
“I don’t know that the future’s going to be better,” says Chris. “But I think there’s a very good chance that it will be and I think that’s something that everyone can do to further increase that chance. There are several quite profound and inspiring ways of thinking about the world that suggest there are these trends that have the potential to drive a better future and I think there is such a thing as moral progress, driven not by any difference in the DNA kids are born with, but just driven by what they see, and seeing more of humanity just naturally flicks on certain switches that make people more empathetic. Of course, the future might well be truly horrible. I think it’s all to play for and I think everyone of sound mind and conscience should be in the game, trying to shape it in the right way. It’s a very false and shallow view of history to say that it’s just one thing after another. Ultimately though our history is the history of ideas. It’s a really thrilling history and ultimately that is what will drive all of our futures.”
Ideas, creativity, curiosity – and dancing. Now there’s a mix.
More of my talk with Chris, will of course, make it into the book…
It’s a rollercoaster. Today I meet Juan Enriquez, described by himself as a ‘quasi-catholic in a Jesuit tradition’ and as a ‘renaissance futurist’ by his wife (whom I’m lucky enough to meet later). To be honest it’s hard to pigeon-hole Juan. His CV includes ‘peace negotiator’, ‘Harvard professor’, ‘urban development Tsar’ and ‘biotech investor’. During our conversation he says, “there’s only two things that matter: Nike and Nissan”. This strikes me as rather a trivial observation for one of America’s leading thinkers. He explains: ‘Just Do It and Enjoy the Ride’.
He’s a surprisingly reserved and gentle man in person, for someone who says quite remarkable and often strikingly important things. Voted best teacher at Harvard he’s regularly called upon to speak on how the future might pan out. This year he opened the mighty TED talks. His address was typically powerful, thought-provoking and very funny. He has an ability to synthesise and distil difficult and interweaved concepts into something you can get hold of. His book As the Future Catches You is one of the best attempts to make sense of how biology and silicon are combining in extraordinary ways and is an essential read (I think that’s the first book I’ve ever said that about). It’ll take you two hours. “It started off as 3,000 pages and took me six years to condense,” he tells me, reminding me of one of my favourite quotes, from George Bernard Shaw, who once wrote to a friend, “Sorry I wrote a long letter, I did not have time to write a short one”. You can see some of the themes in it discussed in this TED talk:
Juan describes his life as “a series of strange accidents”. ‘Strange accidents’ is rather a self-effacing way of describing an impressively eclectic powerhouse of a CV. Those “accidents” arguably started rolling off the conveyor belt when as a young man living in Mexico Juan walked into his parent’s room and said, ‘I’m not learning enough here, so I’m going to go to school in the US’. “I applied late, I had no idea it was hard to get into these places and even though I spoke English (my mother’s American) I’d never studied and written in English. I have no idea why I was admitted. I mean during the admission exam I was asked to write a paragraph and I asked ‘what’s a paragraph?’. I had no idea.”
He describes feeling “utterly stupid” for his first semester but obviously caught up fast and maintained that accelerated intellectual velocity, being admitted to Harvard to study Government and Economics, after which he returned home to ‘change Mexico’ – a childhood ambition borne out a belief that his home nation too readily disadvantaged those not in the ruling class. “I always thought I would work in and change Mexico. I was bothered by the poverty I saw there.” He became the youngest Budget Director ever (in the Ministry of Planning and Budget), then returned to Harvard before being offered “a dream job” back in Mexico as head of the Urban development Corporation. So far, so impressive (especially when you consider that during his time in Mexico Juan was also part of the team that negotiated peace with the Chiapas Indians). And then Juan discovered something more important. A revolution that would not only affect Mexico but the entire world. And all because of some lonely looking geeky guy at a New Year’s Eve party.
“I’m at a New Years party and there’s this guy is sitting over on a corner table by himself and I think ‘poor bastard, it’s New Years’ and I walk over and sit down and talk to him for the rest of the night. By the end of the evening we decided to sail across the Atlantic together in 2 weeks. By the end of that trip I had decided that I was going to change my entire career and learn biology.”
The guy in question was a young Craig Venter, who went from being an obscure scientist to sequencing the first human genome. Juan recalls, “That conversation was so interesting, all of a sudden I thought ‘I want to leant about this.’ I wondered, who gets affected by this stuff? What does it do? What does it matter?” In fact, Juan was so interested in these questions, he set up the Life Sciences Project at Harvard Business School.
"Poor bastard" - Juan Enriquez
In As the Future Catches You Juan writes:
“Your future, that of your children, and that of your country depend on understanding a global economy driven by technology. Understanding code, particularly genetic code, is today’s most powerful technology”.
We talk about this in the context of a society that actually doesn’t seem to be engaging with the implications of the genomics revolution (as I wasn’t before researching my own book). Juan says, “I worry that if you’re not educated in this stuff, you’re toast.” He’s very clear that new technologies quickly change the fate of nations, especially as knowledge becomes ever more accessible.
“You don’t have to own a large piece of land or a lot of resources to get rich very quickly, but you do need to go to school. That didn’t use to be true. It used to be that it didn’t matter how smart you were, if you weren’t the king or part of the noble classes you were toast” (Juan likes the word ‘toast’).
“Now you can get wealthy, and you can do it very quickly, but you have to do it through education. You see, the consequences of not being educated today are far different from what they were. You know, in the 1950s you had a high school diploma, you went to Detroit you did fine. That’s not true anymore.” So, it’s no pleasure for Juan to recount a meeting he attended along with the governor of Michigan three years ago with GM workers, where “60% didn’t consider it necessary for their kids to go to college. There are consequences of that decision.”
Don't become this - go to school
This is one example of what Juan calls an ‘anti-intellectual backlash’. I wonder, given that today more and more people have access to knowledge, why he perceives a rejection of engaging with it, applying it, or understanding it in some quarters? It’s something Mark Bedau talked about when I was in Denmark and it’s something I see too. I call it ‘aspirations to mediocrity’ and it worries me, because if you’re not informed you’re out of the loop, and you can get left behind. And people who get left behind tend to get angry at some point.
Juan argues that to succeed as a nation, a corporation, an individual you have to be agile, to adapt. “It took me a damn long time to figure out. It’s Darwin. It’s the ability to adapt and adopt. It’s not the most powerful who survive, it those who best adapt to change.”
“In the US there’s powerful anti-intellectual tradition that battles against the aspirations of the founding fathers. One of the most important things that people keep forgetting about America and the reason why I think America became truly a world power is because so many of the founders were adamant about education and science. Just look at Franklin, or Jefferson and you’ll see people deeply committed to critical thinking and education. There was a huge tradition of science and technology education, freedom of inquiry and that’s powered this country in an extraordinary way. But there’s a backlash to that.”
Juan believes the backlash is born of (reasonable) fear. “If you look at and a lot of the things that we’re building, they’re scary as hell to some people. You talk about programming cells or sentient robots or evolution of the species using technology – that is profoundly disturbing to some people because this stuff is very powerful. It upends industries, it changes how long we live, it changes what our kids may look like. I look at that stuff and say, ‘OK, it allows people who couldn’t have children to have children. We’re going to do away with some of the diseases, and so on’. Other people look at that in absolute horror. They say, ‘Stop the world. This isn’t natural. This isn’t what God ordered. I want to get off.’ They’re looking for an element of stability and certainty. This desire tends to manifest most during the periods of fastest change, like now. You want something to hold on to. And if you’re not part of that ride, if you don’t think you can play in that game then you get this anti-intellectual counterpoint.”
It strikes me that maybe one of the implicit drivers behind the creationism renaissance is so profound a fear of the possibility of us deliberately evolving into something else (Juan dubs this next technology-enhanced hominid homo evolutis) that one line of defence is to deny evolution’s central role in the world. In the Edge Foundation’s lovely book What are you optimistic about? Juan wrote an essay in which he said that our change as a species “will involve an ever-faster accumulation of small, useful improvements that eventually turn homo sapiens into a new hominid. We will likely see glimpses of this long-lived, partly mechanical, partly regrown creature that continues to rapidly drive its own evolution. …many of our grandchildren will likely engineer themselves into what we would consider a new species, one with extraordinary capabilities”. Intelligent design indeed. If you’re religious (or even if you’re not) it’s no surprise that the ‘Man playing God’ argument is strongly attractive. It’s a worry for a lot of people, and, I’d say, not an unreasonable one.
Juan isn’t worried about our self-directed evolution. “The notion of evolving into something else is terrifying until you consider the question ‘Are Russ Limbaugh and Howard Stern the be all and end all of evolution?’ If that’s all she wrote, then I’m scared. I look at this stuff and say, ‘if my kids could live 200 years with a good quality of life, if they could see a lot further than I could, if the could re-grow their joints, if they can hear a lot better than I can, if they could have brains that were 50 times as powerful as mine? Good for them. Cool. I’d rather things carry on.’ ”
Evolutionary work-in-progress 1
Evolutionary work-in-progress 2
But can our moral frameworks keep up? (Einstein famously said “It has become appallingly obvious that out technology has exceeded our humanity”.) Juan has an interesting observation. “To me religion looks like an evolutionary tree. Every civilisation has to a greater or lesser extent some religious moral background. There has to be some evolutionary advantage to having that kind of moral backbone and that kind of belief system, and I think it’s because it traces how you move from a hunter-gatherer society, where everybody knows each other and watches each other all day, into a town, into a city, into an empire… And just like most animals almost every religion and God has gone extinct. The interesting question is which ones survive and how do they survive and how do those moral backbones evolve? And what does a moral ethical background look like, should you start to speciate, should you start to alter fundamental characteristics of what we consider human?”
One thing history has taught us is that knowledge advances no matter how hard you try to suppress it. As Septimus Hodge says in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia “You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?” You can stop knowledge’s advance in some places for a while if you’re brutally draconian or conservative but not for long – and the more technology allows autonomy of the individual (from wireless internet access to the world’s knowledge, to power independence through solar technology) the harder it becomes to suppress the spirit of enquiry that characterises enough of the human race to ensure that the growth of knowledge marches on. It’s harder to stop people discovering stuff when we aim to give a laptop to every child. “When you start putting every MIT course online, when kids start having access to TED talks…” Juan looks into space. “You know, knowledge is the great equaliser”. Knowledge is growing exponentially, and for those who want to engage, access to it is becoming easier.
I return to my current preoccupation – what moral frameworks are useful in this ever changing world? Well, if we take the evolutionary argument, it’s the ones that adapt and adopt. Those belief systems that are agile enough to keep us kind while embracing change are likely to prevail. If there is an evolutionary advantage to having a moral set of beliefs or a God that embodies them then you can’t keep your God static. Your God better evolve with you. This, I think, doesn’t mean watering down the essential need for compassion, it means helping us work out how to continually keep it central to what we do in a rapidly changing world. This is why Karen Armstrong’s ‘Charter for Compassion’ is so interesting.
The future won’t be a smooth ride. “Things evolve at different times at different paces, people make different choices and that’s one of the reason countries disappear so often. There really are consequences to your choices. If you choose to shut your doors and not follow technology you will vapourise your sovereignty. So, there are galactically stupid policies as far as individual countries are concerned. The future of the species worries me a lot less”
One thing Juan is worried about is what happens to those nations that don’t engage with the knowledge revolution. “There’s going to be a great deal more failed states. That’s bad. I mean there used to a restructuring mechanism for failed states – Genghis Khan would come by and install a government. Today, in a knowledge economy, why would you want to go and take over a failed state?”
I’d argue that a failed state represents an opportunity, an under-utilised platform of potential human innovation. After all, Singapore was a failed state 50 years ago, an example Juan uses regularly to demonstrate how nations can turn themselves around in short order if they invest in education and knowledge creation. Perhaps it won’t be Genghis Kahn coming by looking for natural resources, perhaps it’ll be Craig Venter or Google looking for untapped smarts. Let’s insist they bring Karen Armstrong with them.
I’ll leave the interview there – if I covered everything we spoke about I’d be writing the book. There’s a lot of ideas here I’m still not pulling together coherently, but it’s a start and I welcome comment.
By coincidence my interaction with Juan doesn’t end when I say goodbye to him at his office. I bump into him and his wife – a warm and sociable curator – at the airport, flying to New York to celebrate their anniversary. It’s a rare opportunity to discuss things ‘off topic’ and it’s nice to hear them talk warmly of their children and upcoming birthday celebrations. There’s something deeply comforting about hearing one of the most interesting thinkers on the planet discuss what flavour of birthday cake to get.
It's not just the future I think about...
I arrive in New York and make my way to Long Island City, where I’m staying with my friend Colin, a neuroscientist that I once shared a house with in London, and a man equally caressed by doubt and genius. He’s actually in San Diego tonight being courted by a biotech research laboratory so I have his place to myself. The apartment is full of papers with titles like: “Hippocampal CA3 output is crucial for ripple-associated reactivation and consolidation of memory”. What’s different about seeing this sort of thing today as compared to coming across similarly titled documents during the time we lived together is that now I want to pick these things up and understand them. Not tonight though, my mind is full of everything I’ve learned in Boston – I feel like a glass of wine.
Round the corner from Colin’s I find a great little wine bar called Domaine where I fall into a long conversation with Johanna, a friend of the owners and a fashion designer originally from Peurto Rico. In the end we talk for about 5 hours, drinking fine wine provided by the establishment and cover every subject from religion to politics to art to relationships. It’s just what I need and a perfect New York kind of evening, the city where you can meet just about anyone if you’re willing to start a conversation…