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.
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.”
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.’ ”
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.
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…