Most helpful critical review
50 of 55 people found the following review helpful
Important and comprehensive book
on July 6, 2005
Garreau takes a scenario planner's view of what he considers some inevitable advancements in the GRIN technologies (genetics, robotics, information technology, and nanotechnology), which will enable humans to exert radical and powerful upon themselves, each other, and the environment. These four technologies are interacting synergistically, therefore multiplying the power and impact of each. But even more importantly, according to Garreau, the pace of change itself is accelerating faster than a lot of people realize.
For Garreau, the result is that there will shortly (within 30 years) arrive a massive tide of change that will sweep a substantial portion of humanity up, and leave others behind. Garreau wonders if the different portions of humanity will even recognize each other as human. Should we call it the geek's version of the fundamentalist Christian idea of The Rapture?
This coming tide is called by some the Singularity, and by others the Spike (think of the graph that slopes gradually and then curves up to the top right at the end). Garreau tries to be present both sides of the debate about whether this can and should happen, but he's unsuccessful.
For instance, there is some contrary evidence to the accelerating returns argument. Yes, computing hardware follows Moore's law, and so do several other technologies. But do those lead to radical social upheavals? If things are really accelerating, they should. Look at the changes introduced between 1900-1950 (roughly): the combustion engine, the automobile, the airplane, the jet engine, the rocket, the telephone, the radio, the television, nuclear power & weapons, and the computer. Each of them had a massive impact.
If we're really experiencing radical evolution, the subsequent 50 years should have been even more radical. Yes, we have the personal computer, the Internet/web/email, but those are each more than 30 years old. The human genome project is a magnificent achievement, and though the cost of sequencing a base pair has followed the similar price/performance curve of the computer processors, it hasn't spawned any radical changes yet. The CD has now been around longer than the 8 track (good thing too). And we're still travelling via car and plane with combustion engines, and we aren't doing much with our rockets.
I think it's possible we're in a curve, but I'm not convinced. I think Garreau could have grappled with the contrary evidence a little better.
He does give a fair amount of attention to the respectable naysayers like Bill Joy and Francis Fukayama who think we should voluntarily or legislatively forswear certain lines of research and the use of certain technologies. He gives less attention (and I think it's a mistake) to the darker currents to the luddite movement, like Islamic and other forms of violent religious fundamentalism, or the violent environmentalists like some members of PETA, ELF, and Earth First. He mentions Ted Kazynsky (the Unabomber) in passing, but doesn't really connect his sentiments to the radical violence it spawned, and could spawn again.
I loved reading about Jaron Lanier (who is basically the hero of the book), and also the personality profiles of Bill Joy and the wizards at DARPA. But he leaves a large part of the community out. I don't think he gives enough attention to religious thinkers and ethicists (he briefly talks about Leon Kass and Michael Sandel, both on the President's Bioethics committee); he complains that traditional religions don't have anything to contribute to the coming Singularity. That's probably true, so perhaps this omission is more due to the fact that most religious leaders' haven't really grappled with the implications of the Curve, but I don't get the sense Garreau really tried. Just one example that occurred to me when reading the book was the Heaven Scenario bears a marked resemblance to the Christian notion of the Millenium, where the lamb lays down with the lion, men live to the age of a tree, and everyone dwells in peace, prosperity, and freedom. (See the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, for instance.)
So while this book is a much broader tour de force than the more geeky focus of Kurweil's or Gilder's books (which I enjoy), it still ends up being a conversation between geeks--Kurzweil on one side, Joy on the other, and Lanier in the middle.
Most of my points here are quibbles. It's a very insightful book, one that I highly recommend, no matter where you land on the can/can't;should/shouldn't quadrant.
Sometimes you'll hear people say that science and technology have outrun morality and ethics. Not true. The futures outlined in Garreau's book have all been anticipated by decades of science fiction and elsewhere. Technology has only outrun our morality because we've surrendered it to the cult of the new. We have outsourced our ethics to professionals and those with vested interests. We have abdicated our right to moral judgement as humans, preferring to be entertained and served by our tools, without really thinking carefully about what they will make us.
We can influence events. Yes, there are powerful forces that can influence the direction of events, but I truly believe the future doesn't just happen passively and inevitably, like the course of some river. The future is CREATED, it is imagined and realized by visionaries who work and sacrifice for it. We need to stand up for timeless human values like love, honesty, loyalty, respect for life, and caring for the weak and disadvantaged. And if we believe in those things, then we must also oppose those who argue that these values are obsolete, meaningless, or a hindrance to progress. We have a chance to create a future we want to live in. But only if we pay attention.