InReview – Issue 25

Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution by Francis Fukuyama; New York, Farar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002; 272 pp.

Francis Fukuyama, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and professor at the School of International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is a distinguished political and economic philosopher. The thesis of his most recent book is packaged in its title. That is, recent advances in biotechnology create profound moral challenges that threaten the very essence of our humanness.

Fukuyama’s argument has three legs. First, he provides an overview of the nature of these moral challenges. What are the cultural and economic implications of a society in which some choose (or can afford) to routinely live past 100? What about the ability of an already elite class to enhance their offspring’s intelligence, resulting in a super-elite class? Second, he defines that essence of our human nature that is morally jolted by biotechnology. Humanness (“Factor X”) is the sum of our sociability, language, sentience, emotions, consciousness and moral agency. Finally, he sketches reasonable approaches to control potential abuses of biotechnology without stifling the long-range economic benefits associated with such technologies. An example of unfettered science is typified in a quote from Geoffrey Bourne, former director of Emory University’s primate center, “It would be very important scientifically to try to produce an ape-human cross”. What would this ape-human be, and what rights would we ascribe to him, her or it?

Fukuyama persuasively builds his argument from a purely secular perspective to ensure it stands in our pluralistic society. Yet he also provides a thoughtful understanding the religious perspective on tinkering with our humanness: since to be human is to be made in God’s image, manipulating our humanness is in essence playing God.

This is an excellent book by a visionary thinker, not an attack on biotechnology. He acknowledges the economic and social implications of biotech to improve the human condition, while calling us to soberly recognize that to be truly human, we must remain lords over the technologies that we create, rather than become the inebriated slaves foreshadowed in Huxley’s Brave New World.

Reviewed by Gerard Beenan

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What Just Happened: A Chronicle from the Information Frontier
by James Gleick; New York, Pantheon Books, 2002; ix, 301 pp.

James Gleick worked for ten years as writer and editor at the New York Times, founded an Internet company, and is the author of three other books including Chaos. What Just Happenedis a collection of essays written by the author between August 1992 and April 2001. The common theme is the role of telecommunications and various IT tools in the transformation of work and life. The author makes a brief effort to tie these together with an eleven-page introduction. Here he reflects on what he got right and what he missed in his comments on technology and the changes it would and could bring over the years.

The essays themselves are well written, with wit and insight. It is interesting to gain this historical perspective as we see very early comments through a period of tremendous change. The essays chronicle the introduction of the popular Internet, early concerns about Y2K, predictions about digital cash, and a bit of Microsoft bashing among other topics.

The problem with the book is it could have been so much better. Each essay begs for a comment on what has happened since, why the author was right or wrong, and what this might mean for the future. The brief introduction is totally inadequate for the task.

In his essay “The End of Cash” written in 1996, he argues why cash is obsolete and makes the case for digital money. Yet the book is published six years later with little progress. It would have taken a bit of research to argue why he thinks this is, and when the changes might happen, but no more work is done and he remains silent in the introduction. This is but one example.

The introduction does cover some areas he acknowledges getting wrong (predicting little impact of sex on the Internet, for example). “It’s a relief looking over these words two or three or ten years after they were written to see that some things are still true,” he also comments. Then he cites his essays on Y2K and Microsoft, giving his early comments more credit than they deserve, I believe.

The book that could have been written from this material would be a good one. This one is not.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Les dangers du marche planetaire by Serge Latouche; Paris, Presses de sciences po, 1998; 132 pp.

Serge Latouche is Professor of Economics at the University of Paris and a specialist in the study of the relationship of culture, technology, and development. This little volume was written not for experts, but for thoughtful people of all types in the francophone world. The Dangers of the Global Market has not been translated into English (as far as I know) but it is worth reviewing here in Ethix as one sample of non-American, non-anglophone thought about global business.

Among Latouche’s concerns are the following:

(1) the growing dominance of one, virtually unquestioned way of thinking about globalization, the Chicago-school version of free market capitalism; (2) the “economicization” of the globe. “All aspects of life are transformed into matters of economics.” Everything is viewed as “merchandise”: goods, services, blood, sperm, rental of the womb, etc. (3) the detachment of business and economics from communities and places and so that it is accountable only to impersonal financial market forces; (4) the fact that meaningful citizenship and political life are jeopardized, on the one hand, by removing fundamental economic choices from individuals and local communities and, on the other, by the growing specter of isolated individuals sitting before standardized media presentations; (5) the threat of a globalized, standardized culture to the particular cultural values and traditions of nations; (6) the serious threats to the environment and the lack of any agency capable of arresting damaging environmental practices of the big transnational corporations; the “invisible hand” of the free market doesn’t work here.

Latouche paints a harsh picture, much like Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld. He urges us to question and resist the “tyranny of the financial markets,” restore an appropriate degree of national sovereignty over economic activity, resist the “economicization” of all aspects of life, insist that multinationals obey codes of good conduct, pay special attention to helping the poor and excluded of the world, and protect the environment. He calls for a radical rebuilding of our ethics — which have been hijacked by consumption, economic growth, and technological power. We must wake up, reclaim, and reassert the sort of moral values that alone will guide us to a more humane, livable future.

Globalization is not a pretty sight to Latouche and his discussions will not please its staunch supporters. The topics he addresses remain, however, serious matters for discussion. If business leaders treat them as unimportant and dismiss out of hand such critical voices, there will be consequences down the road. Better to be proactive now and find win-win solutions, then to delay until the wheels of the globalization train are coming off.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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How Companies Lie: Why Enron is Just the Tip of the Iceberg by A. Larry Elliott and Richard J. Schroth; New York, Crown, 2002; 192 pp.

Larry Elliott is president of EDA, Inc., and former senior partner at executive search firm Heidrick and Struggles. Richard Schroth is a consultant on emerging technology and business strategy. How Companies Lie probes beneath the surface (the iceberg metaphor in the subtitle seems apt) to sound warnings about systems and practices that threaten today’s business climate. What is behind the daily stories of corporate misconduct and the resulting loss of investor confidence? What must be done to turn the situation around?

The fundamental problem is the lack of adequate, accurate information about company finances. Creative/deceptive accounting schemes, labyrinthine organizational complexity, misleading corporate communication, irresponsible corporate board governance, conflicts of interest which compromise auditor and stock analyst independence, and poorly designed, underfunded regulatory oversight, all combine with competitive pressures and personal greed to create the Enron experience (and its multi-chaptered aftermath). Investors will not put up with this and continue to throw away their money, hence the market recession.

Elliott and Schroth provide a passionate but, nonetheless, careful review of the situation, and some good ideas for reforms. They do not argue for a knee-jerk regulatory reaction but for a thoughtful set of measures to be undertaken by corporations, auditors, the SEC, and investors. It all has to do with honesty, clarity, accountability, transparency, and timeliness of information. While information technology has enabled much of the negative side of the story, it also offers important means to resolve the challenge. In the end this is a hopeful book.

Reviewed by David W. Gill