InReview – Issue 37

Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age by Bill McKibben; New York, Times Books, 2003; xiii, 272 pp.

Bill McKibben writes regularly for the New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and many other publications. Among his previous books are The End of Nature and The Age of Missing Information.

McKibben’s Enough is an impassioned call for debate on whether we should set limits on developments in human genetic engineering and advanced forms of robotics and nanotechnology. His belief is that these technologies “may alter our relationship not just with the rest of nature but with ourselves” and “call into question, often quite explicitly, our understanding of what it means to be a human being” (xii).

McKibben fends off the possible charge of impeding progress and playing the Luddite by saying such charges are “as silly as accusing someone of being a prohibitionist because he’d rather leave a barroom with a warm glow than a spinning head” (xii). Is it possible that our technological reach is now far enough? Can we limit ourselves? Should we do so?

Echoing Bill Joy’s famous article, McKibben argues that nanotechnology, miniaturization, self-replicating assemblers, and robotics are to inanimate matter what biotechnology is to animate matter. The two realms are threatening and converging.

McKibben’s answer is that we say “enough” and pronounce the world we live in “good.” He quotes technophile futurist Lee Silver as saying we are on a “journey into a rapidly evolving future that no man, or woman, could stop” (p. 163). It is this arrogance and assumption of inevitability that McKibben challenges. McKibben gives examples of how various societies and groups have said “no” at various points.

The scientists and their business investors are unlikely to be willing to stop on their own; a broader social debate is necessary. The answer is most certainly not to stop all scientific and technological advance; rather, it is to set some boundaries at critical points where our humanity is clearly at stake. Agree with him or not, McKibben’s argument is well-written, provocative, and deserving of careful consideration.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage by Nicholas G. Carr; Boston, Harvard Business School Publishing, 2004; xvii, 193 pp.

Nicolas Carr is a former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review.

This book represents an elaboration of the controversial 2003 Harvard Business Review paper he wrote. His thesis is rather simple. IT is mature and has become a commodity. There is no opportunity to gain a strategic advantage from IT, so wise companies will spend less, follow others more, and use IT to compete but not to find advantage. He looks at numerous case studies to support his thesis.

The problem with this book is that Carr is like a hammer, and every piece of data looks like a nail in support of his thesis. He never bothers to look at the nuances of the subject, but rather focuses only on the aspect of a case that might seem to support his point. Here are two illustrations.

Can a company create sustainable advantage from IT, or is it the great leveler allowing trailing companies to catch up rapidly? To sell the latter point, Carr uses a company that had operations in three parts of the world with widely differing lead times for orders. After installing an ERP system, the three groups had comparable order lead times, and the previous advantage for the European group “had been obliterated, apparently forever” (pp. 89-90). I would view this as a significant accomplishment for a company in establishing best practices across its divisions, not a competition or a proof of Carr’s point.

He quotes the Standish report (pp. 110-111) on the failure of a significant percentage of IT projects. His conclusion: such projects are likely to fail so take a more conservative approach and don’t try to be innovative. He gives no thought to the other side of this data: what went wrong with the failures, why did some companies succeed, how can we learn from the success factors?

Carr plays on the worst fears of executives, offering them simplistic answers to tough questions. I would only recommend this book to those who believe their own management may fall victim to this one-dimensional analysis.

One last complaint. In tabloid style, HBS offers headlines on the back of the book from reactions to his article: “Dangerously wrong,” “Hogwash!” and “Dead wrong.” I suppose this is to stir interest in the book, but it is not in keeping with what I would expect from HBS.

Reviewed by Al Erisman