April 21, 2016
(++++) DOSES OF REALITY
Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections. By Jeff Fleischer. Zest Books. $13.99.
Future Smart: Managing the Game-Changing Trends That Will Transform Your World. By James Canton. Da Capo. $17.50.
Timely it certainly is, but Jeff Fleischer’s Votes of Confidence is more than that: it is a first-rate introduction to American elections in the hyper-communicative digital age, designed for readers young enough to remember only one or two presidential election cycles but – for that very reason – extremely useful as well for their parents and for other “old hands” at elections who are trying to figure out what all of today’s currents and countercurrents mean. For the most part refreshingly nonpartisan, Fleischer’s book manages to communicate the basics of the American political system while keeping the civics lessons interesting through abundant use of anecdotes and examples. A discussion of the pluses and minuses of the electoral college, for example, comes with a box highlighting some of the obscurities of the system: Maine and Nebraska divide their electoral votes proportionally; the District of Columbia gets three electoral votes, but other non-state territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam do not get any; and it is possible to win in the electoral college by succeeding in only 12 states – provided that seven of them are California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and an eighth is either New Jersey of Michigan. This sort of information really highlights the strangeness of the U.S. political process – but Fleischer chooses to be explanatory about such oddities, rather than either approving or condemnatory. Some of the history here is interesting on its own, such as a list of presidents from five (no, not two) political parties: Republican, Democratic, Democratic Republican, Whig and Federalist (plus the party-less George Washington). What is even more interesting is Fleischer’s observation on the history: “Political parties tend to take turns holding federal power for long stretches, and that includes the presidency. Some of that is a natural ebb and flow between two parties, some is because the parties’ positions evolve, and some has to do with changing voter demographics.” Comments like this are thoughtful; others are thought-provoking, such as the discussion of the bizarre things some people believe (4% in one poll said that “shape-shifting lizard people have a hand in running the government”).
A section called “Where to Get Your Information” is a helpful guide to technology use and misuse in the political arena, and includes an explanation of the value that newspaper reporting continues to offer even though newspapers themselves are a fading medium. A section called “Getting Past Fake News” is a guide to the use of PolitiFact.com, FactCheck.org, Snopes.com and OpenSecrets.org, explaining what sort of perspective on politics (and in some cases on other things) each site offers. There is a section on “push polls” and the falsehoods they create or perpetuate – sometimes with considerable success – and one on meaningless news stories, such as “ones about who’s winning in the national polls before primaries even start.” These sidelights to the main narrative about how government is organized at local, state and federal levels appear so often that they take over much of the narrative of Votes of Confidence and, in truth, make the political process seem more interesting – and even messier – than it tends to be on a day-to-day basis. Fleischer also tells young readers (and any others) various ways to get involved in politics beyond just voting, including volunteering during a campaign, becoming an activist outside the campaign structure, even running for office oneself. Whether office-seeking will be appealing to readers who absorb all the intricacies, misuse of power and occasional outright malfeasance discussed in Votes of Confidence is by no means certain. But at least they will know that they have the option to get deeply involved in a deeply flawed system that, despite everything, occasionally produces some engaging leaders and even some competent ones.
The extent to which political leaders – or, for that matter, business leaders or other leaders – can affect people’s everyday lives tends to be vastly overestimated, including by the leaders themselves. The same may be said of so-called “thought leaders,” such as James Canton, who heads a “think tank” that advises political and business leaders on things that are likely to happen in the future and that will affect them and their constituents. There is an inherent flaw in this model, shown by the usual description of what think tanks like Canton’s do: they provide advice on “future trends.” But a trend is an extension of something already in existence, and it is a safe bet that many of the most significant developments affecting everyday life in the future will come from people and events that break with trends rather than extending them. There is an excellent example in science fiction of the 1950s, which correctly predicted vast increases in computer power and the increasing use of computers in everyday work and home life – but which did so on the basis of computers getting bigger and bigger so they could handle more and more of the tasks that they would surely be called upon to do. It was all so right, and so wrong. Today’s predictions for the future are likely to be no better. But it is nevertheless interesting to have some, and to think through the implications if they do come to pass – or, for that matter, if they do not come to pass, but some contrary approach takes hold. And that is why Future Smart is a compelling read: the chances are that a lot of what it contains will never happen, but some of what it contains probably will, even if not exactly as Canton predicts. Thinking of the book as a series of “what ifs,” and trying to follow the implications of its notions, is a fascinating intellectual exercise, although any corporate or government leader who uses Future Smart as a procedural manual has clearly been promoted above his or her level of competence. This is a book that is dense, difficult and debatable, and its subtitle (“…that will transform your world,” emphasis added) is vastly overconfident. But it offers intriguing ideas about subjects with which readers will already be acquainted: globalization, work and jobs, education, climate and more. In discussing robots, for example, Canton writes that “cybernetic enhancement with robotic components will be the norm by 2025,” which seems like a startling statement until you think about exactly what a “robotic component” might be. How about prosthetic limbs? Implanted defibrillators? Replacements for arthritic knees? Where you think we go depends in part on where you think we already are. Canton reasonably anticipates some of the difficulties that will emerge: “We will encounter serious ethical, security, and social issues due to our robotic creations,” he writes. But he is also confident that “we will be working hard to make robots, androids, and virtual bots more like us or the ideal versions of humans.” Well, perhaps – but there is a psychological factor that Canton ignores or is unaware of, in which humans tend to find humanlike creations frightening or just plain creepy to the extent that they approximate human appearance. An almost-human robot would, for most people, be more frightening than one that could genuinely be mistaken for a human being – but how to get to the genuine-seeming one without first developing the approximation?
These are the sorts of questions that Future Smart raises constantly but never tries to answer. That makes sense: this is a very broad-brush view of where things may be going if current trends in a variety of fields continue without major, unpredicted “black swan” changes disrupting existing patterns. Regarding medicine, for example, Canton foresees a move from reactive medicine (used after a problem develops) to predictive medicine that employs “the tools to predict and prevent disease” using “the new forces of medicine such as stem cell therapy, bio-printing, and genomics.” To show where he believes medicine is heading, Canton helpfully provides a 10-item chart of its “game-changing future,” much of it (like much of what Canton presents elsewhere) involving technology: 3D bio-printing, robotic surgeons, “the coevolution of humans and technology,” “Big Data science,” “digital health,” and so on. Some of these items will likely come to pass, although likely in ways other than the mostly straight-line predictions of Future Smart. But other, even-more-likely developments in medicine are not on Canton’s radar. For example, he states that “access to personal genomic data will forever change society, security, work, crime, education, and health care,” but so grandiose a pronouncement is scarcely necessary when it comes to everyday medicine. The fact is that doctors already know, and have known for many years, that identical medicines in identical doses affect different people differently – and not just because of age-related changes in the way the body processes them. People’s differing genetic predispositions can show, and likely will show in the reasonably near future, just which medicines in just what doses will be most effective for each individual who comes down with a particular disease. This is not as dramatic a development as predictive medicine, to be sure, but anyone desperately trying to decide whether to take acetaminophen or an NSAID for pain will benefit from it. The point is that Canton thinks big and presents ideas entertainingly, notably in “headlines from the future: 2025” throughout the book. One of those says, “Google Predictive-Life Knows Who You Want to Be.” Another says, “Studies Show Consumers Prefer Virtual Doctors.” A projected price list from 2030 lists “Kidney: Free with insurance; Heart: $1,500,” and so on. An imagined 2030 headline about climate says, “Atmospheric Scrubbers Reduce Emissions by 70 Percent.” And so on. A great deal of what Canton says is intriguing, and he predicts so many things that some of them will very likely happen, if not necessarily in the way he expects (remember those presumably increasingly gigantic computers for handling what we now call Big Data). There is no question, however, that much of what Canton writes about will not occur, and that other, unwritten-about things will. That is the nature of the future: unpredictability, no matter how hard we try to predict it and how much think tanks are paid to make reasonable-seeming projections. Future Smart is an overwrought but undeniably intriguing vision of a world that will definitely not come to pass – including some elements that will. When read with that understanding, it is an intellectually exhilarating experience.