Reading LIst

#CitizensRead: “Gumption” and the Battle Cry of a Decent People

Doing her part to keep the flag off the ground during a 4th of July Parade (photo by Julie Raccuglia)

Doing her part to keep the flag off the ground during a 4th of July Parade (photo by Julie Raccuglia)

American founders worried about limiting our expectations if we only understood ourselves through lists. In the original case, the question revolved around the perils of listing fundamental rights. That list became our Bill of Rights, a document that many mistake for the sum total of their constitutional rights. That’s what Madison was afraid would happen.

More than two hundred and twenty-five years later, Nick Offerman has his own list for us and a powerful example of how to understand lists as a set of forward-looking propositions that require our participation.

In Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers, Offerman presents a list that includes four categories, twenty-one stories and not a single thing to be gained by memorizing any of the above. Introducing his work, he writes, “part of what defines gumption involves a willingness, even a hunger, for one’s mettle to be challenged.” The potential of Offerman’s project isn’t about knowing who is “in” and who is “out” but in understanding this “mettle-testing.”

Gumption first imagines someone has asked, “What makes America great?” A tired question that usually only gets taken seriously during candidate debates, Offerman transforms it into a springboard to muse casually about our past and think deeply about what we should understand about our shared history. He uses a yawn-worthy question to create a fresh opportunity to interrogate the ongoing experiment we call the United States of America.

Understanding Gumption

The list of the gutsiest amongst us doesn’t just look back to the past. There’s a present and future where it’s possible to improve on the previous model.

This writing will endeavor to examine some examples of the ways in which we as Americans have used the powers of freedom bestowed upon us to become more decent as a people, which I believe was loosely the idea when the whole shebang got started.

Offerman believes the American people were founded to be a more decent people than they were in 1787 and were thereby designed to pursue, with persistence, those ideas that will make us even more decent today. His understanding of the American people allows for their fallibility as much as it does their potential.

A protest sign for decency? (Sign and photo by Lily Rhoads)

A protest sign for decency? (Sign and photo by Lily Rhoads)

This struggle with our ailments recurs throughout Offerman’s work and often identifies the place in time where we prove our mettle.

The opening set list, the Freemasons, is easy to write off if you’re just skimming names on the Table of Contents. There’s little intrigue when one finds that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison made it onto another list of old white guys who made this country great. Offerman presents these guys as, “the magnificent sons of bitches who founded our United States” while brandishing, “a courage that is hard to fathom and a serving of foresight that very well beggars my modern imagination.” Offerman’s articulation of being beggared carves out a new space for understanding the American experience through the stories we all thought we knew.

Washington is understood through the fight for American independence alongside the American Enlightenment when “the self-evident truths of an individual’s right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’” required colonists to rise up against “the onerous hand of monarchist rule.” Offerman marks this moment in our history as one “when the corncrib of gumption was fully stocked” because these men “had the temerity to make this moral choice even when the life-threatening odds were stacked against them.” As though drawing the chalk outline around the tired and trivial ways we re-tell these familiar stories, Offerman reminds us that failure was not only possible, it was imminent. He muses that few Americans could be provoked to get up off the couch today without reasonable odds that their energy expenditure will result in success.

Franklin earns praise not for his achievements alone but that they were compelled by an “insatiable curiosity,” a self-evaluation that pursued perfection while expecting to fall short of it and a concern that Americans might “be lulled into a dangerous security… being both enervated and impoverished by luxury.” Offerman thinks through Franklin’s story as a model for living diligently so that productive pursuits and luxuries serve one another. James Madison’s story is one of a “diminutive man” who could hardly command the attention of a crowd but who still became the one guy the founders trusted “to write up both the captain’s orders and the owner’s manual” of the new government. Madison’s role as “The Father of the Constitution” is a small detail as Offerman instead asks what we can learn from Madison’s work ethic and commitment to follow-through. Madison saw what needed to be done and did it in a way that made the whole enterprise sustainable.

Largely a list of familiar historical legends, the Freemasons section of the book concludes with the story of Frederick Douglass. After announcing, “Hey, it’s a black guy!,” Offerman describes Douglass as a “priceless sword” for the abolitionist movement. He explains that Douglass worked through a combination of, “searing common sense, an inspired talent for language, and a furious commitment to justice, all resting solidly upon the bedrock of his all-too-real history in bondage and brutality.” He shares his realization that all the snapshots of Douglass’s life presented in the classrooms of Offerman’s youth had provided only the “bullet points of horror,” while doing nothing to communicate the self-determination and perseverance that made Douglass’s story possible. Reading Douglass’s own words, Offerman says he could finally see why the proslavery crowd feared Douglass as “a firebrand” who would be “powerfully instrumental in helping to bring about the end of slavery.” Understanding the depth of misery Douglass endured made it possible to see that he wielded extraordinary strength.

Offerman refers to it as gumption and mettle-testing, but Douglass provides the logic for why it matters.

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

(Photo by Chris Devers)

(Photo by Chris Devers)

Idealists: Becoming a More Decent People

The proposition the progress emerges through struggle marks Offerman’s shift to achieving maximum horsepower. The answer to what makes America great is not one that’s fixed in the past. It’s one that requires something from each of us who would call ourselves an American. The next section of the book honors the Idealists, individuals who “continue to pay homage to our founding principles.” Offerman shows how they each represent a personal commitment that shapes public ideas and makes it possible for the American people to continue to become more decent.

Offerman initiates this list with Theodore Roosevelt, another example of how “a properly applied dose of gumption” makes it possible to use a previously unknown strength. This section includes massive demonstrations of power exercised by otherwise ordinary people who sought to open up NYC’s Central Park for all residents to enjoy (Frederick Law Olmstead), to appeal to common sense for the sake of accepting people of all races, genders and abilities (Eleanor Roosevelt), to own and represent unpopular policy positions (Barney Frank), to create art that requires re-examining dogmatic thinking (Yoko Ono) and to drag those who would skirt decency into the light of the public eye (Michael Pollan). Offerman’s storytelling often makes clear that these people we know to be remarkable could have chosen to stay comfortable on their own couch. This technique makes it possible to understand how their ideas about the American people and their country added up to a discomfort and dissatisfaction that refused to accommodate the usual cost-benefit analysis.

His own craftsmanship often seeps into Offerman’s perspective on a story but two stories in this section work to reveal what he sees in the basic proposition of having a craft to practice, whatever it is.

His own words blend with Wendell Berry’s work to demonstrate that the search to understand our purposes is worthwhile for its own sake and that understanding those purposes requires working towards them. There is more to be understood but that understanding requires practice.

Offerman’s appreciation for Tom Laughlin’s work is sentimental while sacrificing nothing about its substantive contribution to the project. Offerman explains that Laughlin “stubbornly persisted” in promoting a film his production company dropped as a failed venture. Laughlin wrote, directed and starred in Billy Jack, a film he booked into theaters himself in 1971. Today the film is recognized as the highest-grossing independent film of all time.

Offerman turns to Roger Ebert’s words to tell us what to make of this success and Laughlin’s place on our list, recognizing that his

…movies are personal ventures, financed in unorthodox ways and employing the kind of communal chance-taking that Hollywood finds terrifying. The chances they take sometimes create flaws in their films, but flaws that suggest they were trying to do too much, never too little.

Offerman interprets this as the highest praise for a person. The suggestion being that Laughlin’s “heart was in the right place and the utmost of gumption was employed.”

Making the Gumption

Artists make the gumption (Photo by Vigo74, Flickr.com)

Artists make the gumption (Photo by Vigo74, Flickr.com)

This accolade makes for a perfect pivot to Offerman’s final section, the Makers. Remarking that these are “some pretty cool kids” at the “back of the bus,” he tells us how their music, furniture, poetry, art and punchlines make for the strongest conclusion a work like this can achieve. Offerman writes that “their creations enkindle within us the flames of gumption, as we seek each our own path to lead lives that enlarge and also depend upon the lives of others in America and beyond.”

Making appearances in this closing act are familiar people like Carol Burnett, Jeff Tweedy and Willie Nelson but their stories achieve new altitudes, accompanied by the less familiar stories of Thomas Lie-Nielsen, Nat Benjamin, George Nakashima, George Saunders and Laurie Anderson. In Offerman’s retelling of an evening spent with his friend Conan O’Brien, the entire list comes together with force and magnitude. It’s a quiet and unassuming moment, one that’s easy to miss.

Offerman refers to Conan’s after-dinner musings as “Irish jazz-riffs” so there’s a bit of a set up to navigate first.

The two are talking about how people their age often get angry about change and how to best avoid that trap. To stay young, Conan says, “the thing that I would like most… is to accept change; be interested in change.” This leads to a monologue about human nature and the drive to seek rewards. After achieving a reward, your average human wants to repeat endlessly whatever behavior it was that got rewarded.

Then Offerman writes,

Instead, my host suggested, we prosper by ‘keeping our eyes upon our own test or running our own race. By working hard, building things, writing things, making things, and trying to better yourself, trying to be a good person, that is our life’s work. That’s how you proselytize, is by doing it.

Everything in your body’s going to tell you to hunker down and shake your fist at the sky like King Lear, it’s like — try not to go that way. The easy way to go is to say, ‘It’s all gone to shit,’ when the great moral of the story, I think, for your book should be, that It’s always been shit.

That’s the big finish. Move beyond its merits as a punchline to consider it as a provocation.

The gumption that fuels our collective efforts to make America great resides in understanding the difference between concluding “It’s all gone to shit” and that “It’s always been shit.” It’s the difference between an easy opt-out and a complicated obligation to try anyway. Offerman’s list of America’s “gutsiest troublemakers” becomes a guide for recognizing that both conclusions are reasonable in most circumstances but only one leaves a mark.

The American enterprise is realized through the collection of these unlikely marks and the impossible details make the stories worth telling. Offerman’s list is a civilized battle cry for democratic people of the 21st century, “Get off the couch!”

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Another worthy take on the call to arms (Photo by Thomas Hawk)

Reading List: The Warmth of Other Suns

If you’ve ever taught the Civil Rights Movement or even had a conversation about it, there’s a book you should read. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson reminded me of one of my favorite classroom moments talking about the Movement. It also made me re-think what I taught while I was there.

First, that classroom moment… It was Black History month and two of my students asked to interview me about the Civil Rights Movement for the morning’s video announcement program. This was not an easy question for me.

I was not a subscriber to these (sometimes) empty gestures at recognizing the experience of particular groups. I guess it’s risky to admit that. I was sensitive to how these efforts might trivialize real struggles and gut-wrenching experiences. When you walk through the halls of an average school during one of these months, you’ll see faux postage stamps, book jackets and movie posters of the same names and faces. Either the list of famous people for Black History month is short or it’s easier to administer when you provide the same list to all the classes. Consider that students, teachers and administrators do this same dance every year and you can’t help but wonder what we’re teaching students about Black History.*

Did you see Justin Bieber’s opening monologue on Saturday Night Live? In a Valentine’s Day / Black History Month mash-up he sings about Maya Angelou inventing the peanut. Or maybe it was Denzel Washington… That’s how silly some of these Black History Month “events” felt to me.

But, in the end, these students were excited to talk about the Civil Rights Movement and to share that conversation with their school community. I had to agree to this very special Black History Month interview.

Prepped with an empty classroom at the end of the day and a little red light on the school video camera, we started the interview. Within minutes the students asked me what it was like to march in the streets with Martin Luther King. I took my first breath of life four years after he was murdered so I was speechless. They stopped the camera.

A short exchange revealed this wasn’t about my being crazy old in their estimate. My teaching had made the Civil Rights Movement real enough, substantive enough and provocative enough that they assumed I knew it. That I REALLY knew it. We then returned to the interview with a little better footing for a conversation about why I thought the Civil Rights Movement was still so important.

And, now, back to the book that answers that question so brilliantly while documenting the lives of people who lived through a complete transformation of the American people. In her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson offers a beautiful statement about the African American experience of the mid-20th Century, how it re-shaped the country and continues to influence us today. She chronicles the lives of three individuals, from the harsh details of the lives they decided to leave in the South to their final reflections on the lives they were able to make for themselves in the North.

Wilkerson selected three stories, those of Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, to represent the more than six million African Americans who migrated from the South between 1920 and 1970. Six million people! She expertly demonstrates how this migration changed the South as much as it did the Northern cities where whole communities of southern blacks relocated.

The author’s beautiful language helps the reader see the dissonance these Americans experienced and to understand it didn’t end with their arrival in the North.

Many people who left the South never exactly sat their children down to tell them these things. Tell them what happened and why they left and how they and all this blood kin came to be in this northern city or western suburb or why they speak like melted butter and their children speak like footsteps on pavement, prim and proper or clipped and fast, like the New World itself.”

This is the story of the American Dream turned backwards or inside out. And it’s a story that’s absolutely necessary to know and understand before we can claim to understand the mythology of the American Dream that is casually told and retold a hundred times over. Repetition can engender attachment and affection but it can also hollow out an idea that was once meaningful.

The phrase “white flight” has become so familiar that it hardly conveys anything thought provoking, but Wilkerson makes it a proper horror story. A story Ida Mae’s family likes to re-tell about the vanishing house will shock you. I was so angry I had to stop reading. It took 30 years but Ida Mae’s family had finally saved enough to buy a three-story brownstone in a nice neighborhood where her children could comfortably raise their families. They were proud. It looked like the American Dream, the dream she and her husband had for themselves and their children when they left sharecropping, had finally arrived. The day after they moved in, however, a house across the street disappeared. THE WHOLE HOUSE! As the white families left, the whole character of the neighborhood changed while a lifelong accomplishment for an entire family was eroded away.

Wilkerson’s novel itself is as inspiring as the stories she tells about Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. She brings this “other” version of the American Experience out of the shadows to be seen:

By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing. They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts.

This quote doesn’t just tell you about the book. It reveals the perseverance present in the three stories and the ambition of the author to make real those long fights of everyday life. So real that you begin to wonder if you could have done it. So real that you wonder if it’s folly to ever discuss the American Dream as something that could stand on its own.

So real that you start to wonder if you’ve ever done justice to that experience when re-telling it in the classroom.

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*I am very thankful for school administrators who listened (every year) to my lecture about living history together and teaching it that way. The laugh isn’t lost on me that I’m posting this in Black History Month.

Reading List: Longitude and How We Know

We think KNOWING is so easy that we approach the unknowable with suspicion. Longitude by Dava Sobel and William J.H. Andrews is a worthwhile read if only to challenge the certainty of our suppositions. Modern precision is grounded in countless struggles with imprecision.

Anyone who believes the modern world is a simple one should read Dava Sobel’s Longitude. Lucky for us, many of our modern luxuries make this historical puzzle of knowing your location an interesting story rather than a daily challenge. It’s as easy as an app on a smartphone, the right Google search string or clicking a city on a web-based map. Facebook, Twitter and other apps regularly ask for permission to share your location. Longitude reminds us this simple request is far from easy to make happen. The modern luxury is in having access to a daunting amount of information through simple tools and Sobel’s book takes us back to the point of origin for determining your coordinates.

The truth is that we encounter what is at least difficult to know or even unknowable more often than we realize. The book concludes with a short passage that captures how simple and familiar ideas help us believe we know something about the incomprehensible.

With his marine clocks, John Harrison tested the waters of space-time. He succeeded, against all odds, in using the fourth—temporal—dimension to link points on the three-dimensional globe. He wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch.

We recognize this idea of “testing the water,” but Sobel asks us to apply it to space-time. Few of us have any experience with space-time outside of our favorite Star Trek episode. We’ve never actually seen this temporal dimension but we can imagine it alongside the three-dimensions we know and the recognizable globe those dimensions draw for us. Distant stars had obscured our whereabouts for centuries until something as familiar as a pocket watch made it possible to know one’s location. What we know (the watch, three-dimensional space, and troubled waters) helps us understand what is unknowable (space-time, the fourth dimension and the systems of the universe).

Harrison's H-1

We regularly rely on our imagination to understand the world around us. Our preoccupation with using the simple tools of modern life while dismissing the complexity of their original proposition is dangerous. It threatens our understanding of how essential imagination is to the pursuit of knowledge and our ability to invent the very tools that have captured our attention. The GPS embedded in your car or your smartphone began with John Harrison’s first model for calculating longitude, the H-1. It weighed 75 pounds and sat in a 4ft. x 4ft. x 4ft.  cabinet. Accurate enough for the Longitude Board charged with granting the £20,000 award, the H-1 did not satisfy its inventor who had spent five years building it. Harrison knew it could be more precise. And more manageable. Solving the problem of longitude was not enough if the solution was impractical for sailors who needed this information while navigating the open sea. Knowing one’s longitude had alluded sailors and astronomers for hundreds of years, but Harrison seemed to believe finally knowing it was of little value without an easy way to access the data and calculate distance.

His designs continued to evolve until he presented the H-4 nearly 25 years later. The H-4, Harrison’s “sea watch,” finally put the precise measure of time in a device as simple as a pocket watch. The precise measure of longitude was not only knowable in 1760, it was finally easy to use.

The elements of Sobel’s narrative as she tells the longitude story sometimes appear more convenient than real. Longitude undoubtedly only skims the surface of the actual story, but the opportunity to think through the complicated nature of something considered to be so simple today makes the quick read worthwhile. The story makes the sophistication that accompanies innovation just a little more tangible.

It reminded me of a 20th century story of innovation too. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, Isaacson reflects on a quote from the very first Apple brochure, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” and remarks, “Jobs had aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering complexities, not ignoring them.

Sophisticated knowledge requires us to confront complexity too.

Citizen’s Conundrum: Dirt, Data and Digging Out

Now showing: “every utterance, every court filing, every public transaction, every burp, every miscue.”

In an interesting read, Jack Shafer wonders about the state of our politics “now that we have dirt on everyone.” While some debate the power of the Internet to democratize even the most authoritarian regimes, we should consider its role in making our politics dirtier than ever. Shafer describes the shift by comparing a campaign’s opposition research to mining for gold:

The past no longer matters to the political present the way it once did, because we have such better access to it today. Just 15 years ago, investigations of politicians and opposition research were largely limited to professionals with access to Lexis-Nexis or those who knew how to conduct a document search at the county courthouse. Digging dirt back then was like mining gold in the 1800s: labor intensive, and requiring both expertise and expensive tools. Widespread digitization and cheap information technologies haven’t eliminated the professionals from political dirt digging, only lowered the barriers to entry.

Leaping over those low barriers this cycle is Andrew Kaczynski, a 22-year-old history major at St. John’s University, who quarried C-SPAN archives for political gotchas and posted more than 160 of them on his YouTube channel, alerting the press to the best, he tells me.

It isn’t just the dirt. We’re also awash in data or dirt masquerading as data. The information costs of a wold-be knowledgeable citizen are skyrocketing!

David Weinberger takes on this question from a scientific perspective in a book with a great title, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now that the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room. He points to a scientist’s lament from 1963. That scientist, Bernard K. Forscher, titled his famous letter “Chaos in the Brickyard” and complained that science was churning out too many bricks (facts) without the ability “to complete a useful edifice because, as soon as the foundations were discernible, they were buried under an avalanche of random bricks.” Weinberger explains the problem today is much larger than Forscher could have imagined. Our brickyards are networked!

He offers three reasons today’s brickyards are galactic in scope and they’re worth considering in the context of political dirt. I’ll list them here but recommend visiting Weinberger’s post on The Atlantic for a more detailed discussion.

  1. The economics of deletion. Little data is ever discarded now that massive amounts of storage are easy and inexpensive.
  2. The economics of sharing. It’s easier than ever to share everything. From the 160 hours of video on YouTube mentioned earlier to terabytes of data.
  3. Computers are smarter. The processing power of the average desktop has increased exponentially.

For science, this means the data grows more and more distant from hypothesis-testing and model-building. Data is made accessible in the hope that someone will eventually make it usable. For political life, this creates a chasm between news that matters and news that’s entertaining. You want news you can use? Well, that’s your problem.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed while trying to sift through fact and fiction to find the information that makes a difference in vote choice, policy expectations or even the decision to get involved. If journalists once dug for gold to help their audiences navigate these turbulence, they’ve sacrificed that role as they’ve competed to throw bricks, to throw lots of them and to throw them before anyone else does.

A flurry of web activity demonstrates just how little help one can expect from the press. In a recent post to the New York Times Public Editor’s Journal, Arthur Brisbane asked, “should the Times be a truth vigilante?

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

The earliest comments on the site hit along the same theme… how could this even be a question? If the Times isn’t a truth vigilante, what else could it be? Perhaps our media outlets have considered themselves to be purveyors of petty insults and meaningless drivel this whole time. Jay Rosen, a NYU journalism professor, has relentlessly called out the media for their “view from nowhere” and offers an excellent analysis of this latest installment.

There are many reasons to expect this deluge of dirt and date to only get worse. I hope this all hits home the next time you see a headline lampooning what little information American voters know. Too many of us enjoy the chuckle and assure ourselves we’re different. There’s an important follow up questions we should require… how the hell are we supposed to know anything? And what news are we missing because this headline was funny?

 

*** A future post will look at how to ditch dumb headlines and demand better. If you have a strategy that works for you, please share it by commenting on this post.

The Not So Radical American

Watching William Gibson’s “No Maps for These Territories,” I found one brief moment in the film that resonated with a million other moments in time. The famous science fiction author wanted to describe his work and to explain why he has never seen himself as a visionary. He said we live in an incomprehensible present and his work attempts to illuminate it. His work brought light to better see the now rather than forecasting the future.

That might be a way to describe our work at the National Academy and our discussions on Politicolor too. Civic education has to share this concern for illuminating complexities in political life.

Gibson also said we are most comfortable living ten years in the past. We’re blind to the potential of the technology we have because we’re just getting comfortable with the technology of our past. In a 2003 interview with The Economist, Gibson quipped, “The future is already here–it’s just not evenly distributed.”

And it’s this relationship between now, the future and the past that leads us to David Brooks’ column in the New York Times this week, “Two Theories of Change.”

In a short opinion piece, Brooks compares the characteristics of the French Enlightenment led by Descartes to a British Enlightenment led by Hume and Burke. With one focusing on the power of reason and the other emphasizing its limits, “these two views of human nature produced different attitudes toward political change.” One theory pursues radical change with each society embedded in an “eternal now,” while the other advocates incremental change informed by the past.

And here the thoughts of a science fiction author and a New York Times journalist fuse together to provide an essential vantage point for understanding contemporary politics. Brooks writes:

We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment. Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it’s a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one.

Brooks suggests a style of change emphasizing modesty, gradualism and balance has emerged from this contest between the French and British Enlightenment in the United States. Gibson’s observation that we are all more comfortable with our past also suggests a fundamental discomfort with change. Have Americans ever been as radical as their political vitriol imagines them to be?

The Wave, Human Nature, and Our Radical Evolution

Published in 2005, Joel Garreau’s Radical Evolution offers multiple perspectives on the future of human kind.  Interviewing world-class thinkers, engineers, and philosophers, the author examines not only our decisions, but our decision making process—for the heart of Garreau’s thesis maintains that human nature changes.

We’ve all wondered whether we’re still part of that process.  Over the years, our species has gradually removed ourselves from the brutality of natural selection.  Americans, especially, have enjoyed long periods without significant culling; so do we yet evolve?  Garreau thinks so.  Physically, we create medicine that can alter our appearances and heal our wounds, while other intellectual constructions seem to grow exponentially.  Can humans maintain control over these creations?  His book’s subtitle alludes to the wisdom it will take to guide this giant: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human.  What follows is an argument over what course that path looks like: heaven, hell, or prevail.

The heaven scenario involves advances so great that nanotechnology works invisibly around us, and our bodies regenerate into perpetuity.  Societies, thriving on our highest human emotions, live far from the reptilian R-complex.  Art and music elevate, while education becomes the most important career in the world.  Machines shrink to miniscule, while their capabilities unfold endlessly.

Hell offers the negative: class warfare between the haves and have-nots, pretties versus uglies; technology so advanced that it achieves sentience—then replicates itself.  It’s nothing we haven’t imagined between The Matrix and Blade Runner back to its source at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

What is different is that these diametric views are examined and upheld by visionaries who are helping to create it.  While most scientists, computer geniuses, and government-sponsored gurus see their work as seeds planted toward Eden, there are many others who fear dragon teeth being sown.  Bill Joy, the founder of networking giant Sun Microsystems and known in geekdom as the Edison of the Internet, emerges as one interesting story.  Clearly no Luddite, Joy’s vision once anticipated a Star Trekian future, but now glares sidelong at the mechanism of the Empire.  The complexity of this man cannot be summarized here, nor can any of the fascinating characters Garreau profiles.  Suffice it to say that each offers a perspective utterly human in its depth.

More federalist than anti-federalist thought is expanded upon in the next two sections of the book: prevail and transcendence.  Another personality, Martin E. P. Seligman suggests three levels of happiness: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life.  The pleasant one is all downhill racing: base pleasures and Sushi feelings.  This may be where many Americans find themselves—whether that be through computer porn or Viagra, Cartoon Network or crack.  The good life rises above this.  Referencing Aristotle and Jefferson, Seligman sees something more than existence; he sees a life that is fully lived.  Even better than a life in tune, though, is a life in chorus.  The meaningful life is one in which the instrument of one joins the symphony of all with great elegance and complexity.  The latter view rings as Madisonian; it’s the citizen harmonizing with the Constitution.  Or, through National Academy metaphor, it is Will’s brown box growing up through the center of the spectrum and bearing beautiful rainbow-colored fruit.

If the author leans toward an advancement of humanity, the reader should not be surprised.  After all, the title of the work suggests a continuation, rather than The End.  Garreau makes no hypothesis about the length this evolution will take.  Experts who don’t forecast a technological maelstrom, range from those who think perfection will rise as a tsunami of advancement called The Singularity to those who predict a more gradual tide.

Most importantly, the author goes beyond a catalog of neat inventions to the thought needed to manage such a wave.  How can we control this evolution without the ultimate wipe-out?  As a teacher, I can’t help but imagine the role of a well-rounded education in all of this.  Clearly, literature, history, and communication help us to perceive such changes, while a well-constituted government provides balance to the Constitution’s board.  Can we produce thinkers able to ride the rising swell?  Will we realize that the technical instruction manual of standardized tests can never replace the feel of paddling out, popping up, and surfing?

Garreau’s work suggests that we had better learn quickly.  In a world economy, to remain stoically anti-federalist may just leave Americans as hydrophobic doomsayers gawking at the wall of a world-cleansing flood.  While a ride upon The Wave—one dwarfing both the dawn of industry and the hope of Renaissance—Duuuude, that would be the totality of all that is rad.