TCS Daily

Future Schlock

By Bob Newbell - November 9, 2006 12:00 AM

We have been on the point of conquering the aging process, to my certain recollection, since at least the 1960s; for about as long, in fact, as we have been on the point of generating affordable electric power via nuclear fusion. I can remember reading this stuff in the science magazines my high-school library subscribed to. Reading the same stories now, 40 years on, I can't help but smile in disbelief.

-- John Derbyshire

We are now entering the Biotech Age. Or was that the Nanotech Era? Maybe it was the Singularity? Cloning, genetic engineering, nanotechnology: these are the emerging technologies that will result in a golden age or total oblivion for life as we know it, depending on how wisely we choose to proceed. Or so the logic goes. A number of TCS essays have recently been published about advances in technology that are purportedly unprecedented and imminent. Ray Kurzweil has written a book on the subject: The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. In a previous TCS article, I lamented our world's failure to live up to yesterday's science fiction visions. It is entirely possible that the hype surrounding our own era's ballyhooed future tech will, in the course of a generation or two, seem equally quaint.

According to Francis Fukuyama, political historian and author of the 2002 book Our Posthuman Future, our foray into genetic technology could pose a serious threat to our current models of democracy and personal liberty. Our civilization's political architecture has been based on millennia of experience with human nature, he argues. What happens to our most cherished institutions when we can transform human nature itself? Award-winning science fiction author Bruce Sterling paints a somewhat less grim picture of the future in his non-fiction book Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years. In his speculative mid-21st century, most men will look like athletes and most women will look like models, thanks to biological engineering. Reason magazine's Ronald Bailey goes even further. In the introduction to his book Liberation Biology, the author imagines a late-21st century game of touch football with a 150 year old great-great-great grandmother as a participant!

Visions of tomorrow tend to be dichotomous: at once unreasonably optimistic and unrealistically pessimistic. If we lived in the world I've seen on the covers of magazines like Popular Science for the last quarter-century or so, the Moon would be positively littered with lunar bases, Paul Moller's Skycars would eclipse the sun, and the United States Air Force would consist of innumerable "super planes" of dubious design. World peace is another perennial prophecy that never seems to go out of style. "For at least the next thirty years, America will never go to war unless directly attacked on its own soil," wrote Marvin Cetron and Owen Davies in their book American Renaissance: Our Life at the Turn of the 21st Century published in 1989, less than two years before America went to war without being directly attacked on its own soil when Kuwait was invaded by Iraq.

Armageddon is likewise perpetually tardy. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines -- hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death," proclaimed Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 book The Population Bomb. This didn't happen. Likewise, the year 1984 saw the reigns of Reagan and Thatcher, not Big Brother.

Human beings tend to view the future through a lens of hubris. We usually overestimate both our ingenuity and our malevolence. We tend to forget that history has a way of dampening both aspirations and fears. It is interesting to note how seldom the observation is made that technological progress has had, in relative terms, a much less pronounced effect on society for the last two generations compared with previous decades. Bloggers, iPods, Internet commerce, and so forth have certainly left their mark, but their impact is miniscule compared to that of alternating current, heavier-than-air flight, the telephone, and the automobile. Engineer and author Robert Zubrin touched on this point in the epilogue of his 1996 book The Case for Mars. After reviewing the tremendously influential advances of the first two-thirds of the 20th century, Zubrin assessed more recent progress and noted that

"Had we been following the previous sixty years' technological trajectory, we today would have videotelephones, solar powered cars, maglev trains, fusion reactors, hypersonic intercontinental travel and regular passenger transportation to orbit, undersea cities, open-sea mariculture, and human settlements on the Moon and Mars. Instead, today we see important technological developments, such as nuclear power and biotechnology, being blocked or enmeshed in political controversy -- we are slowing down."

The 21st century will doubtless be a place of both wonder and banality -- kind of like the past and the present. But when the 1st of January 2101 rolls around, I expect the all-too-human (as opposed to post-human) beings who welcome the dawn of the 22nd century will have their own singularities to hope for and grey goo scenarios to fret about while history proceeds oblivious to both their optimism and pessimism.

The author is primary care physician in Alabama. He has contributed to the journal Medical Economics. He recently wrote for TCS about missing the future.


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