Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, February 9, 2012

How to Solve the Future

Google has set up a new program called Solve for X. In the clear and concise words of the site, Solve for X

is a place to hear and discuss radical technology ideas for solving global problems. Radical in the sense that the solutions could help billions of people. Radical in the sense that the audaciousness of the proposals makes them sound like science fiction. And radical in the sense that there is some real technology breakthrough on the horizon to give us all hope that these ideas could really be brought to life.

The site already has posted a number of videos that are forays into the “moonshot” thinking the program hopes to encourage, including one typically intelligent and provocative talk by author Neal Stephenson.

Those of us who follow the world of transhumanism may be a bit surprised to find that anyone thinks there is a lack of audacious and radical thinking about the human future in the world today. Stephenson is a bit more cautious in his talk, arguing instead that at the moment there seems to be a lack of effort to do big things, contrasting unfavorably the period from around 1968 to the present with the extraordinary transformations of human thinking and abilities that took place between 1900 (the dawn of aviation) and the Moon landing.

(It’s not quite clear why Stephenson picks 1968 as the dividing year, instead of the year of the first moon landing (1969), or the last (1972). Perhaps it makes sense if you consider that the point at which it was clear we were going to beat the Russians to the Moon was the point at which enthusiasm for efforts beyond that largely evaporated among the people who held the purse strings — meaning American lawmakers as well as the public.)

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At any rate, Stephenson attributes at least some of that lack of effort to a paucity of imagination. He thus calls for deliberate efforts by science fiction writers to cooperate with technically minded people in writing what could be inspiring visions of the future for the rising generation.

There is a good deal that might be said about his argument, and perhaps I will write more about in later posts. For the moment, I would just like to note that, even accepting his premise about the paucity of big thinking and big effort today, Stephenson’s prescription for remedying it is odd, considering his own accomplishments. It’s not as if the nanotechnology world of his brilliant novel The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is an uninspiring dead letter.

The same of course goes for many of the futuristic promises of classic science fiction, but in Diamond Age, Stephenson presented his science fiction world with an unusual moral realism that one might have thought would make it all the more inspiring to all but the most simplistically inclined. Perhaps it is modesty that prevented him from putting forward his own existing work as a model.

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Yet by ignoring what he achieved in Diamond Age, Stephenson also overlooks another way of looking at the problem he sets up in the achievement gap between 1900–1968 and 1968–now. For the book is premised in part on the belief that history exhibits pendulum swings. Should we really be surprised if a time of revolution is followed by a period of reaction and/or consolidation?

Believers in the Singularity would, of course, be surprised if this were the case. But they are attempting to suggest the existence of a technological determinism that Stephenson wisely avoided in Diamond Age. But he was swimming against the tide; it is striking just how much of the science fiction of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century was driven by a sense that the future would be molded by some kind of necessity, often catastrophic.

For example, overpopulation would force huge urban conglomerations on us, or would be the driver for space colonization. Or the increasing violence of modern warfare would be the occasion for rebuilding the world physically or politically or both.

Perhaps we are living in a time of (relative) pause because the realization is dawning that we are not in the grip of historical forces beyond our control. It would take some time to absorb that sobering possibility. It is not too early to attend to the lesson drawn so well in Diamond Age: that at some point the question of what should be done becomes more important than the question of what can be done.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent point, Charlie. Speaking of the future being of our own choosing, Adam's essay, "A New Vision for NASA," is perhaps even more apt now, when our space program is not just hobbling but comatose, than when it was written in 2003:

    There are two obvious destinations for our next stop in space. The first is the Moon. No human has stepped on the Moon in three decades. We could put a giant telescope on the far side of the Moon, or we might assemble vast arrays of solar panels for collecting power, which could then be transmitted to Earth. There is reason to believe that we might profitably mine for rare gases in the dusty regolith. Or we could just build a Moon base, a permanent outpost on the lunar surface, a new home for humanity on our nearest neighbor in the sky.

    Certainly we must go back to the Moon someday. When the Apollo 17 crew departed, they left a plaque behind saying, “Here man completed his first explorations of the Moon”; it would be unforgivable if we never went back at all, if that brief period of thirteen-hundred days between our first lunar footfall and our last were just an anomaly, a glory never to be repeated. No, man must go back to the Moon, and hopefully America will return before the Chinese arrive.

    But there is still a greater option: Mars now.


    This year will mark four decades since human beings last set foot on another world. When will we be going back, and who will that be?

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  2. Yes, 1968 was when we won the moon race, with Apollo 8. That's when the Soviets gave up, and started to pretend that they'd never been racing. The landings themselves were just inertia, and since then, the program has been driven primarily by pork. As it is today.

    As for not doing bold things in space, I wonder if Neil is paying attention to what's going on privately? I think we're going to be surprised at the amount of progress, now that we're building up a head of steam there.

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