Gee Whiz—The Future!

For at least 200 years now, futurists have been predicting the imminent rise of a technological utopia, drawing on the premise that technology will free humankind from labor, suffering, disease, and possibly even death. Underlying this view is a defining story of our civilization: that science has brought us from a state of ignorance to an increasing understanding of the physical universe, and that technology has brought us from a state of dependency on nature’s whims to an increasing mastery of the material world. Someday in the future, goes the story, our understanding and control will be complete.

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, it seemed obvious that the Age of Coal would usher in a new era of leisure. In one industry after another, a machine was able to “do the work of a thousand men”. Soon the day would come when all work was mechanized: if a machine could do the work of a thousand men, then it stood to reason that each man would have only to work one-thousandth as hard.

As the Industrial Revolution progressed it soon became apparent that most people were doing more work, not less. True, the spinning jenny and power loom freed millions of women from the tedium of spinning their own thread and weaving their own cloth, but replaced that tedium with the horrors of the textile mill. Similarly, the steel foundry replaced the blacksmith’s shop, the railroad car replaced the horse and cart, the steam shovel replaced the pick and spade. Yet in terms of working hours, working conditions, danger and monotony, the Industrial Revolution had not lived up to the promise encoded in the term “labor-saving device”. The Age of Leisure, where coal-powered machines would do the work while people looked on and reaped the benefits, was going to arrive later than expected.

The futurists did not give up hope though—maybe they had only been premature. They hadn’t realized that coal wasn’t enough—it was the Age of Electricity that would finally usher in technotopia. Modern man would live in a paradise of electrified comfort. The spate of inventions that followed the harnessing of electricity made it obvious that we had the power to eliminate most forms of work (still largely associated with physical labor) and bring unprecedented leisure to the masses.

Almost no one doubted the power, the inevitability, and the desirability of technological transcendence of our natural limitations. Hence the slogan of the 1933 World’s Fair: Science Invents; Industry Applies; Man Conforms. The ascent of technology carries an aura of inevitability, destiny, and triumph. As John von Neumann put it, “Technological possibilities are irresistible to man. If man can go to the moon, he will. If he can control the climate, he will.”[1] What fool would doubt it or stand in the way of progress?

In the decades after World War II, all signs pointed toward the impending triumph of technology. The 1940s and 1950s witnessed revolutionary innovations in medicine, including antibiotics and vaccines that (apparently) brought an end to the mass killers that had haunted civilization for centuries. Flush with victory, medical researchers confidently predicted the imminent end of all disease. Surely cancer, heart disease, and arthritis would succumb to modern medicine just as polio, smallpox, cholera, and plague already had. In agriculture, chemical fertilizers brought record harvests and the seeming promise of an unlimited cornucopia in the future, which would be protected from insect depredation by the new classes of pesticides such as DDT, lauded as nothing short of miraculous. Soon, it seemed, agriculture would no longer depend on nature at all,[2] as modern chemistry improved on the soil and modern breeding improved on the organism. Also around this time, atomic power offered the potential of virtually unlimited energy, electricity “too cheap to meter.” Just as oil and coal had supplanted animal power, so would atomic energy increase our energy supply by several more orders of magnitude. And as the 60’s drew to a close, space—the final frontier—also succumbed to human conquest, first with the orbiting of the earth and culminating with the moon landing of 1969.

Atomic Energy Commissioner Lewis Strauss summed up the vision nicely in 1954:

It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter, will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.[3]

Meanwhile, the horrors of the industrial revolution seemed to be in retreat—its hellish slums, child labor, disease epidemics, 16-hour workdays, and starvation wages. The blossoming new sciences of economics, psychology, and sociology promised to bring the same wonders to the social universe that the hard sciences had brought to the physical universe. The goal of a rational society, engineered for maximum happiness just as a machine is engineered for maximum efficiency, was just around the corner.

So we cannot blame ourselves for believing that technology would indeed usher in the Golden Age of humanity, would make us finally independent of nature, independent of suffering, independent, perhaps, even of death. All that was needed was to extend our victories a little farther, to make our understanding and control of nature just a little more precise. And perhaps, the faithful opine, nanotechnology and genetic engineering will finally allow us to achieve that precision, to control nature on the molecular level in the same way we already (ostensibly) control it on the macro level. As one technology evangelist puts it, “We would have an army of molecular robots and nanodevices that would allow us to completely dominate Nature. We now dominate it at a macroscopic level; we would then dominate it at a microscopic level too.”[4]

The paradigm of ever-ascending understanding and control represents a fundamental myth of our culture, which I call the ascent of humanity. Its culmination would be the totalization of that understanding and control, the complete mastery of nature. The myth goes something like this: whereas in the beginning we were fully at the mercy of natural forces, someday we will transcend nature completely. We will control the weather; conquer old age, disease, and death; improve upon the cell and the gene; augment or replace the body with mechanical parts; download our consciousness onto computers; even leave nature behind entirely by colonizing space. Consider, for example, the following futurist ravings:

The systematic application of nanotechnology, self-reproducing micro-miniaturised robots armed with supercomputer processing power, and ultra-sophisticated genetic engineering, perhaps using retro-viral vectors, will cure the root of all evil in its naturalistic guise throughout the living world. And once the pain has gone, with the right genes and designer drugs there’s no reason why life shouldn’t just get better and better….”[5]

In the near future, a team of scientists will succeed in constructing the first nano-sized robot capable of self-replication. Within a few short years, and five billion trillion nano-robots later, virtually all present industrial processes will be obsolete as well as our contemporary concept of labor. Consumer goods will become plentiful, inexpensive, smart, and durable. Medicine will take a quantum leap forward. Space travel and colonization will become safe and affordable.[6]

The above quotes are from the far margins of futuristic thinking, but the underlying attitudes are alive and well, to wit: (1) that the answer to our problems lies in new technology; (2) that progress consists of increasing our control over nature; and (3) that someday our control over nature will be complete, or at least far greater than it is today, enabling the conquest of disease, reduction of work, lengthening of life-span, space travel, and so forth. As recently as the 1970s and 80s, futurists like Alvin Toffler were writing that the greatest challenge facing society in the year 2000 would be how to use all of our leisure time. Today, analyses of the future of retirement routinely assume that people will be living longer and, thanks to medical technology, will enjoy greater health into their later years. Every day we hear about “advances” and “progress”, and although these words no longer bear the magical cachet they once did, we still wonder with anticipation what the next revolution in medical, information, or entertainment technology will be. Especially pronounced in magazines like Wired!, Discover, and Scientific American, the “Gee Whiz!” attitude about the future is everywhere, an ideology of progress written into our fundamental beliefs. What will the next wonder be? Where will Moore’s Law take us next?[7] Naïve on the surface, the extreme opinions quoted above are merely distillations of a pervasive cultural myth: that we are on the way toward fulfilling our destiny of rising above nature.

That the words “The Ascent of Humanity” reverberate with a religious connotation is not surprising. Where else do we find the idea that our present age of suffering is only a temporary stage on the way to some perfect state of future existence? The myth of technological utopia is uncannily congruent to the religious doctrine of Heaven, with technology as our savior. Thanks to the god Technology, we will leave behind all vestiges of mortality and enter a realm without toil or travail and beyond death and pain. Omnipotent, technology will repair the mess we have made of this world; it will cure all our social, medical, and environmental ills, just as we escape the consequences of our sins of this life when we ascend to Heaven.

This, in a nutshell, is the ascent of humanity that Jacob Bronowski was referring to in his classic The Ascent of Man, after which the present volume is ironically named. It is an ascent from the depths of superstition and ignorance into the light of scientific reason; an ascent from fear and powerlessness in the face of natural forces to the mastery of those forces. A myth is a story that provides a template for understanding ourselves and our world; as well it is a program that guides our choices and priorities. Accordingly, I will distinguish the myth of ascent into two aspects: the Scientific Program of complete understanding and the Technological Program of complete control.

The Technological Program

Starting with stone tools and fire, technology has given us increasing control over nature, insulated us from her whims, and provided us with safety and comfort.

The Scientific Program By making methodical observations of the universe and creating and testing theories, we replace myth and superstition with a growing body of objective knowledge.
Past:

We had very little control over the physical environment. We were at the mercy of nature.

Past:

We had very little understanding of the laws of the universe, so we resorted to myth and superstition in a vain attempt to explain the world.

Present:

Although there are still many problems to be solved, we have made great strides in our ability to engineer and control nature. We have conquered many illnesses, reduced the hardship of survival, moved mountains and drained lakes, augmented the processing power of our own brains with computers.

Present:

While there are still many things about the universe that we do not understand, we have discovered at least the basic framework of how the universe works: the laws of gravity, quantum mechanics, evolution, and so forth. We can explain most of the phenomena we observe, and we have plausible theories about the rest. Myth and superstition have no place.

Future:

Someday our control over nature will be complete. We will prolong human life indefinitely, eliminate pain and suffering, eliminate labor, travel to the stars and leave earth behind entirely.

Future:

Someday our understanding of nature will be complete. We will formulate a “Theory of Everything” that combines relativity and quantum mechanics into a single equation, and apply that theory to explain any and all observed phenomena. There will be no more mysteries – even the workings of the human brain will be fully understood according to scientific principles.

Together, the Scientific Program and the Technological Program form a defining myth of our civilization. The two are intimately related: technology, our ability to control the world, arises from science, the means by which we understand and explain the world. Technology in turn provides the means for science to probe even more deeply into the remaining mysteries of the universe. Technology also proves the validity of science—if our scientific understanding of the world were no better than myth and superstition, then the technology based on that science wouldn’t work.

Philosophers of science will protest that it is already well-established, even in conventional circles, that perfect knowledge and perfect control of the universe is probably impossible (due to such things as mathematical incompleteness, quantum indeterminacy, and sensitive dependence on initial conditions). Be that as it may, this information has yet to filter down to the level of popular consciousness, even among scientists. What I am talking about is the faith encapsulated in the saying, “Science will surely explain it someday.” It is the faith that the answer is there, the answer is accessible to science, and that science itself is well-grounded in its primary principles and methods. The technological corollary to this faith in science is our faith in the technological fix. Whatever the problem, the solution lies in technology—finding a way to solve the problem. Science will find an answer. Technology will find a way.

Underlying the Technological Program is a kind of arrogance, that that we can control, manage, and improve on nature. Many of the dreams of Gee Whiz technology are based on this. Control the weather! Conquer death! Download your consciousness onto a computer! Onward to space! All of these goals involve controlling or transcending nature, being independent of the earth, independent of the body. Nanotechnology will allow us to design new molecules and build them atom by atom. Perhaps someday we will even engineer the laws of physics itself. From an initial status of subordination to nature, the Technological Program aims to give us mastery over it, an ambition with deep cultural foundations. Descartes’ aspiration that science would make us the “lords and possessors of nature” merely restated an age-old ambition: “And God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28).

Yet a contrary thread runs concurrently through the world’s religious traditions, a recognition of the hubris of our attempt to improve on nature. Greek mythology has given us the figure of Daedelus, who arrogated to himself the power of flight in violation of ordinary mortal limitations. The power to transcend nature’s limitations is for the gods alone, and for his temerity Daedelus was punished when his son, Icarus, soared too high in his desire to attain to the heavens. In the Bible we find a similar warning in the Tower of Babel, a metaphor for the futility of reaching the infinite through finite means. Have we not, through our technology, attempted to rise above nature—sickness, uncertainty, death, and physical limitation—to attain to an immortal estate?

 

[1] Quoted by Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future, p. 59

[2] For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others boasted a belief that soon DDT and other miracle chemicals would enable us to eliminate all insects from the earth – a worthy goal, it was assumed. Then would we be able to conduct agriculture without the messy uncontrolled variables that insects and other life forms represent.

[3]Lewis L. Strauss, Speech to the National Association of Science Writers, New York City September 16th, 1954.

[4] Magalhães, João Pedro de. Nanotechnology. http://www.jpreason.com/science/nanotech.htm

[5] Pearce, David. The Hedonistic Imperative. http://paradise-engineering.com/heav22.htm

[6] Mohawk, William. Nano-Economics. http://www.geocities.com/computerresearchassociated/NanoEconomics.htm

[7]Moore’s Law says that the complexity of integrated circuit chips doubles approximately every 18 months. The naïve interpretation is that computers are getting exponentially smarter.