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A Scientist's Notebook
In this last closing year of the millennium, we can enjoy the luxury of looking backward at the twentieth century (hereafter, the TwenCen), a time of great tumult and grand rhetoric. Though it may seem like a steady march of progress to some, I am struck by its sheer passion. And I wonder if the future holds nearly that feeling of immersion. Will science and technology lead us to more involvement with our ever-grander world, or less?
This last century was severely divided: the first half a bloodbath of two world wars, the second half a golden age. The clean dividing line was very science fictional: the "A-bomb," which made nation-state warfare impossible on the planetary scale.
The striking quality of that era was how involved everyone was with the human prospect. "Atomic"--that is, nuclear--- weapons, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, focused the mind wonderfully. Warfare was deeply personal, for the barricades of convention erected at painful cost through centuries, barring attacks on civilians, had disintegrated. "Everybody is on the front line," as one commentator had it.
Further, the ideologies worked out over the course of the TwenCen, though inherited from the nineteenth century, demanded involvement: fascism, socialism, and communism were at best shouted conversations over what direction to take toward The Future. Like 'em or not, these ideas demanded participation. Idealists marched off to war in both the big conflicts, innumerable revolutions (nearly all failures) and in such sideshows as the Spanish Civil War as well.
As I write this, the NATO powers have just brought off the seemingly impossible in Kosovo---a zero-casualty war (on the NATO side, that is). Their bloodless victory came about largely through U.S. technology, pilots striking down from 15,000 feet and through robot ("cruise") jet planes.
Here we see the seamless blend of politics and can-do engineering. Modern electorates don't want to take casualties, even among armed forces who volunteered for the job. I grew up in a military family; my father fought in World War II and Korea, I spent six years living in occupied Japan and Germany, and was an officer in the reserves. How to convey how different the world seemed then?
The 1990s are as conceptually distant from the 1950s as can be imagined, even by a science-fictional mind. Most of us are no longer participants in history, but mere spectators.
In 1955 the Department of Defense (relabeled from the more truthful Department of War in the late 1940s) got 55% of the total federal budget; now it gets less than 20%. Yet we are far more secure. We have many more nuclear warheads in this world, but nobody goes sleepless over them.
One lesson I learned in infantry training was that units who get a reputation for not taking casualties well are not rewarded by the enemy. They then get targeted---precisely because they are easier to knock out of the conflict. That is why press officers were trained, fifty years ago, to avoid specifics on losses and how to "keep morale high" in the face of reverses. Because there would surely be some.
Yet we now see the advanced nations led by politicians afraid to sustain losses, out of fear not of foreign armies but of a domestic enemy--their political opponents, as revealed in the ever-present polls.
I think this is largely bad news, foretelling an era of dodgy international politics and terrorism-as-warfare. Note that in NATO's loss-less war plenty of Serb civilians paid the ultimate price; that taboo remains thoroughly broken, and probably will be into the 21st Century. Paradoxically, the safest place to be was in the winning army and air force---not as a bystander. Even being a journalist was riskier.
We were all quite safe spectators, too---another new theme in advanced warfare. War correspondents (or "content providers" as some are called) brought us "footage" (actually, pixels) of anguish and ruin, the best ones fought over by the big cable and network companies.
The science fiction of Jules Verne and his contemporaries a century ago foretold this last development, picturing foreign wars shown to horrified domestic audiences. Some sf writers of that Wellsian era thought that witnessing the great tragedy of war would prevent it; instead, we have evolved an audience for price- free viewership. Nothing boosts ratings like gunfire.
Surely the story does not end here. A major unseen aspect of the TwenCen has been how passive the public has gotten. In our consumer culture we have the feeling not of making history, but of having it make us.
At this turn of yet another century driven by technology, what can we expect? Will passion return to civilization, or merely more distractions to amuse?
Robots and artificial intelligence generally form the conventional background logic of the future, and probably war will become ever more distant from the lives of ordinary people.
All chancy pursuits--policing, rescue--are already the stuff of "real-TV" thanks to the video camera. Even our grand adventures will be so.
I have just finished a novel about the first crewed Mars expedition and how gritty and tough it will have to be, entitled *"The Martian Race."* While researching it, poring through the designs of NASA and other planners, I realized that all of us will go along as well, riding with the manned rovers as they turn every fresh corner, puzzling over curious features--but at no risk to us, of course. Even the big time delay due to the finite speed of light, which will be half an hour or more for most of the expedition, will not blunt the feeling the explorers will have, of being the keyhole through which many billions of people peek at a whole new world.
When a climber on Everest knew he was dying in a snowstorm several years ago, he used his portable phone to call his wife in Australia and say farewell. This event calls up many conflicting emotions, ones we have never confronted before.
The best aspect of our intensely interactive future is that it knits humanity together. If tough issues come up on Mars, they will be endlessly debated Earthside. Few feats of valor can ever again be carried out truly alone.
But that also means that even great events risk descending to the level of gossip. If the public is paying, it will be worse. I chose to portray a race to Mars, for a prize of $30 billion, because that frees the competition from the incessant over-the- shoulder anxiety that politicians live with every day. Who wants to explore Mars and find their every move second-guessed by couch potatoes---all watching the 21st Century on their 3D TVs in well- warmed, surround-sound cocoons a hundred million miles away?
Valor and heroes demand some distance. The future may not give that remove to them---to their loss, and to ours.
What of our own lives?
As population rises, and the advanced nations suffer more immigration, the future city will get more crowded, more prone to the vices of sprawl. But it will have subtle problems, for it shall be a living city---the Metropolis, eternally active in the computer sense. Smart chips will become so cheap that the capacity in your laptop will by 2030 reside in a single chip that can regulate your car, your clothing or your home, with infinite gradations available, according to shifts in the weather.
By the year 2010, reasonably savvy computer chips will cost a penny apiece, meaning that anything could be made smart, able to interact with people dexterously. Sensing humidity and temperature, prescription bottles will constantly recalculate the expiration date for the medicine inside--and remind us with a beep when to take it. A chip in the packaged ham we bought on impulse will tell the refrigerator when it should be thrown out. Our homes will know which room we are in and tune them to us. Music, scent, art, air temperature and humidity, even the views out of flat- screen high-resolution windows--all will fit our preferences.
Commonplace machines will answer when spoken to, give assistance in their own operation (that is, answer dumb questions with unfailing courtesy). Deftly they'll program themselves to our repeated needs without being told. They will be true house servants because houses---indeed, all the Metropolis---will come to be servants. "Cocooning" will be ever easier.
We'll still venture out, though, if only for an ever-elusive variety, as chain stores proliferate and malls guarantee safe sameness. At our favorite mall, a wall will hail us cheerfully by name as we approach, babbling in full-color big-screen enthusiasm about the bargains "just a few steps away!"
We may attempt to tell our wearable computer to disable all advertisements along our path, but somebody will find a way around that, too. Our self-software will be in a perpetual battle with an invasive world, much as telephone salesmen invaded our privacy in the TwenCen, and internet sharks spammed us.
Our computer's biomed sensor will discreetly sniff the air and whisper in our ear implants, if the salesclerk is still shedding cold viruses or if the subway car heading back home is a Petri dish of flu. Even home, we will get more advice than we may truly want.
Such environments could yield a new style of human, bred into a comfy, caring culture. The city will seem not shadowy and sinister, a TwenCen film noir future clich‚, but welcoming and responsive. In contrast, nature will seem dead or other-directed. Trees and animals will be noticeably oblivious, unconcerned with our well-being. Strollers in the park will feel uneasy leaving the manicured paths. Children on educational trips into the forest will crowd their tents together, seeking the reinforcement that they expect from their surroundings.
This new sort of human will have political impact, as well. Expect plenty more of good-for-you paternalism: strict rules favoring creature comforts and safety, much like today's no- smoking zones and tsk-tsk eye-brow raising at the very existence of steak restaurants.
As tiny risks get magnified by the ever-alarmist media, we shall see more bans on food ingredients like peanuts in airline food, a high protein wonder-plant of the last century to which a very few have allergies. Expect every marginal dislike to expand into a chance for treasured victim status.
This is already happening in the voluntary, closed communities favored by the elderly. In California, several cities are wholly walled and gated. Rules set hours for mowing lawns and playing stereos, restrict types of pets and numbers of visitors. Beverly Hills has ordinances setting how many balls may be in play on a tennis court (to stop instructors from using the public courts) and the number of workmen who can park near a construction site.
All these rules have rationales, of course. Those who see the benign, friendly walls of the Metropolis as claustrophobic and subtly threatening will be considered cranks or subversives. Luddites, even.
Will this caring city shape a humanity missing vital, earthy virtues? The pervasive, softening imagery of this future humanity could be stifling.
Every new technology can both open and close doors. The same development can encourage cocooning or claustrophobia or courage, depending on use. Sensors that read our facial expressions, sniff our breath and smell our skin for clues to our internal chemistries, can work wonders for some, who will be well served by extra artificial help.
The first arena to embrace new technologies is usually the market, where every edge is perceived to lead to profit.
It may help to think not of a smooth future vista, following a steady trajectory upward, but of the odd turns such a future makes all too possible.
Moreover, lest we imagine that such products will only be our pets:
All these are mere glimpses of what could await us in the next hundred years. A century is an enormous span, stretching our foresight to the full. H. G. Wells's great visionary novels appeared only a century ago, yet many of their imaginings have come true. Some never will--particularly two of the most lasting: Martian invaders and time travelers.
The point of specific visions is not their accuracy, but their implications. Ray Bradbury often remarks that his goal is not to predict the future but to prevent it. Quite right---some visions we may not favor, but should study---and here sf comes into its own.
Social reaction will ultimately spell the fate of many innovations, perhaps more than in the high-flying TwenCen.
Though robots will alter much about our laboring life, the greatest promise lies in integrating them with biotechnology. This could usher in as profound a revolution as industrialization did in the early 19th century. It will parallel and interact with other vast themes--the expansion of artificial intelligence, the opening of the inner solar system to economic use, and more.
The true issue for thinking people is how this immense menu of possibilities plays out, not considered each in isolation, but all together at once. The conceptual goulash promised us by even such fairly linear projections as I have given here is both tasty and daunting.
This means it is properly the stuff of both science and science fiction.
Whatever surprises lie in store, thinking broadly and variously will be a better preparation---and more fun---than all the earnest, linear projections the futurists can make.
Comments and objections to this column are welcome. Please send them to Gregory Benford, Physics Department, Univ. Calif., Irvine, CA 92717. email: email@example.com
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Copyright © 1998–2015 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide