I’ve seen the future and it will be…I’ve seen the future and it works.
If there’s life after we will see…
–Prince, The Future
So I’m a little shy of four months into my sojourn with Zero Point Frontiers. There’s no getting around it: I’m having a great time. We’ve been quite busy doing work across the space field, from NASA to Virgin Galactic to Department of Defense to (our latest partnership) Golden Spike. And when we’re not looking at that, the CEO has me researching anything from energy to nanotechnology. It’s fascinating work, to be certain.
The challenge I face is that I’m a science fiction reader. Why would that be a problem? If anything, SF has given me an advantage when it comes to understanding and explaining the various projects I research. Here’s the problem: since Mary Shelley first wrote Frankenstein in 1818, SF has had a strong current of technological pessimism. The subtitle of Frankenstein, for those who haven’t read it, is The Modern Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan who was punished for giving humans the use of fire by being chained to a rock and having an eagle fly up each day and feed on his liver. The liver would then grow back the next day. The lesson, of course, is that the gods sought to punish Prometheus for enabling humanity to advance their tools.
The exemplar of modern technological SF pessimism is probably the late Michael Crichton, who wrote books such as The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, Airframe, and most famously Jurassic Park. But Crichton was hardly alone. Pessimism in SF takes multiple forms:
- Unintended consequences: What sorts of problems are likely to arise from a specific technological advance if it is used in ways unintended by its inventors?
- The problem of evil: What sorts of problems are likely to occur if a bad person gets hold of a benevolent technology? (See Star Trek II.)
- General stupidity: What sorts of problems are likely to occur if a new technology is handled badly (see nearly anything written by author Frederik Pohl)?
- Accidents: What sorts of problems are likely to occur if a wondrous new technology breaks down?
- Reductio ad absurdum: What happens when a technological advance or social trend is taken to a ridiculous extreme?
All of these problems happen today, resulting in anything from jokes to entries on America’s Funniest Home Videos to horrific headlines. Many, but not all, of our problems with today’s technologies were predicted by SF writers 30 to 70 years ago. Some things the old “Grand Masters” called, some you could argue that they prevented, and some things they missed entirely. They weren’t trying to predict the future as prophets–they were trying to make a buck by writing engaging, believable, scientifically informed stories. And quite frankly, if they didn’t include some sort of “dark side,” they wouldn’t have anything for their heroes to overcome and the stories wouldn’t have sold.
Star Trek covers both sides of the technology coin. The starship Enterprise visited worlds on a weekly basis that faced one of the above problems and then tried to find humanity-improving solutions.
Which brings me back to my day job. Space, energy, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and robotics are all technological arenas that will affect our lives on an ever-increasing basis in the future. So if you’re working on these things, do you worry more about what the bad guys are going to do with them, or do you just expect that the technobabble solutions to those challenges will be found? It helps to be an optimist. Read enough history or SF, however, and optimism does not come easy–it’s a trained response. You start seeing problems before the design has even come out of its first iteration.
My pals D2 and eCurt suggested that I try a different approach to my work: rather than focus on the potential problems first, go with the brainstorming for a bit. Make a positive contribution. Once things move into a more detailed phase, then worry about the downsides, and make sure the engineers are taking them into account. Sounds like a plan.
And I have to remember my favorite quotation from Star Trek II, by James T. Kirk, of course: “I don’t believe in a no-win scenario.” As long as we keep that attitude alive, our technological future will remain a bright and wide-open frontier.