The Future of the Future

Review: 'Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve And/Or Ruin Everything' by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith

A robotics student interacts with a Dexmart robotic hand / Getty Images

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There's a principle for evaluating new technology that receives less attention than it deserves. The principle might be phrased this way: The flagship is not the fleet. Which is to say, the best use of any new technology—the most striking and morally praiseworthy use, and the use for the sake of which we were urged to adopt something new—will rarely prove to be the most common use. Any technology distributed to a large number of people will quickly take on a life of its own, for good and for ill, as users turn the new technology toward the old ambitions, anxieties, and debaucheries of human nature.

Think, for example, of plastic surgery, which was sold to medical schools as a technique for restoring the damaged faces of burned children and military veterans—and now, if average numbers of surgeries are any guide, seems mostly to exist to extend the shelf-life of trophy wives. Or think, for another example, of email, which began as a way for military researchers to talk with one another—and now, by recent estimates, exists mostly to deliver unsolicited advertisements, with spam accounting for somewhere around 60 percent of emails sent at any given moment. Think, for that matter, of the Internet itself, which transitioned from the first iteration of the Web to Web 2.0 due in large measure to the pornographers who figured out how to display videos, share pictures, and monetize the online world. By conservative estimates, porn still accounts for 10 to 15 percent of Internet searches.

What makes this tricky is that not all widespread usage is bad. Democratized technology is always vulgar, pretty much by definition—the word descended from vulgus, Latin for the common people. And if the universal automobile gave us souped-up drag cars, demolition derbies, and NASCAR, so what? Some of the earliest gramophone successes included recordings of Rachmaninoff on the piano. And if the successful democratizing of recorded music means nowadays that Whitney Houston's warble on the soundtrack for The Bodyguard, the Bee Gees’s falsetto on the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever, and Meat Loaf’s eccentricity on Bat Out of Hell all rank among the eight bestselling albums of all time, well, so be it. The flagship is not the fleet, and maybe we won't like the fleet when it finally arrives, but maybe we will.

To their credit, Kelly and Zach Weinersmith seem to grasp the principle in Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve And/Or Ruin Everything, a recent romp through what the future currently seems to be promising. The wife, Kelly, is a distinguished science professor at Rice University, while the husband, Zach, draws Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a cult-favorite nerd cartoon akin to Randall Munroe’s webcomic, XKCD.

Together the couple has produced what can really only be described as a guide to the promises and perils of future technology for an intellectually curious 15-year-old boy. Cartoons litter the text, not just as illustrations but as continuations of the narrative. Effects are imagined as they might play out for maximum weirdness. Even the ethics in the book have a bright adolescent's tinge, wrongness emerging mostly as self-contradiction, the possible results of something negating the reason for seeking the technology in the first place.

Soonish takes up ten future technologies that, in the authors' view, have a reasonable chance of coming true. Looking at expansion out into the galaxy, they examine space elevators as a way of reaching orbit cheaply (in a chapter subtitled "The Final Frontier Is Too Damn Expensive") and asteroid mining (in a chapter subtitled "Rummaging Through the Solar System’s Junkyard").

In its next set of vignettes, the book turns first to attempts to harness the sun's fusion power (concluding that the gain of solar panels in space would not be worth the cost of transmitting the power back to Earth). The Weinersmiths are less bothered by the idea of programmable matter, and more bothered by augmented reality, than the average reader will probably be, but their account of robotic construction seems dead on.

It's when they take up the space inside the body that technology starts to grow creepy, nearing the point of ordinary repugnance even when the flagship use is considered. Medicine done through an AI's use of statistics and computers interfaced with the brain suggest there may exist technologies that ought to be avoided even if we have the technical know-how to create them. To their chapter on bioprinting human organs and body parts, the Weinersmiths give the subtitle "Why Stop at Seven Margaritas When You Can Just Print a New Liver?"—a perfect illustration of their grasp of the principle that the flagship is not the fleet.

All in all, Kelly and Zach Weinersmith are optimistic in Soonish. "It will not be easy to make any of these technologies work," they note. "But once they do work, we can finally turn heaven over to the adventurers."

And, really, they are right to be cheerleaders for most of the (possibly) emerging technology they describe. The flagship/fleet dilemma gets its bite from the fact that the flagship—the brightest, most fascinating, and most morally praiseworthy use of a technology—usually is exactly that: bright, fascinating, and praiseworthy, the kind of thing that seems to fulfill the Enlightenment goals of cultural advancement. A successful space elevator, for example, would be an amazing accomplishment of the human spirit.

Of course, a successful space elevator would also make it easy for one country to drop rocks on another and fill the heavens with space junk. As far as that goes, it would probably be used most of the time for tourism: human achievement reduced first to Disneyland and then to Disney World—and now to Disney Orbit. That is, if tourists can stand the g-forces to which a space elevator will put them. The trouble with democratizing any new technology is that the human spirit is a restless thing, and it will not be confined to certain best uses when there exist other possible uses—whatever, en masse, our ingenuity, commercial interest, and sex drive can come up with.

To point out such things does not require becoming a Luddite, joining the Amish, or jump-starting the Butlerian Jihad. Kelly and Zach Weinersmith are about as far from Luddites or Amish believers as its possible to be. (I detect a fugitive hint of Butlerian sympathy in Soonish, but that may be a projection of my own uneasiness about artificial intelligence in the wake of this week’s news about AlphaGo Zero, a neural network that took just three days to learn on its own how to be the best player on the planet of the ancient board game Go.)

For those still catching up on the directions in which new technology may emerge—and for all precocious 15-year-old nerds—Soonish is a solid, cartoon-illustrated guide to tomorrowland: a future composed of both beauties and blemishes.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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