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July 25-31, 2007

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Futures Not Taken

By Annalee Newitz

THE FUTURE is a crowded graveyard, full of dead possibilities. Each headstone marks a timeline that never happened, and there's something genuinely mournful about them. I get misty-eyed looking at century-old drawings of the zeppelin-crammed skyline over "tomorrow's cities." It reminds me that the realities we think are just around the corner may die before they're born.

A few weeks ago, I was trolling YouTube and stumbled across a now-hilarious documentary from the 1970s based on the 1970 futurist book Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler. The documentary focused on a few themes from the book and tarted them up by throwing in a lot of trippy effects and sticking in Orson Welles as a narrator.

As Welles intones ponderously about how fast the future is arriving, we learn that "someday soon" everybody will be linked via computers. Essentially, it was an extremely accurate prediction about Internet culture. Score one for old Toffler.

Things went tragically incorrect when the documentary turned to biology. Very soon, Welles assures his audience, people will have complete control over the genome and drugs will cure everything from anxiety to aging. Through the wonders of pharmaceuticals, we'll become a race of immortal superhumans. It sounded almost exactly like the kinds of crap that futurists say now, 37 years later.

Singularity peddlers like futurist Ray Kurzweil and genomics robber baron Craig Venter are always crowing about how we're just about to seize control over our genomes and live forever. So far, we haven't. But every generation dreams about it, hoping they'll be the first humans to cheat death.

Some dreams of the future, however, shouldn't outlast the generation that first conceived them. Suburbia is one of those dreams. In the fat postwar years of the 1940s and '50s, it seemed like a great idea to build low-density housing to blanket the harsh desert landscapes of the Southwest. But now the green lawns of Southern California have become an environmental nightmare of water-sucking parasitism.

Just think of the atrocious carbon footprint left behind when you lay pavement, wires and pipes over a vast area so that nuclear families can each have huge yards and swimming pools instead of living intelligently in high-density green skyscrapers surrounded by organic farms.

Oh wait—I just gave away my own crazy futurist dreams, inspired by urban environmentalism. Today, many of us imagine that the future will be like the green city of Dongtan, an eco-friendly region being built outside Shanghai that will allow no cars within city limits, using recycled water, green building materials and urban gardens. The hope is that Dongtan will have a teeny, tiny carbon footprint, and be a model of urban life for the future. Of course, that's what suburbia was supposed to be, too—a model of a good future life. No future is ever perfect.

Perhaps the saddest dead futures, though, are the ones whose end may mean the end of humanity. I suppose one could argue that the death of an environmentally conscious future is in that category. But what I'm talking about are past predictions that humans would colonize the moon and outer space. As the dream of a Mars colony withers, and the idea of colonizing the moons of Saturn and Jupiter becomes more like a fantasy than ever before, I feel real despair.

Maybe my desperate hopes for space colonization are my version of Kurzweil's prediction that one day we'll take drugs that make us immortal. Somehow, I think, if we could just have diverted the global war machine into a space-colony machine sometime back in the 1930s, then everything would be all right. Today, the planet wouldn't be suffering from overpopulation, plague and starvation. We'd all be spread out across the solar system, tending our terraforming machines and growing weird crops out of the sands of Mars.

Of course, we might just be polluting every planet we touched and bringing our stupid dreams of conquering the genome to a bunch of poor nonhuman creatures with no defenses. But I still miss that future of outer-space colonies. I can't help but think it would be better than the future we've got.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd whose Martian colony has a better space elevator than yours.

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