DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

The Self-Preventing Prophecy: How a Dose of Nightmare Can Help Tame Tomorrow's Perils

By David Brin, Ph.D.

What will the future be like?

That question is very much on peoples' minds these days. Yet, as a "futurist" and science fiction author, I am much more interested in exploring possibilities than likelihoods, because a great many more things might happen than actually do.

One of the most powerful novels of all time, published fifty years ago, foresaw a dark future that never came to pass. That we escaped the destiny portrayed in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, may be owed in part to the way his chilling tale affected millions, who then girded themselves to fight "Big Brother" to their last breath.

In other words, Orwell may have helped make his own scenario not come true.

Since then, many other "self-preventing prophecies" rocked the public's conscience or awareness. Rachel Carson foresaw a barren world if we ignored environmental abuse -- a mistake we may have partly averted, thanks to warnings like Silent Spring and Soylent Green. Who can doubt that films like Dr. Strangelove, On The Beach, and Fail-Safe helped caution us against dangers of inadvertent nuclear war? As for Big Brother, every conceivable power center, from governments and corporations to criminal and techno-elites, is repeatedly targeted by Hollywood's most relentless message... to stay suspicious of all authority.

These examples point to something bigger and more important than mere fiction. Something deeply human keeps us both fascinated and worried about tomorrow's dangers. We all try to project our thoughts into the future, using special portions of our brains called prefrontal lobes to envision, fantasize, and explore possible consequences of our actions, noticing errors and evading some mistakes.

Humans acquired these mysterious nubs of gray matter -- sometimes called the "lamps on our brows" -- before the Neolithic era. What has changed is our effectiveness at using them. Today, we devote much of our economy to predicting, forecasting, planning, investing, making bets, or just preparing for times to come.

Our civilization's success depends at least as much on the mistakes we avoid as successes we plan, but sadly no one compiles lists of these narrow escapes. They somehow seem less interesting than each week's crisis. People point to a few species saved from extinction, fixing the ozone hole, and our good fortune at avoiding nuclear war. That's about it for famous near-misses. But should you start a serious list, you'll tally a surprising roll call of dodged bullets and lucky breaks.

Learning how and why we've accomplished this ought to be a high priority.

Are we really using those famous prefrontal lobes better? Has something changed in the way civilization deals with the future?

[image from about.com]

What if tomorrow's chemists shrink their labs the same way cyberneticists transformed computers? Intricate techniques of chemical analysis have already been automated and miniaturized, as part of the Human Genome Project. Suppose a time comes when every teenager with a desktop MolecuMac can synthesize any substance, at will? Will chemical innovation and initiative flourish, the way creative software was unleashed by the arrival of personal computers? What will this do to our drug policies? Will we ever feel the same toward the food teenagers serve us at restaurants?

[image from Wikipedia]

History is a long and dreary litany of ruinous decisions made by rulers in all centuries and on all continents. No convoluted social theory is needed to explain this. A common flaw in human character -- self-deception -- eventually enticed even great leaders into taking fatal missteps, ignoring the warnings of others.

As the late physicist-author Richard Feynman put it. "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself -- and you are the easiest person to fool."

George Orwell portrayed the essential stupidity of tyranny in the ferocious yet delusional oligarchy of Oceania, in Nineteen Eighty-Four. By keeping the masses ill-educated and quashing free speech, the Oceania elite strove to eliminate criticism and preserve their short-term status, guaranteeing long-term disaster. The same tragic and ubiquitous defect -- played out in ten thousand tribes and nations -- may have been the biggest factor chaining us far below our potential as a species, until we stumbled onto a solution.

The solution of many voices.

Each of us may be too stubbornly self-involved to catch all our own mistakes. But in an open society, we can often count on others to notice them for us. Though we all hate irksome criticism and accountability, they are tools that work. The great secular institutions that have fostered our unprecedented wealth and freedom -- science, justice, democracy and markets -- function best when all players get to see, hear, speak, know, argue, compete and create without fear.

Today, even our elites cannot escape being pilloried by spotlights and scrutiny. In moving away from rigid command structures, we seem to be gambling instead on an odd combination -- blending rambunctious individualism with mutual accountability. The two may sound incompatible, at first, but one cannot thrive without the other.

Technological advances like the Internet may help amplify this trend, or squelch it, depending on choices we make in the next few years.

[image from Indiana Public Media]

What conundrums will we see, over the next few years? Try a new pill that lets macho husbands sire only boys. Or an effective lie detector. Or a laser that lets arsonists set fires from far away.

What about the 15 trillion dollars that baby boomers are set to inherit? Say six percent of it goes to cool projects, what might a trillion dollars finance? Reforesting the Sahel? A trip to Mars? Suppose prosperity spreads all across the world, will that mean having to put up with eight billion tourists?

If that sounds awful, try the opposite. Destructive technologies seep out among the mad, self-righteous, or merely angry. A city "dusted" with radionuclides. An aquifer laced with viroids. A civilization based on mutual dependency meets individualism at its worst, spiced by rancor, without accountability.

[image from The Quotes Project]

One can spin countless scenarios about the next few years, but whatever we forecast now will surely be surpassed by startling events, because the range of the possible exceeds by many orders of magnitude the reach of one imagination. What I can say with certainty is the key to our success -- both personal and as a society -- will be agility in dealing with whatever the future hurls our way. Moreover, there are reasons to think we already have what it takes.

Consider the following hoary clichés:

"Too bad human decency and justice haven't kept pace with our technological progress."

"No past era featured as much cruelty and misery as this one."

In spite of their vogue, both are patently false. Over half of those alive on Earth today never saw war, starvation or major civil strife with their own eyes. Most never went more than a day without food. Only a small fraction have seen a city burn, heard the footsteps of a conquering army, or watched an overlord massacre the helpless. All these events were routine for our ancestors.

Of course, hundreds of millions have experienced such things, and the terrors continue. Our consciences, prodded by the relentless power of television, must not cease demanding compassion and vigorous action. Still, things have changed somewhat since humanity wallowed in horror, during the middle years of the Twentieth Century. The ratio of humans who now live modestly safe and comfortable lives has never been greater.

As for comparing technical and moral advances, there's no contest. For example, while I truly love the Internet, its effects on real life have so far been exaggerated. Telephones and radio had far greater immediate effects when they entered the home. Yes, we have fancier autos and sleeker airplanes. But people still pack their kids in a car and fight traffic to reach the airport in time to meet Grandma's flight from Chicago... as they did when I was seven. Life's tempo has speeded, but the basic rhythm is little different than it was in 1958.

It is our attitudes -- toward all sorts of injustices that used to be considered inherent -- that underwent a transformation unlike any in history.

When the famous Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey appeared in 1967, two monumental projects transfixed the people of the United States -- conquering outer space and overcoming deeply ingrained social injustice. Who would have imagined that colonizing space would prove so grindingly slow -- but by 2000 we'd refute so many cruel bigotries once taken for granted, back in 1967? We still don't have the fancy space stations of 2001, but our astronauts come in all sexes and colors. And kids who watch them on TV feel less fettered by presumed limitations. Each may choose to hope, or not, without being told you can't.

I think that may be the most important thing to notice, as we turn away from the past and face the future. The road ahead remains long, hard and murky. Our achievements often seem dim compared to imperfections that are left unsolved. But at this rate, who will bet me that a woman or a person of color won't preside in the White House long before the first human being steps on Mars?

Progress doesn't always go the way we expect it to.

It is sometimes wiser than we are.