I was direct messaging with an internet friend recently about what to do to find a “mission” in life–always a big thing for me–because I like a solid reason to get up in the morning and be motivated. What I came up with as a potential project was to start researching technologies to make the world a better place. Today I’ll take a shot at explaining what I mean by that and then, over subsequent posts, I’ll discuss individual topics or technologies of interest. This could be a hit, it could be a flop; in any case, it’ll keep me entertained. And being the harmless egoist I am, that’s pretty much why I’m doing this. So let’s start with something “simple,” like answering, “What do I mean by ‘make the world a better place’?” Onward!
Depending on whom you read–the Club of Rome (who thinks things are worse now than they’ve ever been and likely to get worse) or technological optimists like science fiction writer David Brin (who believes the opposite–you might be a little apprehensive about the future. The old ills dramatized in humanities great books are still with us: war, poverty, hunger, ignorance, corruption, personal violence/abuse, drug abuse, pollution, urban blight, discrimination, and so forth.
Can technology or technologies really address all of these ills? I am enough of an optimist (and science fiction reader) to at least be open to the possibilities. I would like to see technological approaches to real-world problems attempted. A while back, a good friend at NASA and I were debating the likelihood of a “post-scarcity” economy, where the basics of life–food, clean water, shelter, clothing, just as a starter–would be so common as to be nearly free. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be problems. My friend reminded me that yes, there probably would be problems, but they would be new problems to the ones we’ve been battling for (roughly) 5,000 years of recorded history.
As a favorite futurist of mine (Jerry Pournelle) put it, “I want Western Civilization to survive; not only survive, but survive with style.”
The primary input that makes other problems soluble is energy. Add enough energy to our system, and we can afford to build better machines, feed more people, and make more solutions possible. There are high-power-density energy solutions on the horizon with much lower environmental impact than petrochemicals, which would be better used for chemistry than fuel. So energy will be a regular topic in these blogs.
Another thing that I’ll touch on is that I believe most or all of these technical solutions to age-old problems can be solved without massive government intervention into or control over our daily lives. If you want to know why I disfavor government planning or control over the economy, please read the history of the Soviet Union from 1918 to 1990. I’m a fan of capitalism, private ownership, and individual freedom. Government-mandated control of earthly resources will eventually include one of those most precious resources: freedom of speech. Call me crazy, but I’d still like to keep that around.
Lastly, I’ll be researching technologies that are designed to benefit everyone…and yes, that means people who don’t look, think, worship, or love like me. Less expensive energy and increased freedom increase what SF writer Frederik Pohl once noted (I can’t now recall where), that most important of freedoms in the future, the freedom to make choices. We also all benefit from a cleaner environment and a diverse biosphere, just as we’d all benefit from a defense from asteroids.
In the end, I’m going to try to put these little essays to work as a way to help myself (and maybe others) see a better future: one with fewer wars, fewer environmental crises, and fewer conflicts over access to the goods of this Earth and the civilization we’ve built upon it. Technology, properly employed, can be a benefit. It cannot change who we are as a species…at least, not yet. I’m looking forward to this adventure. I don’t know how often I’ll put out these tech entries, so I beg your indulgence as I fit them into my schedule. Yet after all, shouldn’t we all make time in our lives to make this world a better place?