Monday, December 31, 2007

Time Capsule for the Real Millennium

On the last day of 1999 I "planted" a time capsule on the Internet by emailing it to a bunch of people in my address book. That one has already gotten lost -- maybe if you have a copy you could dig it up and send it back to me. But a year later I did it again, and I'm unearthing it here for the first time just to celebrate the revival of The Nort Spews.

Even though it's only been seven years, it's already interesting to look back on. And if any of it seems too fantastic, you should check out what Chris Phoenix and his cohorts are up to at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.

December 31, 2000. Last year (1999) I planted a time capsule to celebrate the millennium. But all year I've been nagged by that argument about when the millennium actually ends. Everyone who was just waiting for the big odometer to roll over has had all their fun by now, but the purists insist that centuries and millenia end with zero and start with one, so it's only happening now, at the end of 2000. (People are already abandoning the habit of calling it "the year 2000," because when someone says "two thousand" we know what they mean by now.)

This counting business is nonsense to many people, who know that zero comes before one, but the purists remind us there was never a year called "zero," only "one" CE (formerly Anno Domine, but now Common Era) and "one" BCE, or plus and minus one starting from the uncertain zero point of Christianity. It does no good to tell the purists that no one ever counted their dates backwards, nor did they count down with foreknowledge of when the big birthday would come. We all know the calendar is just an arbitrary construct laid on top of history like a piece of tracing paper with grids on it. Nevertheless, celebrating the end of something as it rolls over from zero to one rubs us the wrong way.

My personal preference to resolving this debate is to go back and invent a year Zero, the year before Jesus is said to have been born, and to move all the BCE dates back one year. The beauty of this is that none of the CE dates need to be revised in history books and newspapers, and we won't get confused when going through fifty years of back issues of Life magazine. As for the BCE dates, does anyone really care if the Trojan War started a year earlier than it is usually recorded? Let's face it, there's a reason they call this "ancient history." With this system in place, we could celebrate the next century and millennium at the moment they reach zero with a clear conscience, and the purists would have nothing to be pure about anymore.

However, no one in a position of power has asked my opinion, so for now we're stuck with the current system, flawed though it may be. The only thing left to do is bury another time capsule so as to cover my bets. So here it is, in this box you've unearthed after a hundred or a thousand years.

The first item is this newspaper clipping that inspired my time capsule last year. It tells how in 1995 they dug up a time capsule from 1895 that was buried by the ordinary people of a Midwestern town that was celebrating its centennial that year (coincidentally, the year before my own city of Miami was founded). What captured my attention was the letter inside that was addressed by one of the town's women to the people of the miraculous future. She crowed a bit first, as you can see, about the marvels of her own century -- the invention of the steam engine, the transcontinental railroad, telegraph, telephone, electric light and the victrola. But what got me was that last line: "And what have you done?" she asked. "Have you perhaps invented a flying machine?"

See what I mean? That was the farthest her imagination could reach. But only eight years later, just three years into the twentieth century, the Wright brothers took off. The flying machine was the FIRST thing we did. Could she have imagined -- or indeed could anyone else, even the likes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells -- that within twelve years after that airplanes would be used in warfare for the first time, that in another ten years Lindberg could fly across the Atlantic, that in another ten airline passengers would fly around the world with onboard meals and berths to sleep in, that in another ten massive airforces and bombardments would largely determine the course of all wars to come, that new propulsion systems would first break the sound barrier and then take pilots above the atmosphere into space, that in less than eighty years people would walk on the moon and contemplate the permanent colonization of other planets?

And of course, there are all those other questions she could not even have formulated. "Have you, perhaps, split the atom?" she might have inquired. Ten years later Einstein published his paper on relativity, and in another forty the desert lit up in Alamogordo with a force that is still beyond our comprehension. By century's end, the waste products of decades of Cold War bomb production and ill-advised nuclear power plants have accumulated into a problem that we can only bequeath to you poor people of the future. Sorry! That one kind of got away from us.

Or she might have said, "Have you invented a computing machine able to solve difficult mathematical problems?" Ha! Got you there, lady. You didn't even notice old man Hollerith and his punch cards right in your midst, nor could you imagine how these things could be coupled with electronics to do everything from code breaking to analyzing the weather. Not to mention the rest: that the machines would have no moving parts, that they would shrink to the size of dandruff flakes, that they would become part of nearly everything else we make, that our children would play with them as toys and grow bored. In the early years of computers even the people who worked with them doubted they would ever do certain kinds of abstract thinking, such as playing chess. Now only Grand Masters of the game can hope to beat the best computers, and little ones make great stocking stuffers for kids at Christmas. It is thought to be only a matter of time before a computer can pass the Turing Test -- proving itself indistinguishable from a human in written conversation.

Or how about this one: "Have you discovered the secrets of life itself?" (Now, don't get metaphysical on me, we know what she would have meant.) In 1895 "genetics" was no more than the statistical study of the results of cross-breeding experiments, and "medicine" meant primitive surgery with rudimentary anesthetics. Sixty-odd years later, after the elimination of most common childhood diseases and many adult ones, like polio and smallpox, the double helix of DNA stood revealed, that inner monument of ourselves that lives in every cell. Forty more years and we have organ transplants, birth control pills, cloning, human fertilization in lab equipment, and we've almost finished mapping what every gene is responsible for, with who knows what applications of this knowledge to follow. (I'm leaving out an interesting subplot here involving recreational drugs. Like the Dupont company used to say, "Better living through chemistry.")

At this point I'm going to stop making fun of that 1890's woman and praise her for her courage in trying to imagine what would come next. It's a daunting task even for people who make it their business. Think of how many science fiction writers imagined the first trip to the moon before it happened, and they all got one thing wrong: no one ever dared to imagine there would be live TV coverage of the event all over the world. Nor did any of them predict the advent of the personal computer or how ubiquitous microprocessors would change everything we do. No wonder people working in this field now tend to write about futures so far away that their predictions will never be matched to a reality, or about hypothetical "what-if" worlds other than our own, or about post-apocalyptic times in which things become more primitive.

Not to be outdone, however, I'm going to venture a few guesses in the hopes that it might interest you in the future to know what we could or could not imagine, just as I found it interesting to measure the foresight of that 19th century mind.

1) Politics. I'm not going to bother you about our recent election, because you know the details, including the next four years and their aftermath, better than I. No doubt our fiasco is no more than a historical footnote, illuminating how arcane our voting methods were. Enclosed is a photocopy of one of our ballots so you can see how it looked, and a sample punch card -- that's right, the same kind Hollerith was using in 1895. Some things change more slowly than others.

So never mind about us. How about you? I assume that by a hundred years from now, not to mention a thousand, the USA will be on the wane. They called the twentieth century the American one, but it's over now. It's hard to imagine how six percent of the world's population can continue to hog most of its resources. Even though we're a polite empire -- allowing everyone to keep their own popularly elected governments, languages and cultures if they want to -- we're still an empire, wielding power in complex and subtle ways, and the thing about empires is they don't last forever. You don't have to look back as far as the Romans for evidence of this, or even Napoleon. Just ask the Russians. Or consider that in 1895 Britannia still ruled the waves, the sun never set on its empire, and Victoria was "Queen of England and Empress of India," a title that would seem funny now if it weren't so sad. Now the independent nation of India is a nuclear power and on track to become the most populous country on earth. Good luck to little old England if they ever have a quarrel. Everything in my house -- and I mean everything -- is manufactured in China. Isn't this some writing on the wall? There's an old prophecy about what happens when they awaken over there.

The only questions remaining are: a) How long have we got? and b) How will we handle it? I hope the answers are: A long time yet, and Gracefully. Thinking about this makes me want to go back and read more about the decline of Rome. There were a few interesting centuries when they shrank back from the barbarians and turned into the Holy Roman Empire before they became completely irrelevant. Even then, it was Italy that lit the fuse of the Renaissance, so you could say they had a good long run. Britain was at the top of the heap for at least a couple of centuries before its decline, and left a lot of good civilization behind all the way from the Magna Carta to ourselves. True, there have been empires with shorter runs -- take the Third Reich, for instance. But I've got to think we'll still have a role to play for quite a while. For one thing, we've still got a lot of money. I see us becoming a kind of gigantic Switzerland with banks and technology companies spinning off lots of trade. Maybe if we mellow out we could become decent diplomats in mediating the disputes of others -- something we're doing rather ham-handedly at the moment. Perhaps like Britain we will leave behind some social gifts to the rest of the world. Certain principles of individual freedom and basic human rights seem to have taken root. And our legacy of art, music, drama, literature and film is already enough to keep historians happy for a long time.

Oh, one more thing: the future belongs to socialism. At the moment this seems crazy, right when capitalism and what we call "democracy" seem to have carried the day. But in the era of increasing population and dwindling resources it will not be possible to allow free enterprise to run amok. Governments will have to exert more restraining influence over the redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, and to do a better job of providing social services. Otherwise the political and economic system will collapse on a level that will make the Great Depression look like just another down day on Wall Street. Some people will see this as a loss of freedom, but it will be a necessary one and hopefully benign. I'm watching the newly unified Europeans, who already believe this and are managing to expand their economy without letting so many people sleep in the streets as we do here, or starve, or die from lack of medical attention. Then there's China again ...

2) Technology. My friends who are science fiction fans would never forgive me if I didn't say anything about the future of space exploration. Here's a photo I took myself at the Kennedy Space Center of one of our space station modules being prepared for launch. If you look carefully you can see me reflected in the glass, holding the camera. (I hope you remember that support for the space program in our time was spurred by tourism.) So, here goes, even though I think this is as predictable as the question about the flying machine.

It seems obvious that space exploration is at the stage that world exploration was in about 500 years ago. Even after Columbus blundered into the New World, having mistaken the size of the globe, many years passed before the Europeans figured out that the real value of the place lay in colonization and the looting of resources -- not gold, but crops and timber. They didn't guess that the colonies would ever erupt into a world-changing social experiment and ultimately outpace them to become the dominant nation on the earth.

So history will repeat itself, as it does so well. We may have gone to the moon prematurely and for the wrong reason -- to demonstrate publicly our technological superiority to our adversary in the Cold War -- but we'll be back as soon as we figure out how to make money there. Our visionaries are already talking about habitats the size of small cities anchored in little gravitational balance points in translunar space, major colonies with mining and manufacturing operations on the moon and Mars, bringing asteroids to earth orbit as a source of raw materials, and eventually giant projects to alter the climates of Mars and Venus to make them amenable to human colonists. Having seen what's possible, given time, how can we doubt that ALL of these things will eventually come to pass? Not in a hundred years, but certainly within the five hundred that gave rise to ourselves, the population off the planet may surpass that still on it, and the more vital culture of the frontier will have plenty of time to grow to empire proportions, even time to decline, before the next millennium arrives. Eventually, probably sooner than we dare to think, we'll move on to some other star's planets. If we stay alive, you can't stop us.

But space won't be the major story. The woman in 1895 bragged about railroads, little realizing how they would suffer economic collapse and become mere industrial commodities before another half-century had gone by. She bragged about the telegraph, but where was Western Union when the fax machine and e-mail came along?

I'm guessing that biotechnology is in a similar stage of its development now as electricity was in 1895. Back then, electricity was just beginning to be put to some interesting and far-reaching uses, but it would have been hard to imaging what was to come in the next century -- first radio, then television ... from victrola to hi-fi and stereo, tape recorders, VCR's, CD's and DVD's ... computers, automation, wireless communication networks, satellite links ... electricity everywhere, doing everything, impossible to live without. And more than the simple fact of these technological artifacts is the impact they have had on our way of life. Consider television alone and what it has done to us, for good or ill, irretrievably.

So I figure biotech will go like that. We've got no idea where it leads yet, but it seems clear that we're about to start tinkering with those genes in a big way. It will probably take less time than we think before we're able to design organisms to do anything we can dream up. They've already got microbes that excrete the drugs we want, but that's just a beginning. If you live in the South, how about a variety of koala bear that lives exclusively on kudzu? Keep a few as pets and get rid of the obnoxious weed forever. Plus, they'll be cute, domesticated and housebroken.

The system of raising animals as food and slaughtering them will become a thing of the past. It will be possible to create "meat" protein, perfectly formulated for human needs, either hydroponically or as a crop in the fields. A few eccentric gourmets will still insist on real beef or lamb, but most people will feel it's abhorrent to eat a dead animal -- tantamount to cannibalism -- and will welcome the alternative. Look for it first on a bun in a fast food restaurant. What will it taste like? Chicken, of course! No, seriously, it will taste like anything you want. Words like "beef," "veal," "goat," and "turkey" will come to indicate flavors just as cherry, lemon, lime and grape have been applied to candy without any fruit being used.

The irony of this is that by the time it comes to pass relatively few of the species of animal life on the planet will still exist. Public debates will take place about the feasibility and desirability of reconstituting extinct species for environmental and aesthetic purposes. Once these projects are under way, it will be a short step to making improvements on the animal being recreated: a toothless vegetarian alligator, a skunk that doesn't stink, a crow with the voice of a canary. Design your own pets! Even long extinct examples like mammoths and dinosaurs would be possible, though the dangers and expenses of such large projects will make them unlikely. Anyway, it would be more fun to make something from a Dr. Seuss book.

The big question, of course, is what we will do with ourselves. Certainly we'll grow replacement organs, either in our own bodies or outside, making donors unnecessary and eliminating the shortage. We'll do anything that becomes possible for medical reasons. But it seems clear that the ability to redesign ourselves will be an irresistible temptation. Sooner or later someone, somewhere will do it. This makes me think that whoever you are in the future you must look back on us as something rather different and primitive compared to yourselves. I only hope you have made wise choices. Admittedly, most of us could be improved upon when it comes to appearance, intelligence and behavior. I imagine you more handsome and beautiful, able to use more of your brains than the paltry percentage they say we use now, and manufactured to be kinder and more cooperative so you don't destroy yourselves the way we are nearly doing.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong about all this. But I'll make you a promise. If medical science is able to increase my life span to 153 years (certainly a paltry increase by your loftier standards), I'll revise this and plant another time capsule on the last day of 2099. Or is it the last day of 2100?