Freeman Dyson; based on the Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures
One-line summary: The author applies the lessons of the
evolution of science, technology, and society to the extrapolation of society
in the future, and concludes (among other things) that proactive positive
guidance based on ethics will be necessary to avoid science-induced calamity.
Endemic short-term-only planning has been worsened by the widespread failure
of long-range socialist plans. Historically, only the voices of science
and religion have linked us with both ancestors and descendants, so that's
where we must look for guidance when peering into the future.
Smeed's Law: You can either get something done or take credit for it, but
Successful technologies have been driven by pragmatism, vision, amateur
enthusiasm or entrepreneurial spirit, rather than by ideology. They
have caught on because of "market pull" not "ideological push". Examples:
Commercial aviation by planes vs. airships (British Navy)
Commercial aviation by small prop planes vs. jets; British Comet was ideologically
geared to demonstrate technological superiority, whereas Boeing 707 was
designed to be economically feasible
Large ocean liners: Queen Mary breaking speed records was "an unfortunate
accident" that was a side effect of having to design large enough to realize
the economy of scale.
Politicians gain renown by saying "the buck stop here"--making a possibly
bad decision is better than none. Engineers gain it by saying "better
safe than sorry".
Ideological technologies are often characterized by (a) designed
by political committee; (b) artificially not allowed to fail even when
they have technologically failed.
Contrast "Napoleonic" (rigid, organized, big-project, big-management) vs.
"Tolstoyan" (small, nimble, creative chaos, anarchic) approach to science.
Some sciences are now coming full circle, having started Tolstoyan, been
"established" as Napoleonic, and reverting to Tolstoyan in the face of
uncertain funding or bad public opinion influencing politicians:
The space program: commercial spinoff technologies have made cheap COTS-based
missions possible (e.g. Mars Explorer); lack of big funding has made them
Radio astronomy: digital signal processing and fast cheap computers allow
"anyone" to analyze data; the bottleneck now is just gathering it.
(soon?) molecular biology; information science is providing the analytical
tools, but we lack the tools for the "Tolstoyan renaissance" (my phrase)
since currently no cheap way to gather genetic data.
Particle physics; small, cheap accelerators may come back into vogue, as
the "big science" projects such as SSC are axed
Contrast "concept driven" scientific revolution (eg traditional Kuhn view
of quantum mechanics revolution) with "tool driven" revolution, in which
the availability of a new tool (a) fundamentally changes the way the science
is done, (b) makes it accessible on an unprecedented scale.
Including biology, physics of various kinds, mathematics, particle physics
with cheap accelerators
Good and Bad Science and Technology
G.H. Hardy's view: science accentuates distinction between advantaged and
disadvantaged, or more directly contributes to destruction of human society.
Author: science is evil when its products tend to do this. Its products
can be used for good, but a free-market economy won't have this result
since the people likely to be able to pay for the new benefits will be
the patrons. Proactive ethical guidance is needed.
Most profound shocks will come from bioengineering and genetic engineering,
esp. as they merge with data processing. Those able to afford eugenic
enhancement, ectogenesis, etc. will drive its implementation, pay for it,
and thus distance themselves further from those who can't. The end
result of the process is social revolution.
Historically, "ordinary people" have resisted homogenizing effects of technology;
as a crowd, people are averse to logic and discipline, which is also why
most dogmatic totalitarian regimes don't last more than one generation
(i.e. enough to grow a generation of rebels).
Samuel Gompers (founder of AFL): first "pragmatist" pro-labor activist;
realized Americans didn't want "social revolution", just economic success
and a more comfortable lifestyle. His philosophy reflects the lesson
that pragmatism works better than ideology, both for creating technology
and for effecting social justice. Author claims that doctrinaire
free-market capitalism in the aftermath of WWII were the beginning of the
end for Gompers's progress, because "in a society without social justice
and with a free market ideology, guns, greed and jails are bound to win".
Religion should be enlisted since in the past it has had a profound role
in shaping people's ethics.
I can't agree with the argument for religion, even though very little time
is spent on it. Institutional religion has too many ill side effects
and it's not clear the "ethics" part can be cleanly separated out, but
the author doesn't mention this problem at all.
Various ramblings on the future (10, 100, 1K, 10K, 100K, 1M years) are
fairly pedestrian. The Gaia stuff is illogical--author argues that
perhaps our future on Earth depends on "understanding and preserving Gaia",
but by definition Gaia preserves itself and it is only we who are at risk.
This argues for either adapting to Gaia or regulating it, not "preserving"
One interesting proposition: if humans become a transplanetary/immortal/etc
race and eventually speciate, the "original humans" could stay on Earth
and foster and preserve "traditional human values". Unfortunately
the author never suggests how to answer the question of what "traditional
human values" are.
Some good anecdotes and large-scale lessons, but on the whole, rambling
and to be taken with major grains of salt, since the hypotheses proposed
(about social justice, the ethical role of religion vs. its power to stifle
inquiry, etc.) are worth a book in themselves.