As we look back upon 2011, let’s take a bigger perspective by peering a century further in time. The year 1911 was amazing in many ways. Amundsen and Scott were racing for the South Pole’s “last place on Earth” – illustrating how new technology can amplify both competence (when it is present) or else blithering stupidity. (Do rent the 1990s miniseries The Last Place on Earth.)
It is also the centennial of the publication – by Hugo Gernsback – of some of the earliest American science fiction –those gosh-wow Amazing Stories reflecting an era of unbridled optimism… just before the world crashed into decades of dogma, fury and tech-amplified war. Have a look at this brief appreciation of Gernsback.
I often reflect back upon the mood that prevailed in 1910, and 1911… and even 1912, when it looked as if the great genius progressive, Teddy Roosevelt, might come back to inspire even greater can-do enthusiasm. Inventions poured forth at a staggering rate, transforming the lives of millions in a rapidly-burgeoning middle class, suddenly possessed of cars, radios, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, frozen foods, vitamins, train travel and access to the very sky itself. Which seemed to be no limit…
… till fewer than a dozen vapid members of an inbred oligarchy indulged in their worst moronic impulses and plunged the world into hell. The First World War was a calamity that simply did not have to happen. One might liken it to a spasm by the Olde Order against the surge of egalitarian hope that would soon make Czars and Kaisers obsolete… and it is a sample of the kind of rulership we’ll go back to, if oligarchy returns.
* Here’s a cool look at “100 years in 10 minutes.”
=== SOME POLITICS WE SHOULD ALL GET BEHIND! ===
* Want science and scientific issues to be debated in 2012? Is it about time for candidates to show if they know (or care) about actual facts? Half of US economic growth since 1945 came from scientific and technological advances (and a second “national debt clock” should show how deep the US government would be in the black, if it got minimal royalties off satellites, pharmaceuticals, electronics and so on!) Yet, that source of our power and wealth is languishing. Make it an issue! Donate to Science Debate 2012! Make President Obama and his opponents face this square-on. And see how bad (and good) it’s become.
* Want to get even more vigorous in defending the future from ambition-haters on both right and left! At the Extreme Futurist Festival in Marina del Rey, Dr. Kim Solez expanded on an idea from AI researcher Ben Goertzel: Could a holiday — a “Future Day” — help bring the ideas bouncing around the scientific world to the masses?
* Of course, if you really hanker to change the world in all the ways you think that it should change, visit my page about Proxy Power.
=== THE INTERNET OF THINGS? ===
Some original thinking is taking place, in the realm of transparency and the future of information flow. Starting from some riffs that I offered in The Transparent Society, a group centered around the notion of an “internet of things” has offered an Idea Contest that might be worth a look.
Are we heading toward the City of Control? The City of Trust? Or – as I suppose – the City of Reciprocal Accountability and positive -sum games?
Do you imagine that the choice between Big Brother and Reciprocal Transparency is far away? Think again. “The audio for all of the telephone calls made by a single person over the course of one year could be stored using roughly 3.3 gigabytes. Information identifying the location of each of one million people to that accuracy at 5-minute intervals, 24 hours a day for a full year could easily be stored in 1,000 gigabytes, which would cost slightly over $50 at today’s prices. For 50 million people, the cost would be under $3000.” See: Recording Everything: Digital Storage as an Enabler of Authoritarian Governments, a report from the Brookings Institution.
=== SCIENCE FICTION PERSPECTIVES ===
* The Toaster Project, by Thomas Thwaites – Making a toaster from raw materials. Very similar to the idea I keep pushing (and have for 20 years) for a TV series called REBUILDING EVERYTHING (FROM SCRATCH!) Also see Thwaites’ TED talk on the toaster.
* Speaking of “toasters”… read The Future of Moral Machines, a fascinating discussion of the philosophical and practical problem of enhancing increasingly intelligent robotic systems with the ability to make “moral” choices. Also see: Unaccountable Killing Machines: The True Cost of U.S. Drones.
Then see a comprehensive rumination about Drone Ethics: Robots at War in The Atlantic. Alas, as is always the case at that magazine, there’s not even a whiff of respect for the advanced thinking about this topic that has appeared in the pages of thoughtful science fiction.
* Here’s an accumulation of articles and speculations by David Brin about science fiction. What is the tense relationship between SF and fantasy? How can both genres help kids and help civilization? Is the coming transparent society inspired by sci fi? What about future visions of biology? The environment? Plus Asimov! Dune! and cool Youtube surprises.
* Why would aliens want to invade us? Phil Plait does a great job dipping in the shallow end with this whimsical take-down of movie cliches.…
Sure, most movie reasons seem pretty lame. Resources? Much easier to get from comets/asteroids. Our bodies? Lame excuse; they could breed cattle to carry their implanted parasite-young. And why attack JUST when we’re ready to defend?
Still there are others. Other worrisome possibilities you’ve likely never imagined. Stay tuned for… Existence!
=== SCIENCE MISCELLANY FROM 2011! ===
And now a science potpourri!
* Natural bridges over the Marianas Trench — At least four bridges span the ocean depths!
* Comet Lovejoy – the comet that streaked the sun… and lived! From the International Space Station! A newfound comet defied long odds on Dec. 15, surviving a suicidal dive through the sun’s hellishly hot atmosphere coming within 87,000 miles (140,000 kilometers) of our star’s surface. Researchers expected the icy wanderer to be completely destroyed. But Comet Lovejoy proved to be made of tough stuff. A video taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft showed the icy object emerging from behind the sun and zipping back off into space. Here’s to comets… and cometologists! (And learn more at Heart of the Comet.)
* Faster than light neutrinos? Click on the video.
* Artist Andy Gracie is attempting to breed a strain of fruit fly that could survive on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.
* This is fun: Explore the slingshot effect.
* Watch flying robots build a 6-meter tower.
* Is solar power experiencing a major price breakthrough? Actually, I see SEVEN new techs that might (perhaps) experience profound breakthroughs in the next four years or so.
* Capable of producing a beam of light so intense that it would be equivalent to the power received by the Earth from the sun focused onto a speck smaller than a tip of a pin, scientists claim that a new laser planned to be built in Europe could allow them boil the very fabric of space – the vacuum.
…and not the year of twits shouting Armageddon, or dopey nostalgia, or would-be Nehemiah Scudders!