What Technology Alone Cannot Do

Closing essay in Scientific American's 100th anniversary issue


The subway sways and creaks on its path away from Manhattan on the elevated tracks through Queens.  I gaze through lowered eyelids at my fellow occupants, imagining various scenarios of criminal activity.  An apparently homeless person stares vaguely back at me, weakly broadcasting a wordless entreaty.  Burdened by a sudden guilt for my own relative prosperity, I raise my sight to the grimy windows and beyond to the passing cityscape.  I become aware of the familiar skeletal steel Unisphere rising above the apartment buildings like some dark moon.  As the subway rushes towards that rusting remnant of the 1964 World’s Fair, I am transported in memory back through the decades to my eager visits there as a young technologist.  I see again through youthful eyes the excitement and the promises for the future that were made in the exhibitions of that now-demolished fair.

Surely every reader remembers some similar experience -- an exposition, exhibit, or a theme park portraying a glittering technological future where smiling families cluster around large television sets in solar homes that apparently require no maintenance.  Smart toasters and robot vacuum cleaners hum subserviently in the background, while the standard demographic family is caught frozen in the warm glow of mindless electronic entertainment.  Even the standard demographic dog watches attentively, albeit with a slight smile of superiority, which is apparently easily achieved amidst his depicted companions.

I remember the vision of a future in which drudgery had been eliminated, where everyone had health and wealth, and where the chief preoccupation had become filling the void of expanding leisure time.  Life had become effortless and joyful, and science and technology had made it all possible.  Like most visitors, I suppose, I was caught up in the euphoria of that vision, and I believed in it completely.

The subway rounds a bend, and the sudden jolt brings me back to the present.  I am once again enveloped in the microcosm of contemporary society randomly gathered in the drab confines of the rushing car.  Where is that remembered World’s Fair family today, I wonder?  What happened to those plastic people with their plastic home and their plastic lives?  Surely none of my fellow passengers would qualify for consideration.  Everyone here looks as if they have experienced continuous drudgery.  None of them seems to have either wealth or health, and the group seems to be divided into two non-overlapping categories -- those with no leisure time, and those with nothing but leisure time.  If technology was to have been the answer to their problems, then technology has apparently failed.

Even as I consider the possible failure of science and technology in the context of this microcosm of humanity, I vehemently reject the notion.  What we actually accomplished in the three decades since that fair closed went far, far beyond the most outrageous projections that we could have then conceived.  We walked on the moon.  We brought back pictures from the furthest reaches of the solar system and from orbiting telescopes that looked back to the very origins of the universe.  We blanketed the earth with fiber optic links, and networked the planet with high speed digital communications.  We created microchips containing millions of transistors and costing so little that almost every home was empowered to have a computer more powerful than the mainframes of that earlier day.  We unraveled DNA, and probed the fundamental building blocks of nature.  No, science and technology did not fail.  They just were not enough.

There is a simplistic notion that we can invent the future.  In exhibitions such as the World Fairs this notion is crystalized into a vision in which inventions are solely responsible for life and lifestyle in the future.  Alas, it does not seem to be so.  All those awesome scientific developments of the last three decades do not seem to have touched my subway companions.  Life’s everyday problems, as well as the deeper problems of the human condition, seem often to be resistant to quick technological fixes.  The solutions shown in that forgotten World’s Fair seem now to have been naive or superficial at best, if not misleading or just plain wrong.  Nonetheless, if you visit a similar exhibit today, I am sure that it will acquire with time these same attributes. 

If we could go back to 1964 and create in retrospect an exhibition of what the future would bring, what would we now include?  Certainly, the scientific accomplishments would deserve mention, but in a social context of overriding importance.  In our imaginary fair we would shock our disbelieving visitors with predictions of the end of the cold war and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.  We would say that nuclear missiles would cease to occupy people’s attention, but that unfortunately smaller wars and racial and ethnic strife would proliferate.

Sadly, we would have to predict that inner cities would decay, and that crime would be foremost on peoples’ minds.  We would foresee that a new disease of the immune system would sweep over the earth, and that people would stop smoking and take up exercise and health foods.  We would forsee pollution increasingly covering the great cities, and that environmental concerns would drive government policies and forestall the growth of nuclear power.  Starvation, illiteracy, and the gap between haves and have nots would be as great as ever.  Illegal drugs, terrorism, and religious fundamentalism would become forces of worldwide concern.  The demographics would be such that only a small fraction of families would be dual parent, single income.  Oh, and by the way, we would have big television sets.

Some years ago I was invited to be a guest on a television show with a well known, aggressive, and sometimes offensive host.  The host’s agents assured me that this would be a serious show, marking the beginning of a new image for their client.  The show would be devoted to a look at the future with a panel of experts.  Somehow, in spite of the firmly-voiced apprehensions of my company’s public relations people, I ended up in front of a television camera with a half dozen people who were said to be experts in the fields of education, medicine, finance, crime, and environment.  I was “the technologist.”  It did not seem to be a label that was considered praiseworthy.

Somewhere I have a tape recording of that televised show, but I intend never to view it.  The educator told how illiteracy was growing and test scores were plummeting.  The medical researcher said that progress in conquering the dread diseases was at a standstill.  The financial expert gave the opinion that the world’s financial markets would crumble.  The criminologist gave statistics on the rise of crime, and the environmentalist predicted ubiquitous and unstoppable pollution.  All agreed that the future would be bleak.

When the host finally turned to me, I said something to the effect that technology was neat and would make work easier and leisure time more fun. I think that I predicted that we all would have big television sets.  I remember the way the other guests looked at me with incredulity.  “Can you believe this naivety?” they seemed to be saying to each other.  The host looked pained; he was into predictions of doom.  Stubbornly, if feebly, I insisted that life would be better in the future because of technology.  Even today I blush with the memory of my ineptitude.

Despite my demonstrated naivety, I believe there is a germ of truth in optimistic predictions.  The continuous unraveling of nature’s mysteries and expansion of technology raise the level on which life, with all its ups and downs, floats.  Science and technology, however, depend for their effect on the complex, chaotic, and resistant fabric of society.  While they cannot in themselves make life better for everyone, they create a force that I believe has an intrinsic arrow like time or entropy, pointing relentlessly in the direction of improvement in quality of life.

I sometimes reflect on the historical contributions of technology to the quality of life.  When I visit the ancient castles of Europe I imagine the reverberent call of trumpets and the pageantry and glory that once graced those crumbling ruins.  But then I shiver with the dampness and cold, and notice the absence of sanitation.  Glory for whom, I wonder?  Surely it would not have been for me, had I lived in that day.  Uneasy was the head that wore the crown, but the chances are that I would have been a peasant, with a life in keeping with my probable physiognomy -- short and brutish.  Life today in contrast is unquestionably better, and there is no reason to believe that life in the future will not be similarly that much better than it is today.

While overall progress is assured, science and technology interwork with societal factors that determine instantaneous utility and ultimate effect.  For example, this interplay is especially apparent now in the evolution of cyberspace.  Ironically, the term was coined by Gibson in Neuromancer, which depicted a future where forces of computerized evil inhabited a shadowy world of networked virtual reality.  Gibson’s vision of gloom seems in keeping with those of my televised companions, but in the real world today cyberspace is a place where new forms of community and business are growing, and it seems largely to benefit the welfare of its participants.

There are, of course, a multitude of meetings and conferences for scientists and engineers to talk about the evolution of the information infrastructure.  But what do we talk about?  Not technology, to be sure.  We talk about ethics, law, policy, and sociology.  Recognizing this trend, a friend recently wondered aloud if, since technologists now regularly debate legal issues, lawyers have taken to debating technology.  At my next meeting with lawyers I asked if this were indeed the case.  They looked at me blankly.  “Of course not,” someone finally said.

In fact, the lawyers are just as home in cyberspace as the scientists.  What we are seeing there is largely a social invention.  The problems that we debate have to do with universal access, rights to intellectual property, privacy, governmental jurisdiction, and so forth.  Technology was the enabler, but it is these other issues that will determine the ultimate benefit of our work.

The Unisphere is receding from view now, and my memories fade.  As I look around the subway, I sense that my companions do not care about cyberspace or quarks or anything else so intangible.  The neverending straight track ahead and the relentless forward movement of the car seem to provide a metaphor for technology and life.  Despite apparent continuous motion on the outside, life inside the car seems still and unaffected.  The Unisphere and the technology that it represents drift silently by, perceived only dimly through the clouded windows.  The only real world -- the one inside this car -- remains unmoved in the midst of motion.

Science urges us ever forward, but science alone is not enough to get us there.



Robert W. Lucky