Can Technology Save the Planet? Our opposable thumbs got us into this mess, and they can help get us out, says futurist and science fiction writerBruce Sterling.
Massive technological change is coming. Are we ready? Given the pace of technological innovation we have experienced in the past 50 years, by mid-century we will have an infrastructure as radically different from today's as industry in 1900 was from that of 1700.
If we handle the huge transition correctly, it will be worth cheering. In 50 years, nature will be less oppressed, culture will be wiser, government will take new and improved forms, industrial systems will be more efficient and capable, and business will be less like a rigged casino. Purveyors of art, fashion, and design will see what went on nowadays and bust a gut laughing in derision. Our children and grandchildren will get up in the morning, look at the news, and instead of flinching in terror, they will see the edifying spectacle of the world's brightest people transparently solving the world's worst problems. This sounds utopian, but it could soon be everyday life.
To achieve this victory, we need to understand technology with a depth of maturity that humans have never shown before. We tend to obsess over newfangled discoveries: the radio age, the space age, the atomic age, the computer age. We need to stop fussing over these tiny decades-long "ages" and think historically and comprehensively, employing technology as a means to preserve the web of life rather than for its own sake. The Iroquois considered the impacts of their decisions on seven generations, and so can we.
Thanks to information technology, we can already track what previous generations have sown. According to the United Nations' Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year research effort by more than 1,300 scientists, nearly two-thirds of the world's ecosystems are being degraded because the human race is living beyond its means. Without substantial changes in policies and practices, they contend, Earth faces an environmental disaster that will threaten all people in the 21st century.
Understand this timeline, and there are only three basic kinds of technology that are truly worth our attention. None of them is entirely possible now. It is our task to invent them.
The first and most sensible technology is one that does its work and then eventually rots and goes away by itself. Its core materials and processes are biodegradable, so it's self-recycling. Writer Janine Benyus talks about "biomimetic" technologies; architect William McDonough describes "cradle to cradle" production systems. This means harnessing the same biochemical means of production that built the natural world and using them to create industries, cities, products, everything. It means the industrial use of new materials with the sturdy, no-nonsense qualities of spider silk, mussel glue, coral, seashell, horn, bone, and timber. It means room-temperature industrial assembly without toxics: no foundries, no pesticides, no mercury. When an object made by these processes is abandoned or worn out, it becomes part of the biosphere.
This is already happening, but too often in uncontrolled ways. The shell of my desktop computer is made of aging plastic; its chips and wiring overheat and off-gas. It's becoming part of the biosphere as I type and blast electricity through it. And I'm busily inhaling those tiny bits of computer debris. I have to pray that they're not slowly accumulating somewhere deep in my tender anatomy. The designer of Apple's Macintosh died this year of pancreatic cancer. I don't blame his Mac; Silicon Valley is notorious for its Superfund sites. The leaders of America's computer revolution have been living in a stew of toxic debris. That's no way to build an industry.
The second kind of technology is monumental. These are artifacts built to outlast the ages — artifacts with the honest, solid design demanded by, say, craftsman William Morris and art critic John Ruskin. In theory, monuments reduce the human load on the environment because they are "consumed" only over many generations. With no planned obsolescence, they're very thrifty, and they never go away. Compare the quality and livability (and asking price!) of a New York City "Classic Eight" apartment built at the turn of the last century to a postwar pop-up in the suburbs. Look at Union Station in Washington, D.C., still a public-transit hub nearly a century after being built — or the Louvre and Notre-Dame, still in use some 500 and 800 years, respectively, after construction.
As much as I like antiquity, monuments are very hard to design and build. (And in some cases, permanence is undesirable. People sometimes want a chance to change their minds, their locales, and their circumstances.) While many designers have sought lasting solutions for technological problems, the fact is that most technology isn't as durable as a great building. You can use a century-old hand tool or wheelbarrow that performs as beautifully as it did the day it was made, but the hope for a perfect and lasting solution also led
Dieter Rams of the German firm Braun to design a permanent player for vinyl records. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven left monumental achievements. But a record player? Mere hardware should be a servant to humanity, not a cenotaph.
Then there's the third kind of decent technology, a cybernetic industrial base. Imagine a fully documented, trackable, searchable
system in which the computer revolution has permeated manufacturing, inventorying, and transporting. Every manufactured object is bar-coded, scanned, and tracked throughout its lifetime. Consider a Dell computer: It doesn't even exist until you place your order, setting in motion a tightly controlled manufacturing and delivery process. (On a smaller scale, I can keep track of my writing—material stored on my hard disk — using a Google search. Eventually I hope to be able to Google my misplaced car keys.) While this sounds like Big Brother, when it comes to managing the resources that go into industrial processes, such hyper-control creates great economic and environmental efficiency. Imagine a whirring technology that would keep full track of all its moving parts and, when its time inevitably came, recycle itself.
The main advantage of this "Internet of Things" would be the ways in which it would transform our relationships to our possessions. Emerson mourned that "things are in the saddle and ride mankind." But in an Internet of Things, objects are not burdensome; they are incidental. An Internet of Things would be as different from today's industrial status quo as Google is from the 1910 Encyclopaedia Britannica. It would mean a truly dizzying world that would stun us the way a Victorian would be blown away by television.