Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Future in Spite of Ourselves :: How we're accidentally creating the World of Tomorrow

While I was never going to vote for him, there is an aspect to Newt Gingrich's faded political fortunes that has troubled me for awhile now. I'm not talking about any of the real 'hot button' political issues of our time, but the Big Dream that seemed tailor-made to create laugh-track fodder for late night comedians. Most pundits agree that vowing to put a colony on the moon was a ridiculous hail Mary from a dying campaign.

Maybe so, but should it have been?

I'm currently running a bit of a fever, so it's possible I will wake up tomorrow and wonder what I was doing, bringing this up, but we're going to go with it for now.


Because this goes back to my central thesis that Science and Science Fiction should be fun again. That even though I enjoy a good post-apocalyptic yarn, I think we would benefit from more dreams and fewer nightmares. And anytime the political theater in this country shifts for a moment from doomsaying to dreaming, I think we should pause and wonder why it doesn't happen more often.

This is why I wrote Howard Carter Saves the World.

There's also the fact that anytime I hear or type the phrase "Most pundits agree" my hackles rise and I find myself taking a harder look at whatever it was they allegedly agree upon.

Why do I care about Newt's moon colony? Possibly because America's premier astrophysicist made the case that Gingrich wasn't as far off-base as you might think: Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks it's a good idea.

I don't bring up the politician to make fun of him, nor the eminent astrophysicist because, well, if Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks it's good, we all should. Not at all. Even though -- as Tyson notes -- "the naysayers aren't the engineers." NASA said it was feasible as early as the 1970's. I only bring up Gingrich and Mr Tyson because I agree with the latter when he says it's high time America started dreaming big again. And I think it's worth considering why and when we started punishing our leaders (or those who want to be our leaders) for setting lofty goals for us to strive toward.

Tyson's support for the Gingrich's idea isn't surprising. He had written a book about this, in fact, that makes that case for the starry-eyed dreamer, looking back at the space age and pondering what happened to our dreams of jetpacks and flying cars, zipping around a domed city on the Sea of Serenity?

(Spoiler: We won the cold war and lost a rival to vie against.)

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Neil deGrasse Tyson
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Not to quibble with Dr Tyson, but that claim has many problems. While the highest areas of government and industry certainly stopped being a haven of starry-eyed dreamers, and turned their eyes toward terrestrial concerns instead of heading out to explore the stars, that's not to say that the people stopped dreaming.  I would posit that we just stopped expecting our government to do it for us.

You've heard of Maker Fair, right?

Did we really stop dreaming? Did we really stop taking action to make those dreams real? Have we turned inward in an endless and pointless spiral of internet navel-gazing to the point where we forgot that space can be amazing and engineering can perform marvels outside of the gardens of cyberspace? Or did the future envisioned simply turn out to be too big, too impractical and/or impossible for us to achieve it all at once?

Perhaps to achieve such a large scale dream, it was necessary at some point that we break it up into manageable bits and allow those whose dearest dream was to put the Library of Congress in our pockets or fly a jetpack or make a flying car, or mine the asteroid belt to go it on their own.

Because all of those ultra-futuristic things are coming to pass. The Maker Movement, that mad assortment of civilians who took to their garages and sheds to create something that they'd dreamt of has  -- in a way -- democratized the development process.

Without much in the way of direct government assistance and with the help of new ideas like Kickstarter, we've taken what started out as a government initiative like the internet or space travel and moved it into the civilian realm.  We've actually achieved commercially-viable jetpacks, and asteroid mining is on the horizon entirely financed by private money.

Air cars are still quite a ways away, but considering I can't feel entirely comfortable with the way people drive on Interstate 5, what makes anyone think it's a good idea to put everyone a thousand feet in the air?

It's a terrible idea... until we figure out a way to take human error and inattention out of the equation, that is.
(Via NPR: Flying cars (and why we still don't have them).

Not to count NASA completely out of the game. They've recently revealed medical advances that beggar the imagination and leave science fiction racing to catch up.
The NASA Biocapsule—made of carbon nanotubes—will be able to "diagnose" and instantly treat an astronaut without him or her even knowing there's something amiss. It would be like having your own personal Dr. McCoy—implanted under your skin. It represents one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of medicine, and yes, it'll work on Earth, too.  ~ Via Gizmodo
It's to a point that presidential pandering about moon colonies sound positively sane by comparison. The future we keep waiting for has already happened. The future... or rather The World of Tomorrow is just soooo yesterday.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).