Future Shock

Sci-fi Novelist Samuel R. Delany Imagines New York City Circa 3000

What about inequality? Enough people have been thinking about the problems of racial and gender oppression over the last 200 years that I wouldn't be surprised if those were finally done away with, and relatively soon (in another 150 years or so). The solutions, though, when they come, would be as hard for many of us alive today to understand as the solution to the problem of witchcraft and demonic possession would have been for, say, witch-hunting minister Cotton Mather. Imagine old Cotton, fresh from the Salem trails of the 1790s, asking today's New York lawyer: "How did you finally solve the problem of witchcraft and demonic possession?"

Our present-day lawyer scratches his head: "Well, finally we realized there weren't any such things as witches and demons. They were just misperceptions and personal projections—often about real estate, so history tells us—egged on by superstition." Cotton would rack him and the entire postmodern world up as nut cases.

Well, if one of us were to ask a New Yorker of a few centuries hence, "How did you solve the problem of race hostility and gender oppression?" I'm pretty sure the answer will be much the same: "We finally realized there weren't any such things as races or genders either. . . . "

Cheek by jowl with nanotechnology is science fiction's notion of cyberspace as an abstract space, a giant planetary storehouse for information. (The idea comes from William Gibson's 1984 novel, Neuromancer.) Is it possible that some part of the Web might become so complicated that it comes to life? Might it be hostile to us? Suppose it's clever enough to take over machines and build Terminator-like creatures to do us battle? Personally I don't think that's very likely, but I do think the problem of the 21st century is going to be the problem of misinformation. And we'd better solve it by the 22nd century, or we will have another reason not to entertain much hope for cities—or, indeed, any kind of civilization a millennium hence.

Why is this? In the same way bad money drives out good, misinformation drives out information. (Every six months or so, a friend will sweep the Net and print 20 or 30 pages of this "information" about me. Inevitably about a fifth of it is wrong, from the spelling of my name to the sex of my child to the publication dates and titles of my books.) Unless information is stabilized by a strong evaluative filter, such as science, with its controlled experiments and repeatable results, it gets swamped by simpler, stabler misinformation. If the people who design and run the Web don't develop reliable ways to evaluate and stabilize information, the Internet may become the agent of social chaos.

Carefully evaluated, accurate information may indeed become so precious that gangs will "roam" around in cyberspace, stealing it from one stronghold or another, plotting to hijack it, hoarding and selling it, while data saboteurs hoarding and selling good information and replacing it with bad—in order to drive up the price of the good stuff—eat up the scientific legacy of the last 300 years the way the oil-based economy has eaten up nature's reserve of hydrocarbon fuels. As the pundits of the 26th century will constantly reiterate, while the store of accurate information is indeed being replaced, it is being replaced at nowhere near the rate at which it's being erased, forgotten, and eroded.

Genetic engineering is another of science fiction's favorite solutions to pretty much all problems. If progress had left the world notably harsher than it is today, genetic dispositions from diabetes and osteoporosis to dyslexia and color blindness might have bred themselves out of the gene pool by now through natural selection. On the upside, however, our increased population and the greater ease of survival in developed countries means there's likely to be more random genetic advancement. Because positive factors may be connected (that is, fall on the same chromosome) with negative ones, it may take genetic engineers to collect the good stuff and separate it out from the bad. The problem, of course, is how to tell which is which. Nature's gross way (what survives is good; what doesn't, isn't) turns out to be pretty complicated after all—which is the major lesson of ecology.

Suppose, for example, that the rate of appearance of new genetic anomalies, good or bad, has been fixed by evolution at the optimum level for species survival and that either increasing or decreasing that number may be lethal for our species. Genetic engineering might give us circus rides with real unicorns and giraffes with wings, as well as new antibiotics produced by genetically engineered molds. But it could also give us a world-wide epidemic to make the Black Death or influenza look like the sniffles.

Which brings us to what might lead to New York City's decline. In a few hundred years, perhaps an epidemic or a nuclear strike in some war we haven't even imagined might finally force people to decide that the risks of living in such close proximity to one another are just greater than the benefits. And there is always that Armageddon-style asteroid that could give the world a thump. But don't you think it's even more likely that it might start with some nut case—say on a New Year's Eve, 300 or 400 years from now—who goes down to Times Square (torn down, rebuilt, torn down, then rebuilt by some historically minded antiquarians) to stand around and watch the ball fall—only he shows up in the crowd of 20,000 with 12 sticks of very old-fashioned dynamite strapped to his body (it's so primitive no one even thinks of it much: but then, the 26th century is a retro age) and sets himself off at midnight in the crowd and the world watches 500 or 700 people killed and another few thousand maimed in the confusion.

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