Future Shock


The first scene of “The Graveyard Heart,” by the late science-fiction writer Roger Zelazny, takes place at a party on New Year’s Eve of the year 2000. It’s a tale of fabulous wealth, beautiful women, and tiny ceramic dogs; of people who behave like vampires, and love that spans the centuries. It’s a story I plan to reread on the big evening, as I wait to see if the lights stay on past midnight or if my word processor still works the next morning. It’s hard to believe that story was written almost 40 years ago. But it’s a tale to send the mind ahead to contemplate what science fiction suggests the future might actually hold, once it gets here—as, with or without us, it inevitably does.

My best hope for New York City is that having persisted for a few hundred years into the third millennium, it will be remembered as the greatest city of the last century of the second millennium. In 3000 it may be recalled as rich, romantic, horrifying in many of its aspects, with a rep-utation much like the Athens of classical Greece has today, or possibly Rome; or maybe the medieval Paris of the murderer, thief, and poet Francois Villon. If we’re lucky, New York City might survive as an exotic name, like Nineveh or Syberisis; but if the culture continues to change at its present rate, New York’s legacy might be more like that of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat—a deserted space, forgotten and overgrown, somewhere in the world that foreigners rarely visit.

But what might happen along the way?

Science fiction of the last 25 or so years has a number of standby scenarios that, now and again, one writer or another has brought to bear on the prospects of tomorrow.

When the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke, said, so many years ago, “Any truly advanced technology will look to us like magic,” he could have had nanotechnology in mind—that “very small” technology where computer science meets microbiology. Imagine tiny, very simple computers, each no larger than a molecule, each of which can perform only the simplest tasks, like turning off and on and letting the molecule next to it know which state it’s in. Now imagine billions of these molecular-sized computers working together to solve problems of internal physical chemistry far more complicated than any we can solve alone, including the problem of their own reproduction—that is, imagine computers built on the model of the growing, organic brain, rather than on the model of the fixed and limited electronic diode.

In science fiction, nanotechnology suggests scenarios such as: You spray a mess of properly programmed computer foam over a junked car lot near Coney Island, say, and the whole thing begins to hiss, bubble, and steam. Twenty-four hours later, the hundreds of junked chassis have been transformed into a 50-story office building, standing firm on the site, complete with functioning doors and windows. Or you get a bit of the stuff on your hand; as it enters through the skin, it turns you into a dog or a dolphin or a pig—or into a writhing blob of sentient computer foam yourself. Or … it kills you.

With or without nanotechnology, I suspect, a new plastic or ceramic, notably cheaper and stronger than steel, will come along to change architecture and the look of urban dwellings and work spaces entirely. (Science fiction writer Joanna Russ once called the stuff “Gleepsite.”) Will this result in more people living in smaller spaces or more people being able to spread out? Helped along with a little nanotech, dwellings could easily spread down into the earth the way they once towered into the sky. At any rate, it will create a difference in “urban life” notably greater than the difference between life in, say, 10th-century Paris—a walled island in the middle of the Seine where wolves sometimes broke in and roamed the streets at night—and life in New York now.

Back in 1984 Greg Bear, whose novel Blood Music is still the best introduction to the subject, suggested nanotech was not 300 or 400 years away, but a mere generation or two. Well, the Big Industrial Technology of today often becomes the domestic technology of tomorrow. Imagine, a few decades after the big changes, say, in the 2090s, when ordinary people have access to nanotech (the way today every fourth or fifth homeless guy wears a Walkman with sound quality that would have blasted a 1950s “Hi-Fi” enthusiast right out of his rumpus room). Suppose you could carry in a toothpaste tube the nanotech stuff to build a pretty decent one or two room house out of whatever junk happened to be lying around. And suppose that, after you were finished with it, the stuff went back into the toothpaste tube of its own accord so that you could use it again. Press, squeeze, and you’re a little less homeless—at least for the night. As ever, though, I imagine the police will still come by early in the morning with toothpaste tubes of their own, full of foam specially programmed to dissasemble the hastily constructed shelters back into junk; and the again-homeless will be told to move on.

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.

We’ve seen people desert the city before. But give us the right catastrophe, and people will start leaving as fast as the new “mag-lev” train (that’s magnetic levitation: they’re already zipping around in Japan at twice the speeds of Amtrak) can carry them!

As much of a city lover as I am, I still suspect that, whatever brings its end about, the Great City as we have it today—an enclave of two million to 10 million inhabitants embroiled in culture, commerce, and capital—just can’t hang together for an entire thousand years. It’s too large and unwieldy, too likely to break up after a few centuries or so and disperse in general sprawl or what sociologists call “edge cities.” Consider: There were no cities of more than a million inhabitants before 1800. In 1850 the population of Manhattan was only 500 thousand people with another 200 thousand scattered among the other four boroughs. The population passed the million mark only around 1875. The mega-population center is entirely the result of 19th century industrialization. Only with the advent of steam, iron, glass, electricity, and concomitant transportation advances could those river-and-market communities that had attracted folks around them into a growing township import enough food and materials for life and manufacture and export its growing number of goods—and get rid of a million or so people’s garbage. The really big city may just be a 200-to-500-year historical flash-in-the-pan.

The late French historian Fernand Braudel estimated the economic moorings holding New York to its position as the capital of the 20th century started to slip in 1974. All over the world great cities will probably start to break up when our oil-based energy system is depleted in another 75 to 125 years. There’s only a limited amount of oil under the ground and we’ve already used up a good deal of it. It’s historical arrogance to expect the entire structure of the Great City to persevere intact like the pyramids or the Parthenon.

Meanwhile, out at the what once was La Guardia Airport, on the cracked and abandoned runways, those jerry-rigged nanotech homes of the homeless go up and down, up and down, day after day, because air travel as we know it today will no longer exist. Virtual travel will be cheaper and will use no oil-based fuel. In effect, people will scan themselves into their computers and then e-mail themselves wherever they want to go, or else hop onto a browser and, well, browse through space. Actual movement of people over long distances will become more and more restricted to the very rich who wish it for more and more eccentric reasons.

And Times Square? Well, the big movie industry will have folded for good. That’s because your home computer will create Hollywood-style movies from scratch if you simply type in the topic and the kind of story you want to see. (I actually saw demonstrations of some prototype programs for this the last time I was up at MIT’s media lab.) These films can star anyone you like—any movie star, or, indeed, yourself or your friends, if you just feed in a few pictures. So with only an art film market, the 13 theaters in the now dilapidated, 100-year-old E-Walk have become the site of Live Sex Shows, their names changed from the Majestic, the Imperial, and the Crown to the Anthony Comstock, the Mary Baker Eddy, and the Rudolph Giuliani.

By the time we get to 3000, I suspect even the United States itself will have long since been absorbed by other national configurations. (Historically, national boundaries are even less stable than the cities within them.) The most widely spoken language not only on Earth but in the several interplanetary colonies that will have grown up on Mars, Venus, and the moons of Saturn and Jupiter (and a dozen more on the moons of the gas giants circling a few of the nearer stars) will be some dialect of (I pick one out of a hat: we just know it won’t be English) Tagalog. The history of its rise to prominence over 150 years will be at least as complex and intricate as the history of France’s rise once was when it became, for a century or so, the lingua franca of the world—before it gave way to English. Finally, allowed to dig along the rim of that island in whatever they’re calling the Hudson River in those distant days, a few archaeologists may look curiously at all those ancient nanotech toothpaste tubes turning up in their excavations as reminders of a long-since superseded technology. And, hunting in the ruins of cyberspace for accurate accounts of the English language and accurate examples of texts written in it, a few scholars will, I hope, now and again retrieve some notion of the glory that was Brooklyn, the marvel that was Staten Island, and the grandeur that was the Bronx as well as the wonder that once flourished on that island in their midst.