I've clearly been spoiled by reading science fiction, since progress in tech, medicine, and even clothes can't happen fast enough for me. Here are a few of the breakthroughs that I'm dreaming about for 2007.
I've discovered something weird: science fiction has made me impatient with the rate of change in society. Talk about perverse side effects! Never mind future shock or a solid wall of cautionary tales about accelerating social change. I've been trained by science fiction to read about something cool and then exclaim, "Me wants it!" Or perhaps: "Me wants it now!" Wild dreams of the future only make me more restless in the present day.
Sure, science fiction is not about predicting the future. It's about the way we are now, with certain elements stretched or exaggerated or extrapolated in order to turn a lens on an aspect of humanity. At least that's the rhetoric.
But it's also fun to speculate about what might actually happen in the next few years of human history, and science and scientific advances are a big part of the thrill. What-If is always a sophisticated game, wherein we know that the changes won't be as depicted but we all pretend as if they will for the sake of the story. If it's a solid story coupled with an intriguing what-if, then we'll be entertained and informed.
Any science fiction reader builds up a whole history of possible advances, like a set of alternate universes, as many of them as writers can imagine. The branches get cut off as time passes and the dates go by. The future is a shiny thing, and it always will be, if only in the imagination.
Unfortunately, progress is not the panacea we once thought it was. That's been clear for years, and it's getting clearer and starker every year. The ambiguity, the sense that every new thing might be good but will likely be bad, gets more invasive and omnipresent as we turn "ingenuity" to those new things. See my point below about clothes, something that's supposed to be as simple as putting them on in the morning. Simplicity has been replaced by parsing outrageous claims that are aimed straight for my brain stem.
All that said, I guess I'm like those nerds who read the cautionary tale of Neuromancer and decided that the dystopia described by that book was a good idea. I wouldn't turn back the clock on the Internet, since I would claim that one as a true marvel. But who knows if there are the seeds of a Sprawl-like future in our current society? As an aside, if you'd like to see the next generation of advances that were written up as cautionary items but will probably come true, see Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End, a deeply Orwellian future wrapped up in some nifty computer science.
Indulging my optimistic side for a moment, here are a few bits of progress that I want, in 2007 if possible.
1. Lots of personal data/diagnostics
What is this? Think of it like data-mining your personal life. Or, in a less Big Brotherish metaphor: like RPG stats for your own body. In all those computer games, you can get statistics for enemies killed, health potions used, quests completed, and so forth. So why don't I have a system like this for something a million times more important like my actual, physical life? If I know more about my Sims or my World of Warcraft character than my own life, then that's a problem.
I would like to know how many hours I sleep a night, how much exercise I get, how much I drive in a car as opposed to walking, and all kinds of other questions. Granted, I like having a budget and I've been writing down every book I read since the sixth grade. And not everyone would like having nagware running their personal lives—I click through those software reminders in an annoyed frenzy like everyone else, and I can't imagine what Microsoft would do with a system like "all-encompassing body stats" if they came up with 15 ways to turn off a laptop. The nightmares are huge, but the advantages are undeniable.
Especially on the medical side. I'll take an example from Bruce Sterling's excellent book, Tomorrow Now. Sterling talks about how each human body has about 1 kg, total mass, of friendly bacteria. Medical science has no clue what these are, and what they do, and so forth. In contrast to a complete catalogue of friendly bacteria as well as tools to easily optimize their benefits in the body, we currently have antibiotics, a primitive shotgun blast to the face if there ever was one. This is admittedly a little farther out than 2007. For more reading on this topic, I would highly recommend Sterling's book—lots of fascinating ideas there.
What about information about the products I consume? I'd like to spend my money in ways that reward sustainability and green practices in general. But gathering the necessary information is an uphill battle. Complete disclosure would necessitate some radical restructuring and investment all the way up the food or product chain. And there would have to be incentives to make this happen, since right now companies are actively covering this kind of information up as a normal business practice. See the information-disclosing computer virus in John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider for something I often dream about.
With this amount of information getting aggregated, medically, commercially, and personally, there are huge privacy issues. I don't want a company to own the data about my exercise profile, my sleeping patterns, or whatever else a personal monitoring device might collect. I think the torrent of information is inevitable, and the privacy battles are only going to get worse. For example, Nike + iPod is only the tip of iceberg.
2. Better computers.
This is a personal one, since I work enough with computers to know how bad things are right now. With all of the research and development being done—here's looking at your $7.5 billion, Microsoft!—why I am still kludging around with a lame system that doesn't like doing what I want it to do? And it seems like the battle is being lost. Email was probably the killer app of the Internet, but there's more spam every year. The next killer app, software or otherwise, is taking its sweet time.
Hardware has issues too. Power consumption, product life cycle, and other sustainability issues are hardly on the radar yet, with piles of toxic motherboard shredded and burned in Chinese villages as one result. Cradle to cradle makes a lot of sense to me. Anyone else?
Another peeve in this area is faster Internet, by which I mean the lack thereof. What the companies are selling to us as broadband here in North America is a joke. I'm not ready for a full feed directly into my brain though! But give me a service that's the next best thing and I'll be happy.
3. Space exploration
There are a few rumblings in this area, like various private space ventures and advances in space elevator tech. But NASA's Moon/Mars plan seems hopelessly dated and unambitious to me—is this the best that they can come up with? I don't have anything better, off the top of my head, but I'm not as obsessed with this as some people. Everyone will have their own wacky plan, but it wouldn't hurt to get people excited.
4. Better ways of paying for content
A fairly specific item . . . but I mention it because this is a huge annoyance for me. I want the big companies—record labels especially—out of my face, but I also want a more systematic way of rewarding the little guy for his or her cool stuff. Somebody out there is working on a setup that will work—whoever you are, hurry up and get to critical mass! If you do a search for "vista drm" you'll see the beginnings of the hyper-controlled world pictured in Rainbows End . . . are we inevitably going down this road? Some freedom would be nice, both as a consumer and producer of cultural artifacts.
5. Clothes that don't need washing as often
I suppose this makes me sound like a person with hygiene problems! But if you buy an expensive merino wool item, like a sweater or some fancy underwear for climbing, the salesperson will tell you that you don't need to wash it as often since the natural fiber doesn't hold onto odor. So, what have the textile scientists—assuming they're out there beavering away with weird synthetics—been doing? Get busy!
Actually, I'm a bit torn on this one, since those clothes that repel water/coffee/stains give me the creeps. They said Teflon was safe for so many years, and now it's getting phased out. Same deal with flame-retardant chemicals, now being banned as well. If all of sudden I didn't have to wash my wardrobe for a year, I would be rightfully suspicious.
6. Traffic flow
Cars are antiquated beasts that have destroyed sensible city designs worldwide. We won't fix everything transportation-related in one year, so let's start where we can: putting some smarts to work in making traveling less like road-rage and more like a Sunday drive. A grid of sensors and some feedback to drivers, put together with, let's say, a Google Maps spinoff service . . . What could be easier? Traffic would be flowing soon enough!
(Actually, it seems like traffic flow is waiting for a mathematical solution).
7. Standard-issue dreams
World peace, perfect health, spiritual unity, better ways of communicating (not involving BlackBerries, thank you!), and so forth. I may as well dream big.
A Few Things I Don't Want to See Happen
I didn't read as much science fiction in 2006 as I usually do—maybe that's because I read an overdose of fantasy. But I did read a few SF items, and I came across several premises that I'd rather didn't come true.
Y: The Last Man—The death of all men in the world except for one. I object, for obvious reasons!
Batman: Year 100—A surveillance society so perfect even the Dark Knight can hardly be an over-the-top vigilante anymore . . . that doesn't leave much room for any ordinary bookish fellow like me to get my freak on.
Cell—All cellphone users become zombified. Not that I like cellphones—I don't like zombies!
Olympos—Artistic genius creating alternate quantum storylines—sounds like fun in theory, but no thanks! Most of Simmons's storyline was about how wrong it all went. On the story side, I'm annoyed by the handwaving that goes on in these quantum mechanics-inspired plots (see also the ending of Card's Xenocide).
Counting Heads—Homeland Security burning the protagonist's body to a crisp internally with a surveillance slug gone wrong? I'm pretty sure this is a dystopia.
Clan Corporate—A criminal family syndicate from another dimension—we have enough problems in our own dimension!
Demo/Heroes—The graphic novel by Brian Wood is less cheesy than the TV show, but they are both along the same lines—ordinary people discover they have extraordinary powers. It's the next step in human evolution! I find the storylines intriguing, but I'm a bit worried about this happening in real life. Despite all the nerdish wish fulfillment inherent in these stories, I'm not sure if I want this to happen to me.
In the case of Demo, many of the stories are about how an already crummy life is made worse by what's happening. For example, imagine you are a decent, thoughtful guy, and you develop the power to shoot whatever you are aiming at. The army is going to track you down and put you on the front line (Demo #7, "One Shot, Don't Miss"). And what if your family is relying on you, and your deadly aim has become your only skill? And you develop a conscience? Not pleasant.
Same case in Heroes, different cost. If the price of my expanded abilities is to have a near-omnipotent serial killer on the loose, I would think twice.
Thanks to my coworkers at Science.gc.ca for some brainstorming help with this column.
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