Future Tense, one of the revolving features on this page, presents stories and
essays from the intersection of computational science and technological speculation,
their boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what will and could be.
how the net ensures
our cosmic survival
Give adolescent wonder an evolutionary jolt.
The inTerne T hAs changed the way
I think, though, ironically, less than I
expected. As both a freelance scientist
and a science fiction author, I already
telecommuted back in 1980, kept flexible hours, digitally collaborated with
colleagues around the world, conducted digital literature searches, and
was an early adopter of text editing. All
these trends have since accelerated.
Yet, compared to my colleagues’ utopian visions for 2010, today’s Net and
Web remain, a bit, well, stodgy.
Oh, I’m grateful to live in such times.
For one thing, without the Internet, civi-
lization would likely have fallen into the
Specialization Trap that tech students
pondered, pessimistically, in the 1960s.
At the time, it seemed inevitable—as
the weight of accumulated knowledge
piled higher and higher—that research-
ers would have to learn more and more
about less and less, in narrowing sub-
fields, staggering forward ever more
slowly under the growing burden of
human progress. Specialty boundaries
would grow more rigid and uncross-
able. This unpleasant fate seemed un-
avoidable, back when “information”
had a heavy, almost solid quality…
…till the Internet Era transformed
knowledge into something more like
a gas—or sparkling plasma—infinite-
ly malleable, duplicable, accessible,
mobile. At which point the old wor-
ries about death-by-overspecialization
vanished so thoroughly that few recall
how gloomy the prospect seemed, only
a few decades ago.
Today, some fear the opposite failure mode, veering from narrow-mind-
ed overspecialization to scatterbrained
shallowmindedness. Flitting about in-fo-space, we snatch one-sentence summaries of anything that’s known by
the vast, collective mind. Whatever the
topic, each of us is able to preen with
presumptuous “expertise.” This trend
colors even modern politics; a core
tenet of the Culture War holds that
specialists are no more qualified than
opinionated amateurs to judge truth.
Worrisome trends have always
seemed to threaten civilization. From
Plato, Gibbon, and Spengler to Toyn-
bee, Kennedy, and Diamond, many
have diagnosed why cultures succeed or
fail. Theories vary, but the implications
go far beyond the fate of mere human-
ity. In his Future Tense essay “Radical
Evolution” (Mar. 2009), Joel Garreau
tied technology’s march to the question
of why we’ve seen no signs of intelligent
life beyond planet Earth, not even radio
blips on a SETI screen. Does this Great
Silence suggest every sapient race out
there ultimately repeats the same tech-
nology-driven mistakes, driving their
own civilizations to ruin?