Sunday, February 29, 2004

Technology and The Stars, My Destination:
An Eschatological Conjecture

Technological advances have, of course, increased the destructive power of weapons. C-4 is more powerful than dynamite, fission bombs are more powerful than chemical explosives, fusion bombs are more powerful still. We aren’t really sure where biological weapons rank in this hierarchy of destructiveness, though with the advent of recombinant DNA technology it will probably become possible to create far more powerful biological weapons. It isn’t yet clear how much destructive potential nanotechnology might hold. And it is, of course, almost certain that there are destructive technologies we haven’t even thought of yet.

Until the end of the Cold War, the biggest danger seemed to be that of advanced nations developing and accumulating ever larger numbers of increasingly destructive weapons, including an unimaginable superabundance of nuclear weapons (The U.S. has the ability to destroy humanity about eighteen times over; Russia can do so about 30 times).

But there are two aspects of technological progress. First, the cutting edge is pushed farther and farther out, thus putting increasingly advanced, increasingly science-fiction-esque technology in the hands of the world’s most powerful governments. But, second, increasingly powerful technology trickles down, becoming more and more well-understood, mundane, and easily available to smaller and less technologically sophisticated groups and individuals. Even the most advanced government in the world could not have produced plastic explosives in 1885. Now they can be easily made by anyone with a gallon of bleach and an internet connection.

Presumably both of these trends will continue (though technological trickle-down will continue whether or not the cutting edge is pushed farther out). As the technologies become more complex, the pace of the trickle-down may slow, so that the time lag between the time a technology is acquired by the most advanced government and the time it is acquirable by sub-national groups and individuals will lengthen. Or maybe not. Some technologies involve bottlenecks that sub-national groups cannot easily squeeze through. Making nuclear weapons, for example, requires mining and refining uranium, which is a far cry from bleach and a hotplate. But some technologies are, as we might say, more information-based, involving fewer bottle-necks of this kind. The technology it takes to produce, say, antibiotic-resistant infections or crop-destroying diseases may be far easier for individuals and small groups to acquire and master. (And, of course, we haven’t even been discussing the possibility of such groups simply stealing some of the relevant technology.)

If these reflections are close to the mark, here is our conclusion: smaller and smaller groups are likely to acquire more and more destructive technologies in the future. The world will continue to produce its Stalins and Hitlers, of course. But it will also produce its bin Ladens and al Qaedas, its Charles Taylors, Aum Shinrikyos, Aryan Brotherhoods, and Timothy McVeighs. And in the future, not only the rogue nations but also the smaller groups and individuals will have far more destructive technology at their disposal.

But smaller groups are more likely to be less deterable than nations, and more likely to have insane leaders and irrational agendas. Whereas even Stalin was held in check by the threat of retaliation, Shoko Asahara, for example, would not be. Neither would any number of other lunatics if they were given the power to unleash devastation on the world. Think about it this way: if making something as destructive as smallpox were to become as easy as making gunpowder or ricin, that would be the end of humanity. And the end would, I imagine, come in months not years. Certainly not decades or centuries.

When I was a kid I devoured science fiction novels. The worst I ever read, by my youthful lights, was Alfred Bester’s The Stars, My Destination. (I’ve recently discovered that some people think very highly of the book; I don’t know what I’d think of it as a titular adult.) But one thing that stuck with me from the book—it was actually a novella as I recall—was a scene at the end of the book in which the protagonist teleports around the world distributing to all major cities hunks of a kind of super-explosive, more powerful than an H-bomb and ignited by mere thought. That is, if a single person in the entire world simply thought ‘I want that stuff to go off,’ it would. This omnicidal action was undertaken, as I recall, not because the protagonist wanted to destroy the world, but, rather, because he wanted to force the human race to mature or evolve. Empowering everyone with the ability to destroy everything was supposed to make the human race grow up. Even as a kid I didn’t think this idea plausible enough even for a science fiction book. Well, I thought, that would be the end of everything. And that’s what I still think.

But what I have been arguing, in essence, is that we are moving toward a The Stars, My Destination scenario, and that we will continue to move inevitably in that direction until it is—if nothing else has been by that time—the end of us. The human race has survived thus far because the weapons sufficient to destroy it have been too complicated for certain of its members to acquire. But as technology advances and trickles down, this may very well be changing. And how many days (or hours or minutes?) would we survive if everyone in effect had his finger on the button?

I hope it is clear that I’m not saying that I expect the The Stars My Destination scenario to be realized tomorrow or next year or in my lifetime. I know enough to know that I don't know enough to even speculate about a time frame. I’m just describing what we should expect to come to pass if current trends of a very general type persist. Presumably it goes without saying that I hope I'm wrong.

[Er, I hope it's clear that I don't mean that I really think there will be super-explosives controlled by thought...]


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