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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2721

Gerard O’Neill’s latest book is, in many ways, a panegyric on gadgetry. 2081 is cast in four parts. The first deals with the problem of forecasting the future; the second is descriptive of five drivers of change; the third is a semifictional scenario of the year 2081; and the final...

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Gerard O’Neill’s latest book is, in many ways, a panegyric on gadgetry. 2081 is cast in four parts. The first deals with the problem of forecasting the future; the second is descriptive of five drivers of change; the third is a semifictional scenario of the year 2081; and the final section, “Wild Cards,” deals with some further speculations on what the far future may bring. O’Neill makes it clear from the outset that his prime values are freedom and peace; whether his imagined world of 2081 will be one such as to ensure the survival of these values is another question altogether.

O’Neill remarks in his first section that most “futurists” of the past overestimated the role of social and political change and underestimated the role of technology (Sir Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis of 1629 must surely stand as an exception). If O’Neill is thinking of current futurists then he may be partly correct. Still, the recent ferment caused, for example, by Islamic fundamentalism occasions second thoughts. At best one can say that science and technology are among the driving forces of the modern age. One would also have to count religion and politics among the drivers of change. If O’Neill is intending to generalize, and it is not clear whether he is, then he has surely misread history. The eminent historian of technology, Lynn White, Jr., has demonstrated conclusively that technology has certainly not always been a driving force; in fact, until the modern era, it never has been. Societies have turned away from science and technology in the past. The period of ancient Greek science was a brief couple of centuries; ancient India turned away from such science as it had; and Islam abandoned science in about the eleventh century in favor of mysticism. Societies have turned away from technology too, and some never adopted technology that was known to exist. It was only in the Christian era of the high Middle Ages that technology was vigorously encouraged, and encouraged by, of all institutions, the Church. Still, there was not a tradition of science-based technology until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the Middle Ages what passed for science—largely Aristotelian science—was taught in the universities. Medieval technology was completely apart from the universities and had no connection with the “science” taught there.

O’Neill, on the other hand, is certainly right in asserting that scientific futurists tend to overestimate the chances for major technological breakthroughs. One only need recall the biomedical scientists of the 1960’s forecasting the arrival of the artifical heart by 1975.

The criticism of The Limits to Growth (1972) in the first section adds to the reams of paper penned against that tract. Some of the criticism has been justified. It must be remembered, however, that this study was the first seriously to explore the idea of whether there are such limits. O’Neill’s contention is that limits can be overcome by technology. Here, whether he knows it or not, he is living in an ideal world of microeconomics. This the technological optimists tend to do. The idea is that when a limit or scarcity approaches, a substitution or solution turns up because this has always happened in the past. Such trend extrapolations can be dangerous. Economists are inclined to think that all scarcities are relative when it is clear that some are absolute. What, for example, can be substituted for clean air? That technology can help with problems of limit is undoubtedly true; that all such problems can be solved is far from self-evident.

O’Neill believes that no existing political system is adequate to deal with the problems of the future. He argues that technological developments will alter “international confrontations in a fundamental way.” Hence for him irreversible change is not effected in a political manner but is confined to a single area—that of technology. Technology for O’Neill is apolitical. Viewed solely as a social phenomenon technology is apolitical, but when one sees the social matrix in which technology is embedded, one cannot escape the feeling that technology is profoundly political. Karl Marx, and Thomas Hobbes before him, saw that economic power can translate into political power. The same is true of technology. In fact, one cannot talk of technology and leave economics to one side. It has been said that technology creates its own politics.

O’Neill’s view of technological innovation is that of simple trend extrapolation. Technological growth, like that of a bacterial colony, follows an S-curve: slow early growth followed by rapid doubling time and eventual stabilization upon a plateau or death. Hence one can put together an “envelope curve” showing a succession of technologies evolving and replacing one another as the function that they were designed to serve is served ever more efficiently. The question, of course, once again, is whether this substitution will continue forever. For O’Neill the future is remarkably surprise-free, and all one needs to do is extrapolate his five drivers of change into the future to obtain a preview of the world of 2081. One need only look at history, however, to see that the future is rarely surprise-free. Great upheavals, discontinuities, sea-changes, or whatever one wishes to call them, certainly are part of the past history of the human species. Sometimes change has been gradual; at others it has been surprisingly swift and has occurred in spans of time much shorter than that of a human life (and life expectancy was much shorter in the past). O’Neill does speak of war and peace issues and even thinks that nuclear weapons will be used at some time in the future. He seems to brush off problems of population growth and food production, ecological problems, and climatic change. In his view, energy and material limits are just comtemporary short-range problems.

O’Neill does not sufficiently appreciate the fact that an incredibly complicated technological world such as he sees in 2081 would be, in the felicitous phrase of Harold and Margaret Sprout, “multiply vulnerable.” Even now it is clear that the high technology systems on which the developed world depends for its affluence and security are vulnerable to accident and sabotage. The Three Mile Island nuclear incident brings this home, as do isolated incidents of individual sabotage. Transportation and communications systems and water supplies come to mind as especially vulnerable, and one could also mention computerized systems. These systems face the “fundamental problem of fortification.” Those who would protect them must prepare for every possible type of sabotage and every possible type of accident. Those who would deliberately disrupt a system have the advantage of setting time and place. The world of 2081 as seen by O’Neill would not be a technological paradise, for unless there was an unprecedented absence of large numbers of alienated individuals it would be necessary to have draconian security measures. This would certainly mean, as surely as the limits to growth necessitates limiting freedom in some areas, a diminution of freedom. Freedom is relative. The limits to growth would curtail some freedoms in order to enhance others. For example, the freedom to breed and the freedom to consume in a throwaway manner would be curtailed in order to enhance the quality of life. In O’Neill’s 2081, people would have the comforts afforded by the technology of that time but would be restricted with respect to access to certain vulnerable areas and would have to live with the fear that the systems might “go down.” O’Neill’s sanguine view of life aboard space colonies seems especially naïve. In his earlier book The High Frontier (1977) no mention was made of the problem of security. This shortcoming is evident in 2081 as well. The L-5 people and other space colony enthusiasts never indicate where the jail is going to be. The usual number of people inhabiting a space colony is given at about ten thousand. In an environment of a few degrees above absolute zero and hard vacuum those ten thousand people are not merely going to have to be very good—they are going to have to be very good all of the time.

O’Neill’s five drivers of change are computers, automation, space colonies, energy, and communications. For him, it is the combined interactions of these which will bring about the world of 2081. For some reason, biotechnology, which seems as much a driver of change as the other five, is mentioned only as an afterthought near the end of the book. O’Neill’s five forces are already active, and he proceeds on the assumption that one need only engage in surprise-free trend extrapolation of each of these, singly and in combination, to get to 2081.

O’Neill is on fairly safe ground in his forecasts concerning computers. Even though there are physical limits to how fast computers can operate, there are advances yet to be made. The year 2081 will surely be shaped by such advances. The “real breakthrough” will come when persons with no special training will have access to computers through spoken commands. O’Neill recognizes that such computer networks as will exist in 2081 will provide numerous opportunities for invasion of privacy and other electronic mischief but thinks that safeguards can be built into the future systems. One does not feel so sure when one looks at the use to which computers have been put in the Soviet Union.

Artificial intelligence he holds to be very far off, and he even thinks the term should be avoided, but a technological assessment searching for the derived consequences of the computer revolution would have to deal with the very real question of artificial intelligence. Artificially intelligent machines would use “heuristic” self-programming as opposed to the deductive algorithms of today’s computers. Such machines would be able to approximate human thought processes of an intuitive sort more closely than today’s machines can do. O’Neill’s attitude toward artificial intelligence is consistent with his surprise-free view of the future. Who can say when the breakthrough to artificial intelligence will come (if it ever does)? Here, O’Neill is guilty of what futurist Arthur C. Clarke terms a “failure of imagination,” Clarke’s phrase for discounting the future.

With respect to automation, 2081 sees a world of new machines with no moving parts and hence one where the devil of friction has been exorcised. Increasing use of laser will make possible the fabrication of precisely machined parts. This is an extension of present tendencies. There will occur, O’Neill thinks, a comprehensive evolution of the six levels of intelligence and versatility. These are: level one—machines which would be familiar to persons alive today such as simple punches, stamps, benders, and so on; level two—machines which attend the level one machines and which move around to perform simple “pick-and-place” operations; level three—machines which are computer-controlled and which do actual fabrication; level four—machines which tend to and repair level threes and which are due early in the twenty-first century; level five—where humans first enter the picture, using interacting computers in the design process; level six—fully human, involving judgment and creativity. The interactive six levels eventually are to produce self-replicating machines, and once this has been achieved there is the possibility that geometric growth of such machines could take place. Such machines would not be applied to every operation but would be useful in certain areas such as outer space—self-creating modules would eliminate countless man-hours in construction.

O’Neill correctly points out that much technological unemployment would result from automation. Persons thus victimized would be supported by welfare payments. O’Neill forecasts a hobby boom for 2081. Although he does not term it as such, O’Neill has described the “technocracy” so many have written about—a society where a few technicians keep the whole affair running for the vast majority who have no qualifications or desires to be involved. Once again, although he does not use the language, O’Neill has sketched out a paternalistic society where the five percent at the top provide for the ninety-five percent at the bottom.

The next of O’Neill’s drivers is space colonization, the construction of large habitats in outer space which will serve as home for thousands of people and which, O’Neill believes, someday will harbor a larger percentage of humanity than the earth’s surface. He believes that the movement into space will mark the movement to an economics of abundance, for it will be quite easy to expand in space without running up on somebody else’s jealously-guarded boundaries and there will be a super abundance of materials for machines, self-replicating or otherwise, to use in fabrication. O’Neill holds that even before 2081 a “substantial” fraction of the human population may be calling outer space home; some will never set foot on earth. The feasibility of space colonies has been studied and O’Neill cites a study indicating that the first major leap into space, a manufacturing complex, could be achieved in ten years with a capital investment comparable to that of the Alaska Pipeline.

The longest chapter in Part II is that on energy. O’Neill deals with most of the energy technologies discussed in the popular media. He repeats the truism that energy (on earth) is likely to be more expensive in 2081 because the low-entropy sources will have been exhausted, especially petroleum. Technology, however, will come to the rescue—there will be substitutes for fossil fuels and energy-efficient devices will be delivered. In space, of course, there will be no problem, for the sun’s energy will be easily captured.

The final technological driver of change is communications. A worldwide interconnected system is envisaged with personal communication possible between any two places on earth—this through the use of advanced communications satellites in space. One derived consequence of space colonization will be some decline of voice-to-voice communication because of the psychologically irritating time-lag created by great distance. The communications of 2081 will be merely an extension of existing technologies.

Some consequences of the combined effects of the drivers of change may now be considered. The century of industrialization between now and 2081 will see long-term solutions to energy problems and will lead to individual incomes that today would be associated only with wealthy persons. Population will be near-stable. Nuclear terrorism is likely to be prevalent in the next century. Nuclear war would not be a total disaster for the human race, for much of the race will be living in outer space.

Finally, O’Neill sees three possiblities for the human future: first, the destruction of civilization; second, stasis; and finally, the dispersal of humankind thoughout vast regions of space, including that space outside of the solar system. Self-contained space colonies would thus spread humanity out into the larger cosmos in the next stage of the human adventure.

What is one to make of all of this? As remarked earlier, O’Neill is a confirmed technological optimist. There are certain difficulties with this position. Certain unprovable assumptions lie at the heart of it—that the future will be like the past (“something will turn up”) and that technology will solve most or all of humanity’s pressing problems (“turn the engineers loose”). It is not obvious that something has always turned up, and not all problems are engineering problems. If technological optimism has certain difficulties (such as ignoring “Murphy’s Law”), should one turn to technological pessimism or join the ranks of those who are opposed to science and technology? Of course not. There are not two alternatives but three. A little-used word, meliorism, should again be given the currency it enjoyed during the Enlightenment. Technological meliorism maintains that the world is neither intrinsically good nor bad but that, rather, it could go either way. The meliorist view is not guilty, as is technological optimism, of promising more than can be delivered or of creating a false sense of security. With this in mind one can say that O’Neill has properly recognized some drivers of change and also that there is much promise in them. They will not bring the utopian state, but many humans will be better off in 2081. Nevertheless, and O’Neill agrees, things are going to get worse in the short run before they get better.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 41

Choice. LXII, September, 1981, p. 257.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, July 22, 1981, p. 17.

Library Journal. CVI, May 15, 1981, p. 1090.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, May 3, 1981, p. 15.

Saturday Review. VIII, May, 1981, p. 73.

School Library Journal. XXVIII, December, 1981, p. 89.

Sky and Telescope. LXII, September, 1981, p. 257.

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