(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

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...

(The entire section is 2721 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

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.