"I shot an arrow into the air, it fell to earth I know not
where..."--from "The Arrow and the Song," by Longfellow. .
We're racing towards a period of vast social upheaval, it appears from here,
possibly even towards our own subjugation--or could it be sublimation--as a
species. Progress accelerates so rapidly that futures we can imagine, along
with those we can't, arrive faster than we can make sense of them. In short,
the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future.
Sure, Santayana said those who forget the past are condemned to relive it,
but then, the past was never like this.
Rather, it's a future disconnected from common experience that we are blessed
and cursed to live out. Our incapacity to imagine the future limits our
ability to control it. There's the rub.
Our best minds under-estimate the rapid rate of change in the world, and it's
an open question as to how well we'll manage the forces they're unleashing at
an ever accelerating pace.
The Human Genome project is a case in point.
Some are calling it the Book of Life--arrogant as that sounds--because it
records, down to the last gene, the chemical stuff of which all life is made.
As usual when something outrageously huge occurs--think about the Manhattan
Project, the first moon landing, advent of the personal computer--pundits and
politicians are busy missing the point of what just happened. On that you may
President Clinton piously predicted on Monday that the human genome project
will eliminate whole classes of disease. It could mean the end of cancer,
diabetes and dozens or hundreds of other diseases. But what he didn't say is:
That's just the beginning.
The true implications are far more thrilling... and far scarier. Few dare
speak them yet, but in coming weeks, months and years they will. What will be
the consequences of knowing the chemical make-up of every gene in the human
Try... immortality. Try... recombinant DNA on a scale heretofore unimagined.
Try... a melding of the genetic and the cybernetic, already begun. Take a
deep breath and try... replacement species for humankind....
These are fascinating notions, and I'll leave it to futurists and science
fiction writers to predict where they'll lead.
My point is, what once seemed the far future is arriving so fast it leaves us
increasingly living in the past. And even the near past is no guide to
futures we can imagine....
As recently as 1991 I sat with a dozen other journalists in a Michigan
laboratory and listened as Dr. James Watson--chief architect of the human
genome project--discussed his work. Dr. Watson laughed incredulously, when
some of us gently questioned the long-term implications of the project. How
could we question something that promised to eliminate whole classes of
diseases? he asked. As for the abuse of genetic technology, he said, there
was ample time to pass laws, arrive at safeguards and establish protocols
against catastrophe. The human genome project likely wouldn't be complete, he
added, until well into the next century.
In fact, supercomputers--along with the profit motive--have sped such
research along, so that it's been accomplished far faster than even Dr.
Computers are wild cards in the deck of our fleeting times. They've changed
culture, commerce, communications, economics and left politicians gasping for
Case in point: I heard an expert on National Public Radio say the reason Al
Gore doesn't get credit for our strong economy (he certainly would get the
blame for a weak one) is because nobody younger than 30 really remembers a
time when the economy was bad. It's become a given for an entire generation
that the economy will grow and grow and, who knows, they may be right. The
past doesn't tell us.
Case in point: Our governor's been threatening to close parks, lay off
dedicated public servants and initiate a state income tax the people of
Tennessee hugely oppose, and he's basing such dire threats on predictors of
revenue growth that have been obsolete for years. The past is not a guide.
Case in point: Just a few years back, arms control advocates frequently said
no weapon had ever been invented that had not been used to harm others. Well,
we've been sitting on the hydrogen bomb for half a century. The neutron bomb,
medium range nukes, ICBMs and more have been on the scene for decades, but a
change in human psychology no one predicted has prevented their use. The past
is no oracle.
Other examples abound. The end of the Cold War. Recent discoveries of water
on the moon and Mars. The mapping of a cosmos that, surprisingly, accelerates
as it expands. The advent of sexually liberating drugs. The ubiquitous
We live in times of Revolutions Per Minute, as the hippies used to say in a
different context. It's like we're shooting high-tech, computer-sped arrows
into the air. Where they fall to earth... we'd best begin imagining.