Don Williams
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Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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When the Past Is No Longer a Guide to the Future
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   06/30/2000)

"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 rely.

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 species?

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. Watson predicted.

Computers are wild cards in the deck of our fleeting times. They've changed culture, commerce, communications, economics and left politicians gasping for air.

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 Internet.

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.