Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Gregory Benford on our Dynamist Biological Century

I was browsing through some of the reprinted (if that's the right word) articles and fiction on the Fantasy & Science Fiction web site, and came across an interesting article by SF author/astrophysicist Gregory Benford about SF and science futurism. It was originally published in the October/November 1999 issue of F&SF in anticipation of the dawning of the 21st century, and so looks at science futurism of both the past and the present.

One of the interesting concepts the contrast between "stasist" ideology of the past and "dynamist" future. The terminology was originally invented by Virginia Postrel in her 1998 book The Future and Its Enemies. As she has explained, the concept applies primarily to politics; particularly where it intersects with science, art, and innovation :
On one side of the new political landscape you have what I call "stasists." They view the future as a dangerous abyss. To avoid the abyss, some stasists want a return to some imagined, more stable past. These stasists would include such people as Pat Buchanan and Jeremy Rifkin, or the anti-technology activist Kirkpatrick Sale, who goes around smashing computers to illustrate his speeches. Other stasists want to build a safe "bridge" to the future. They want to control the future. You get a lot of that among politicians. In either case, stasists first decide the one best future for everyone and then they work to impose it.

On the other side of the new political landscape are what I call "dynamists." They see the future as an exciting process of experimentation and learning. That process has many different outcomes, for different people. There isn't "one best way." Dynamists celebrate such open-ended processes as scientific inquiry, market competition, a
rtistic innovation, or technological invention. So they include people like Freeman Dyson, writing about science; or Tom Peters, looking at business innovation; or Stewart Brand, writing about How Buildings Learn; or the whole Wired crowd. Henry Petroski's book The Evolution of Useful Things has some great examples and ideas about the dynamics of invention. Dynamists tend to be less overtly political than stasists, because they aren't trying to grab government power to impose their ideas. But their vision—especially of the economy as a process—increasingly affects our politics.
Benford points out that rapidly advancing biotechnology and increasing computer power will be the driving force behind a dynamist 21st century.
Clearly the TwenCen has been the century of physics, just as the nineteenth was that of mechanics and chemistry. Grand physical measures still beckon. We could build a sea-level canal across Central America, explore Mars in person, use asteroidal resources to uplift the bulk of humanity. Siberia could be a fresh frontier, better run by American metaphors than the failed, top-down Russian ones. . (In fact, the U.S. is the only power that knows how to build and run a frontier. Siberia would be a natural for us.) Our world will continue to be shaped by new physics-based technologies.

But that won't be where the main action lies.

Biological analogies will probably shape much political thinking to come. Though the converging powers of computers and biology will give us much mastery, how such forces play out in an intensely cyber-quick world will be unknowable, arising from emergent properties, not stasist plans.

[. . . snip . . .]

I've argued before that the 21st century will be the Biological Century. We will gain control of our own reproduction, cloning and altering our children. Genetic modification is surely a dynamist agenda, for the many mingled effects of changed genes defy detailed prediction. Although the converging powers of computers and biology will give us much mastery, how such forces play out in an intensely cyber-quick world are unknowable, arising from emergent properties, not detailed plans.

Or as he put it more simply:
Sf sides with futures run not by Wellsian savant technocrats but by the masses, innovating from below and running their own lives, thank you very much.
Now, ten years later, biotech "innovations from the masses" are slow in coming, but groups like DIYbio and other amateur biohackers may make it a reality in the near future. The 21st century is still young, and advances tend to come in fits and starts.

For example: the essay is interspersed with science news snippets from the future. Most are of the purely science fictional variety ("Startup Biotech Firm Rolls Out Living Bath Mat"), but a decade after the essay's publication it's clear that science fact sometimes outpaces fiction. One science story snippet describes a consortium of labs that are rushing to complete the Honeybee Genome Project in 2020. The reality? The first draft of the honey bee genome sequence was actually released in 2003.

In another decade we will have decoded the sequences from a whole zoo's worth of different critters.

Who knows what the biohackers will have come up with by then?

Read "A Scientist's Notebook" by Gregory Benford

Image (top): "Test Tube Baby" by moyix on Flickr
Image (bottom): Bee photo by me


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  2. Check out this interview with Gregory Benford, where he talks about some controversial geoengineering ideas.


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