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Greenfield, Meg. Back to the future: the science and technology of the
     21st  century will be different, but we won't be.(Column). In
     Newsweek Jan 27 1997, v129, n4, p96(1). 


The science and technology of the 21st century will be different, but 
we won't be                                                           
                                                                      
WE ARE ABOUT TO BE ENGULFED IN FUTURIST talk: new term, new century,  
new millennium--what will it all be like? Here's one provisional      
answer: the science/technology will be different. Its human           
manipulators, subjects and beneficiaries won't. Therein lies the      
enduring story.                                                       
                                                                      
Sometimes when I am working my clumsy way through the once            
inconceivable electronic, cordless present I think of my own          
long-departed parents, when they were young and (they no doubt        
thought) on the cutting edge of modernity. I interrupt their 1920s    
courtship--the poky car they considered a new-age marvel, the         
relatively novel telephone and telegram and radio and movie culture   
in which they were comfortable and their parents were not, the manner 
of self-presentation and dress their parents denounced as indecent,   
and the cockiness with which they considered themselves newly secure  
in their physical health on the basis of medical advances we now      
consider primitive. I try to tell them about space stations and the   
Internet and heart and liver transplants and cell phones and laptops. 
I say: look, I can sit up here in this airplane, which will get me to 
Europe in a very few hours, and type a story and file it to an office 
in Washington and exchange messages and phone calls with people       
around the world--all right here in my airplane seat. They are agog.  
But then they make the same mistake social analysts and prophets and  
visionaries always make. They think that life will have been          
transformed by these blessings in ways it has not been.               
                                                                      
Yes, there is a sense--an important one--in which life has been       
transformed from the past in our age, just as it was transformed from 
an earlier time in theirs. Illness, ignorance and want have obviously 
not been eliminated. But millions upon millions of people living      
today, who not all that long ago would have been direly afflicted by  
all three, will never know them in anything like their once common    
form, if they know them at all. Better, faster and more are the       
defining terms of our culture and our condition. I don't see how      
anyone could doubt that or fail to be awed by the way both physical   
and intellectual access have been expanded so you can go anywhere     
and/or learn anything with a speed that only a couple of decades ago, 
never mind a generation back, would have seemed merely fanciful,      
sci-fi stuff. And if we know anything, it is that this kind of        
progression is certain to continue.                                   
                                                                      
Such predictions have always been a pretty safe bet. There were       
Greeks, there were Renaissance figures (of whom Leonardo was but one) 
and there were 19th-century figures, such as even the poet Tennyson,  
whose imaginations enabled them to see well beyond the scientific     
confines 0f their times. And so of course can we. What is harder to   
see is a day when human nature and human life on earth will have been 
commensurately transformed. What I am saying is that the humanists'   
insights will probably always be more to the point than the imagery   
of technological marvels yet to be. What Shakespeare uniquely knew    
about the human mind and heart and the timeless human predicament     
will be just as apt a millennium or two from now as it is today and   
was 400 years ago. The uses to which actual, famously fallible people 
put the newfangled marvels will still be the issue.                   
                                                                      
I think of this when the lawyer-commentators are taking us through    
the latest permutations of the O.J. case. An the knowledge about DNA, 
all the supersensitive means of analyzing microscopic traces of blood 
and hair and all, do not get you past an ancient kind of drama and an 
equally familiar set of responses to it by accuser and accused. I     
think of the dear old Newt mess, entangled as it now is in            
interception technology, unencrypted cellphone messages, arguments    
about which kind of cable connector to which kind of recording device 
from which kind of scanner went into the notoriously taped phone      
call.                                                                 
                                                                      
And, above all, I think of the tremendous conflicts in this country   
over the uses to which the new technologies win be put. These are     
conflicts riding on moral choices, and the mathematical principle has 
not been thought of that can resolve them. We fight about who gets    
the good of the lifesaving device and technique. This can be a fight  
among equally needy individuals for a scarce resource or a fight      
between generations about how much one person must pay to extend      
another's longevity. We fight about where we should put our pooled    
resources to get the good of the burgeoning knowledge--in space? in   
bombs? in basic research? We fight about who owns the new knowledge   
and its fruits, who has proprietary rights, who is entitled to        
privacy, who should be able to hook up with whom. We fight about what 
to do when a new scientific blessing, as is so often the case, comes  
accompanied by a curse--the pesticide or vehicle or energy source     
that saves and also, simultaneously, sickens or kills. Decked out in  
our ever newer skills and abilities and seemingly magical potential,  
facing the glowing screens of our new life, soaring above the earth,  
bouncing back from a long dreaded and once mortal disease, guess      
what? It's the same old us.                                           
                                                                      
I think it is awfully important to remember this as the rhetoric      
ascends toward the millennial moment, starting this week and gaining  
verbal altitude as the turn of the century nears. There are not and   
never can be any scientific rules whereby we can perfect ourselves    
the way we can perfect certain objects and processes in the physical  
world. And in this limitation will always reside our potential glory  
and our potential shame. It will always be easier to do the           
scientifically impossible thing (as we contemporaneously think of it) 
than to do the personally possible but difficult thing--the right     
thing by ourselves and by others and by the technologically amazing   
world we have concocted to live in. I believe, in other words, that   
my seemingly quaint, flapper-age parents, once they got the hang of   
the gadgetry, would be as at home in this world as we all would be in 
the super-duper one about to come. So far as its human inhabitants    
are concerned, we would have seen it all before.                      
                                                                      
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