Monday, August 28, 2006

Many Challenges, Many Questions

It seems inevitable that each generation makes many choices that bear directly on the generation that follows. The First World War was spawned by the rival empires that started the whole business in motion decades earlier. Second World War - another generation drawn into mass destruction due to the unsettled business left by their parents. Cold War - several subsequent generations saddled with the result of the unresolved issues of their parents' war. Now we've got the War Without End (WWE), the Global War on Terror, and nobody can tell where that is going to wind up.

Today our world is making massive, breathtaking strides. We have vastly extended lifespans from just a few generations earlier. We have been blessed with great innovations and conveniences. We know that, as surely as dawn follows night, tomorrow there'll be even more but at what price?

It's barely taken two generations for us to forget how to make our own food. If the grocery store shelves fall bare, we starve. Don't delude yourself about that. Imagine what would happen if the gas pumps went dry tomorrow? What if there was a great, electro magnetic pulse (EMP) and all the computers went down for hundreds, possibly thousands of miles? Hospitals wouldn't function, transportation would come to a sudden halt, communications would be completely disrupted, you wouldn't have electricity in your house and your food would spoil.

This may sound apocalyptic, the stuff of science fiction novels, but it's not. It is part of our everyday reality. Mankind has not adapted socially to the advances and changes in our technology and this whole process continues to speed up. All of us need to start paying attention, really paying attention to how our world is being transformed. We may be able to get through this relatively unscathed but the decisions we take or avoid taking may shape the future for our grandchildren and may even determine their fate.

There needs to be a full and informed debate on the role science plays in our society and how we want it to serve us in the future. We need to examine the privatization of science and the merits of open scientific research in the public sector. We need to start paying attention to the genuine dangers of uncontrolled scientific development and how we can regulate and monitor the genies that are already out of their bottles. We need to realize that, if we don't get a handle on these issues, we risk going back to something resembling the dark ages, the rejection of enlightenment and forfeiture of liberal democracy.

I know this is a real bummer but we need to take a look at some of the issues that may, not necessarily will, arise in the coming decades. Some of these dangers are actually quite remote, others are already building. The best catalogue of these things I have read has been written by Sir Martin Rees. Rees is a Cosmologist and, no, that doesn't mean he does makeup and nails. A cosmologist is an astronomer who studies the universe in its entirety and, by extension, man's place in it. No, these people aren't kooks, they're real scientists. Sir Martin Rees is Royal Society Professor at Cambridge, a Fellow of King's College, and England's Astronomer Royal. Put another way, this guy is really bright.

In his book, Our Final Hour, Perseus Book Group, 2003, Rees explores a variety of potential dangers that man ignores at his peril. Terrorism is an obvious starting point. We're already living with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. How long before they're used and what do we need to do to actually minimize that risk? The more likely danger of bioterrorism and controlling the spread of this knowledge and the possession and trade in pathogens.

A very interesting part of Rees discussion focuses on the privatization of science and the decline of government-funded, "pure" research. Government has all too gladly offloaded scientific research to the private sector. The dimensions of this run pretty deep. For example, corporate research is usually product oriented, profit driven and extremely secretive. What happens to a scientific breakthrough that could be of immense benefit to society in many areas beyond the corporation's focus? Is it good enough to let corporations keep this knowledge buried? Should they be placed under some obligation of disclosure?

Another aspect of this is that scientific research can sometimes lead to some horrible mistakes such as "bio-error" (as distinguished from bioterror). There's an awful lot of genetic work going on today. What if some private lab's research reaches the point of recklessness and somehow escapes? It has happened. We need to ensure that we devise controls to keep it from happening again.

Are we doing enough to maintain ourselves as masters of our own technology? Consumer-driven technology has already long passed the stage of convenience into the reality of dependence. The very food that sustains us travels hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to reach our grocery stores. If that transportation link becomes severed, how much food is available locally to sustain your community? The answer is obvious: not nearly enough.

Has personal privacy become a quaint notion from the past? It wasn't all that long ago that people treasured their privacy and became quite upset if it was violated. Then we began adopting technologies such as credit cards and computers and, gradually, our daily life from what we eat to what we buy to our medical records was fed into a giant data stream. Surveillance has spread rapidly through our cities and towns. Closed circuit cameras keep a constant vigil on our streets and in buildings. With modern face recognition software it will soon be possible to put your name to your picture as you transit through the camera's eye. Then that too will go into the data stream. Just how much of you do you want someone knowing and who do you want to have that knowledge? How can it be used to help you and how can it be used against you? Should our government or the courts control access to this powerful pool of personal information?

Can democracy adapt and survive the technological, scientific and social changes the future will bring? If so, how will it and how will we have to adapt to ensure that democracy still serves our interests as individuals as well as members of societies and a community of nations?

We need to have these discussions and debates now and we need to have the broadest possible participation in them. We need to start getting you and everyone like us involved, at least to the point where they can make an informed decision of whether they want to participate. So many questions but one thing is sure. If we don't discuss these things soon, if we choose not to make these decisions, sooner or later something will happen that will lead to them being made for us. If you doubt that, take a look at America's Patriot Act.

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