As we look to 2006, it's hard to be optimistic about
the future of freedom. But over the course of the 21st century, there's
reason for hope - if we think boldly enough.
In the short term, the threat to liberty is obvious enough: People
overseas want to kill us, and so the government must protect us -
although sometimes governments misuse their might, focusing on internal
dissidents, forgetting about external enemies.
But the continuing advance of technology has brought a new dilemma:
Increasingly, any single individual or small group can wield great
destructive power. If one were to draw a line over the course of
history, from the first tomahawk, through the invention of gunpowder,
all the way to the A-bomb, one would see a steeply upsloping curve.
Searching for ways of better expressing this phenomenon, one is
reminded of "PyrE," the universe-destroying substance described by
Alfred Bester in his 1956 sci-fi classic, "The Stars My Destination."
So we have the "PyrE Curve," which rises up from the first killing
device in prehistory to the last killing device at the end of history.
Thanks to computers, that upslope is likely to stay steep for a long
time to come, as artificial brain power doubles and redoubles.
Techno-progress will be spread out across the full spectrum of human
activity, but if history is any guide, then much "progress" will come
in the form of more lethal weapons, including nano-weapons. Thus, the
"suitcase nuke" that we fear today could be superseded by future
mass-killers that fit inside a thimble - or a single strand of DNA.
If we reach this techno-threshold, all past assumptions about human
freedom will have to be reassessed in light of the dark danger posed by
perverted science. If today's sniper and amateur bomb-maker becomes
tomorrow's weapon-of-mass-destruction-fabricator, then tomorrow's
assumptions about civil liberties will change. The police might be slow
to scrutinize every computer and every chemistry set, but if the
secrets of city-destroying are to be found inside each home tech-kit,
then the cops will eventually come knocking - or no-knocking.
We can sum up the situation this way: the PyrE Curve keeps rising, and
yet the physical size of the Earth remains static. More destruction
relative to the same creation: Something has to give.
what will "give," almost certainly, is freedom. After a sufficient
number of tragedies and catastrophes, the survival instinct will assert
itself, and the source of the problem will be eliminated, or we will
die trying. There's plenty of precedent for such coercive
danger-pre-emption: the banning of machine guns, for example, and "cop
killer" bullets. Similarly, when home computers have 100 times the
power of today's supercomputers - well, then, such futurecomputers
won't be allowed in the home.
Thus, the human prospect here on Earth: an all-knowing and all-powerful government. Not much room for dissent there.
So is that the end of the story? Human freedom snuffed out by the human
capacity for evil and destruction? That's the bleak future here on
Earth but not necessarily in the heavens, as distinct from heaven. Some
will argue that true liberation is found only in the metaphysical
hereafter, but those who seek to guarantee their liberty in corporeal
terms will have to make their escape to other heavenly - make that
celestial - bodies.
That's the plotline of Robert Heinlein's
1966 novel, "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress." In that far-seeing
libertarian-utopian volume, humankind finds its political freedom in
space, far from the surly bondage of Earth.
But aren't we a
million miles, politically as well as technologically, from space
emigration? Unfortunately, cursed by shallow, short-term thinking, we
are nowhere close to fulfilling our potential destiny: living freely,
spread out across the universe.
Which is why the near term
looks so bleak. Between the rising PyrE Curve and the rising power of
the state, the hope for life and liberty here on Earth is sinking below
James P. Pinkerton's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.