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James P. Pinkerton James P. Pinkerton
Will our capacity for destruction snuff liberty?

Recent Columns
January 3, 2006

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 Thus, the "suitcase nuke" that we fear today could be superseded by future mass-killers that fit inside a thimble - or a single strand of DNA.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.

And 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 the horizon.

James P. Pinkerton's e-mail address is [email protected].

Email: [email protected]

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