Forty years later and I can still remember how profoundly I was affected by the Isaac Asimov short story, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day.”
A young boy, a few hundred years in the future, is sent to a psychiatrist because he won’t use a “Door,” a ubiquitous teleportation device, preferring to walk outside. By the end of the tale, the psychiatrist, Dr. Sloane, agrees with our young hero’s viewpoint himself bypassing “the Door” saying, “You know, it’s such a beautiful day that I think I’ll walk.” It’s a brilliant tale on many levels, not least of which the examination of our relationship with technology, a debate that currently rages over wearable devices like Google Glass.
I was also struck by the concept of the challenge of a hopeful future. You read that right. The central challenge of the story is a character’s conflict with technology that actually makes life easier.
It doesn’t take much to disrupt the status quo. Consider the Kalahari villagers in the 1980 comedy, “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” The plot revolves around the consequences of a Coke bottle being dropped from an airplane into the remote African village. The locals had never seen glass, let alone a pop bottle. Inshort time, the bottle becomes indispensable, but its usefulness quickly leads to arguments and fist-fights over its ownership and use. The film raises a number of important issues: how does new technology affect a culture; and is all new technology necessarily inevitable?
To be sure, these aren’t new debates. Similar disputes raged 150 years ago over both steam-engines and experiments to harness electrical power, both of which survived the debates and have transformed the human experience.
These concerns about technology understandably diffuse into popular culture. Early science-fiction literature engaged in many cautionary tales about technology and societal change, in works like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (in which television has replaced literature, intellectualism, and basic human interaction.)
Interestingly, modern mainstream science-fiction, on the other hand, seems overly preoccupied, if not infatuated, with self-destruction. We seem to be seeing more depictions of a future world that is both dystopian and apocalyptic. In films like the Hunger Games and TV shows like Revolution and The Walking Dead, we predict the worst to come. And it’s usually the fault of science.
Is it possible that we’ve reached a stage where simple trepidation has been replaced by an outright fear of science? A recent Pew Research Center study tried to determine public opinion about rapidly advancing science and technology. The study found that many technological advances are welcomed but, people are “concerned about developments that have the potential to upend long-standing social norms around things like personal privacy, surveillance, and the nature of social relationships.”
In other words, we may love our gadgets, but we are beginning to ask the right questions about where it will all lead. Along with these modern devices that have certainly improved our lives, have come some important questions worth debating. We should be talking about privacy, for example, whether it’s in relation to ongoing surveillance or information available on the Internet. We should be concerned with intellectual property ownership in the digital age. We also need to find ways to diffuse technology across socioeconomic lines.
And if we accept that more mind-boggling technology is coming, it doesn’t mean the Terminator androids are going to take over. It does mean that we should vigorously consider how technologies like artificial intelligence will affect, and even, alter us as individuals and societies.
The problem with the apocalyptic prophesies is that they tend to discount some truly alarming possibilities. Frankly, I’m not worried about pandemics and zombies; I am thinking about human beings augmented by nanotechnology and genetic engineering. I am wondering about artificial meat and driverless cars. I am, years later, still thinking about the challenges of a hopeful future.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s such a beautiful day, I’m going for a walk outside.