Are we headed for utopia or dystopia? Can’t it be both?
Grandpa always said all this technology was going to bring down civilization. Well, not my grandpa, he was always pretty cool with new tech, but generic old men yelling at clouds and telling “back in my day” stories. It turns out they’re halfway right. Every new technology brings us closer to both immortality and annihilation. In their book Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything, Kelly and Zach Weinersmith walk us through some emerging technologies and the best and worst case scenarios we can expect from them.
If you’re familiar with the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic series written and drawn by the authors, then you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the tone of the book. Soonish is full of the comics, which adds a nice touch. I’d suggest refraining from reading them first, though, as they’re much more hilarious in the context of the book than on their own.
Soonish is a delightfully lighthearted delve into nerdom that’s also great because of its science chops; Kelly Wienersmith is a parasitologist, familiar with the scientific setting and the academic thought process. This gives the authors an insight into technologies that are actually plausible and it shows — they don’t go on wild tangents, and remain fully in the realm of the possible. The topics are well-researched and are cited accordingly (I’m a scientist, this is important to me), and they’ve interviewed a lot of experts on each topic.
If you’re not a scientist, the authors are great at distilling things down to the basics and presenting them for the general audience. I, a biologist, had no trouble following the chapters about space tech in addition to having a good laugh at the chapters dealing with CRISPR and other gene modification technology. I also learned that rocket fuel is correctly referred to as propellant and am now fully qualified to correct people around me.
Soonish is organized from macro to micro, starting with the particulars of space travel possibilities and ending with computer-brain interfaces, with each chapter further subdivided into sections of where the technology is currently, what is being worked on, and how it will change the world. This is nice because it gives the reader a bit of perspective to measure the future claims against.
The types of technologies and advances that are described can seem far-fetched, but when taken apart, present reasonable alternatives with the main obstacle in many cases being cost. There’s really nothing that’s keeping us from building space stations, except we really can’t afford it right now. The gamut of technologies covered and the havoc they could wreak ranges from the mildly annoying, like giant robots being too unwieldy to build a house, to the truly terrifying, like humanity basically being converted to a Borg collective by linking everyone’s brain to the Cloud, resistance is 404 ERROR.
Some of the things that might doom us are not so much about the tech itself, and more about our own inherent flaws. In an experiment at Harvard, a remote-controlled robot named Gaia asked students to be let into their dorm, which must have made the education cost worthwhile. When approaching individual students, the robot was given access 19% of the time, but when approaching groups of students, it was allowed in 71% of the time, with that number rising to 76% if the robot had cookies! So yeah, there’s strength in numbers but there’s also stupidity, especially if sugary treats are involved.
Perhaps the best parts of the book are the “Nota Bene” chapters that go into surprising or just plain weird territory the authors encountered during their research. Like, seriously weird. Like a Canadian engineer that invented a gun that can shoot things into space losing funding and eventually popping up in Daddam Hussein’s Iraq to work on a SUPERCANNON. These are the things that James Bond films are made of! But my personal favorite part? You will learn something about your own physiology that you can then amaze your friends with! And yes, you can do it in public.