The Age of Intermediates – July 24, 2011

Today we like to think that we live at the pinnacle of human development. Nowhere on this planet—which, as near as we can tell, means nowhere in this star system and probably nowhere within thirty lightyears of here—has technological progress, or progress in a great many other areas, come so far.

Consider technology first. In 250 years, we’ve gone from the first inefficient steam engines to jet engines that whisk hundreds of people through the stratosphere and across continents. In 100 years, we’ve gone from the first crude radio messages to a globe bathed in radio and video transmissions, communication with satellites and probes all over the solar system, and seamless wireless links between people and with a worldwide information infrastructure. In 50 years, we’ve gone from simply identifying the molecular structure of our genes to reading and manipulating the code.

The extent of our achievements goes well beyond physics, electronics, and biology. Through the study of neuroscience, psychology, and games theory, today’s best diplomats and negotiators could run circles around a Richelieu or Medici. With an accumulated appreciation of tactics and the nature of battlefields and engagement, our best generals would handily defeat a Napoleon or Wellington. In the arts, our best writers can create characters and stories whose power to capture the imagination rivals those of a Shakespeare or Chaucer. Our best artists can create images of such visual strength that a Michelangelo or Monet would feel envy.1

We seem to stand on the peak of achievement. It hasn’t always been this way. The Romans, for all their military and engineering achievements, looked back with humility at the intellectual achievements of the Greeks from preceding centuries. And for a thousand years the Europeans who inherited the Greco-Roman tradition knew themselves to be living in a dark age. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that art and philosophy began to copy the classical forms and then exceed them. It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that thinkers began to replace classical superstition with scientific observation.2

Of course, from the viewpoint of objective truth, we do stand on a summit. The things the average person in the western world takes for granted in everyday life—from the consensual hallucination of the movie theater or video game to the instant contact of the cell phone and instant meals from the programmable microwave—have never existed before. We live in an age that would seem like magic to the most advanced thinkers of 500 years ago.3

But to the science fiction writer—and by extension, to anyone who reads and resonates with the visions of such writers—the glass is still only half full. We live in an age intermediate between what was and what will be or may be possible.

For all the trips we’ve made to low Earth orbit, our isolated visits to the Moon, the probes we’ve sent to sample and observe on Mars and the outer planets, we’re still only at the beginning of humankind’s use of space. The average person only knows about space through the achievements of a select few, the same way the average person of the 15th and 16th centuries only knew of Asia and the New World through the visits of Columbus, Magellan, and their crews. The average person in the West may own a satellite dish or a GPS unit, but his use of space is entirely secondhand.4 We still only dream of colonies on the Moon and Mars and voyages to the stars.

For all that we’ve learned and achieved with DNA, RNA, proteins, and our appreciation of cellular mechanics, we’re still only at the beginning of understanding and manipulating life. We still advance our stocks of cattle and horses, dogs and corn through the inspired guesses of breeders who bring together sire and dame, stamen and pistil. We still use whole animals in our animal husbandry. We can only dream of designing hybridized creatures like the chairdog5 or manipulating cells to create fossil fuels and exotic materials like synthetic spider silk and latex on demand. And molecular biology is still only the doorstep to a thriving nanotechnology.

For all our medical advancement, we still take organs from living or terminally damaged donors to implant in those who are dying for want of a healthy organ. We still supplement lost and immobile limbs with mechanical devices that only simulate original function. We are only at the threshold of growing new organs on synthetic armatures using a patient’s own stem cells. We are only starting to design mechanical arms and legs that interpret the body’s own nerve inputs. We can’t yet stimulate the brain’s optical centers to give sight to the blind, bud limbs to regrow missing arms and legs, or repair damaged nerves to recover function.

For all that we have achieved with civilization’s infrastructure to promote physical and emotional comfort, we still don’t have a comprehensive theory of economics and personal worth. We still let whole populations starve, not because there isn’t food enough in the world to feed them, but because they are on the wrong side of a war or economic system. We let individuals in our cities wander in confusion and fear and eat out of garbage cans because we don’t have an adequate understanding of human responsibilities, rights, and capabilities.6 We cannot yet differentiate freedom from license or supervision from tyranny. We are a long way from achieving the sort of balanced, stable, educated communities of equals that colonize the planets of our science fiction stories.

The water empires of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians stood halfway between the hunter-gatherer societies that came before them and the organized political and military regimes of the Macedonians and the Romans. The last centuries of the second millennium—the period of Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment—stood halfway between the philosophy and achievements of the Classical Age and our own modern era. And so today we live in an intermediate age.

We stand halfway between the first gropings of scientific observation and the full use of physics, electronics, and biology in everyday life.7 We are halfway between the first organized thinking about politics, economics, and psychology and a fully functioning society that appropriately accommodates people of all conditions and capabilities. We are halfway between the flight of the first fragile airplanes and a life among the stars.

The glass is both half full and half empty. We have a long and exciting road still to travel.

1. Of course, there’s also a lot of truly dreadful art and bad books afloat in the culture today, along with a lot of boneheaded generals and terminally clumsy diplomats. But the past had its tedious writers, uninspired painters, and second-rate professionals, too. To quote Theodore Sturgeon: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap—but then ninety percent of everything is crap.”

2. Superstition may be defined as the dominance of imagination, hope, and fear in our interpretation of the world around us. “The world is whatever you think it is.” Science is the dominance of observation and logical reduction. “What do you actually see? What can you prove? That is what the world is.” Aristotle and Plato observed, but they did not always reduce their observations to what they could prove logically. For example, Aristotle explained gravity as the tendency of things to move toward their “natural place.” Hardly a robust definition. It took a Newton to recognize gravity as a force with predictable and calculable effects.

3. Or to quote Arthur C. Clarke once again: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

4. And—damn it!—I still don’t have the flying car or rocket backpack that the Sunday supplements promised me.

5. Found in the later Dune books of Frank Herbert.

6. Some will say that we have already found the perfect system for taking care of people—and then they invoke Socialism, Communism, or some other manifestation of the Leviathan state. I believe the various forms of collectivism practiced in various societies in the 20th century (Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, etc.) adequately proved that regimentation, central planning, and state-mandated distribution of goods only destroy human ambition and creativity. But while free-market economics and shareholder capitalism have created great communal wealth and well-being in the West, anyone can still point to disturbing cases of exploitation and neglect. No, our economic and political thinking has a long way to go.

7. Is there a natural limit to our understanding through science? For all our theories of physics, we still do not understand the commonest forces like gravity, electricity, and magnetism. We can write equations that include their observed effects, like Newton, but we still don’t understand what force means at either the relativistic or quantum level. We don’t understand the structure of space or the nature of time. We are beginning to suspect they harbor forces like dark matter and dark energy, but we still have trouble even quantifying them. Perhaps our knowledge of the universe will always be limited by the fact that we are beings finite in space and linear in time, but that does not mean we won’t learn a lot more in the coming decades and centuries.