New Internationalist Issue 269
New technology arouses strong passions. Will it solve our problems, create new ones or make a very little difference at all? Here's a view or two on the technology that's likely to be shaping human life in the year 2025...
Lean, clean, lightweight vehicles powered by hydrogen or electricity and which can drive themselves will get the 2025 traveller from A to B. Hydrogen cars have already been developed by several companies and vehicles can be equipped with sensors to monitor the road and surrounding vehicles. The'driver' will be able to sit back and read a book while a computer accelerates, breaks and steers. A single lane of an automated highway could carry at least 6,000 vehicles per hour, three times more than a conventional highway. Accidents would be reduced by at least half. Fuel-saving initiatives - like car pooling and fast tracks for cars with four or more passengers - already exist and could be extended. The gas-guzzling, fossilfuel burning vehicles that wreaked environmental havoc in the twentieth cewntury will be consigned to the museum.
Fat chance! If motor companies already have the technology for eco-friendly vehicles why aren't they making them? 'cos it's more profitable not to change. They'll use fossil fuel till world resources run dry! And by then we can say goodbye to the ozone layer....
The buildings in which the 2025 citizen will live and work are likely to be eco-friendly and quiet. Reflectors, skylights and high-tech systems that pipe sunlight deep inside will reduce the need for artificial lights. The sun will be the main source of energy. Electricity will be produced by solar photo-voltaic cells, integrated into facades or roofs. People will be able to buy power from the local utility and sell power back to it, depending on need and the time of day. Super-insulated buildings will be able to heat themselves, making use of waste heat from occupants, lights and appliances. Simple remedies will make a comeback: like planting vegetation around buildings to retain heat in the winter and cool in the summer.
Excuse me, but how are homeless people in Bombay, Manila, London or New York going to benefit from your lovely eco-friendly architecture? Perhaps the arches will have eco-friendly under-bellies? Perhaps the 2025 street will have plusher gutters?
There will be a worldwide, broadband network of networks based on fibre optics. All kinds of communication -face to face, voice to voice, person to data, and data to data -will be available to any place at any time from anywhere. Education on a worldwide basis will be at a higher level and more accessible. Hand-held computers will be the norm. Money in the form of physical currency will have long been replaced by 'smart' cards. Communications vocabulary will be part of the language as people 'televote', 'teleshop', 'telework', tele-everything and mind their 'netiquette' during virtual encounters. Crime will be increasingly sophisticated, economic and computer-based.
And what about direct human contact? What about maintaining real, physical communities? Are we all going to be E-dropping, E-mail-swapping computer nerds, surfing in cyberspace instead of spending time on our real relationships, in our real communities? And is everyone going to have equal access to this information? Pull the other one!
DIET FOR HEALTH
Genetic engineering will have had a profound effect on medicine. By 2025 all human ailments that have a genetic link will be identified and mapped. Direct targeted interventions for disease control will be the norm. But controversy is likely to rage over whether genetic engineering should be used to change or 'enhance' people's capacities, and those in favour will be up against the powerful holistic medicine movement. Foods for human consumption could be more diverse as a result of agricultural genetics, with crop plants developed so that each part is usable. But the prospect of dangerous, genetically-engineered organisms being accidentally released into the environment is a hazard 2025 citizens will have to live with. In the richer countries vegetarianism will ahve become the norm - for health, environmental and ethical reasons. For carnivores with a conscience, 'Nanotechnology' will have provided the answer: by redesigning the cellular structures it will be possible to turn hay into steak without involving a cow.
'Controversy is likely to rage'. Too bloody right! What multinational corporations are going to control biotechnology? And who is going to control them? They are already richer and more powerful than national governments. And now we are going to let them take control of the genetic stuff of life itself? You can keep your veggie beef, thankyou!
The city of 2025 could be 'sensitive', almost biological. Built into its structures - bridges, roads, buildings - will be 'sensors' that respond to changes in heat, light, noise or electromagnetic fields. A bridge, for example, would have sensitive fibre 'nerves' that could feel structural deterioration, cry out a warning and even take reparative action. It might be made of self-repairing concrete, for example. Noise pollution could also be combated. As sound travels in waves it could be cancelled out by superimposing on it an identical wave of opposite phase. Acoustic wallpaper could cut out the sound of noisy neighbours. This will be useful as the cities of 2025 are likely to follow the traditional European models with high densities combined with plenty of green space rather than the low-density, automobile-dependent sprawling cities of US and Australia.
So are we to get our bridges and walls to have our feelings for us as we live in our quiet, solipsistic cocoons, oblivious to neighbours and other'disturbances'? What if the neighbours are calling out for help -or warning us of danger? Is the artificial to become more biological, at the cost of the biological (us humans, for example) becoming artificial?
Wind farms and solar ranches will appear in the landscapes of the 2025 world. The Thar Desert in India, the Sahara in North Africa, La Ventosa in Mexico and the US Great Plains will be ideal locations. The electricity they generate will be fed into grids when demand is high and used to produce hydrogen when low. But most people will produce their own energy locally, using photo-voltaic cells. Hydrogen will replace natural gas as supplies of the latter level off or are kept in the ground to reduce carbon emissions. Hydrogen is light, abundant and when combined with oxygen to produce heat or electricity the main emission is water. The technology to produce hydogen - electrolosis - has been around since the nineteenth century. By 2025 the idea that energy should be produced from non-renewable and pollution sources will be anathema.
What about the resistance? Governments and industry have such a huge vested interest in using non-renewable energy sources that they subsidize these to the tune of billions. And if households do generate their own energy, what's that going to do to energy jobs?
SAFE AND SOUND
Remote-sensing will warn of impending natural disasters, earthquakes, landslides and flooding. Worldwide weather reporting will be routine, detailed and accurate. Biotechnology - which will be a booming industry by 2025 - may be used to help break down the awful residue of hazardous wastes left by the twentieth century. 'Smart' non-lethal weapons that halt aggressive acts will have replaced lethal weapons for peace-keeping and policing.
Biotechnology will be a source of danger - not security! Sure, non-lethal weapons are nicer - but there will always be people wanting to use lethal ones. The real issue is: what are we going to do about inequalities of power? What are we going to do about a worldwide culture of militarism? What answers has technology got for that, I ask you?!!!
Illustrations by ANNE CAKEBREAD
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995