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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

How my world has changed


There was a book titled ‘The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog’ that I bought nearly a quarter century ago. It was meant for sharp youngsters with a taste for science and science fiction, and it was filled with articles on, and artists’ impressions of, the many kinds of ways in which the world was going to change over the next thirty years or so. Crystal-ball gazing, yes, but indulged in on the basis of the best and latest scientific data available around 1980, and the extrapolations were made by supposedly intelligent and reasonable people who had been trained in this sort of thing; not illiterate sadhus and primitive astrologers. The book was inspired by no less a creative scientific genius than Buckminster Fuller, and I was drawn to it because I had become interested in the field of scientific forecasting by reading stalwarts like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Conan Doyle, Arthur Clarke and Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. I was certainly in good company; no one can argue that I was being ‘had’ by con men.

Since then, I have become much older and much less starry-eyed. I have also kept a close watch on the world, and remembered much more, and that much more keenly than the average man. I can hear men and women of my own age group gushing or moaning all around me about how drastically the world has changed in our time, but I know much of that is nonsense. In fact, what I find really surprising is how much has not changed at all, or changed minimally, and how many of the confident-sounding predictions in that book have gone hopelessly wrong. Let me make a little list of the things that have come true as forecast, and things that have not.

The most obvious (and to my mind, deplorable) change that has taken place is that the human population has swelled enormously – even the USA crossed the 300-million mark in 2006 – and much of that bulge has occurred in poor and backward countries like India, making the problems of development and wildlife protection well-nigh insoluble (it is no accident that our leaders are now desperate to find land for everything they want to build, from cities to factories, for there is no vacant land left; why didn’t they take birth control much more seriously since the 1950s, for God’s sake!). Television (which made its countrywide debut in India only in 1982 with the Delhi Asiad) has now become ubiquitous. The book was wide-eyed about the potential of the PC or microcomputer, and even breathlessly suggested that millions of computers might ‘talk’ to each other soon; today the Internet is not only essential to business worldwide, but raises no eyebrows except perhaps in remote villages, even in India, and there are tiny computers everywhere, from microwave ovens to cars. Mobile telephones have spread like wildfire over just one decade, and they are increasingly more powerful and versatile yet cheaper with every passing year. India is witnessing an automobile boom – but also skyrocketing obesity-related problems – and there are still far too few good roads and too scant respect for traffic laws, so the accident graph is soaring. Definitely not a picture of unmixed blessings, all-round progress. Not so, especially when you consider that tuberculosis and malaria still kill millions every year; no safe, cheap and surefire cure for cancer has been found after half a century of strenuous research, and mankind is still almost as helpless as ever in the face of major natural disasters (the frequency and intensity of which are being definitely exacerbated by human action, such as global warming caused by emission of greenhouse gases on a monstrous scale) – hurricane Katrina wrought as much havoc in the USA in 2005 as the great tsunami of December 26, 2004 had done in Asia. In many more areas of research and organized exploration, there have been hardly any breakthroughs. Almost all of our food is still produced by farmers from the land; neither in factories nor through hydroponics on the oceans, as promised. Most of the energy we consume still comes from burning fossil fuels – in Asia and Africa, a huge proportion still comes from burning wood and cowdung! – fusion reactors and solar energy still remain chimeras, and other nonconventional sources, like wind and wave energy, or ocean thermal energy conversion, remain mere scientific curiosities, or contribute tiny amounts of useful power only. What compounds the problem is that economically accessible reserves of fossil fuels (‘dirty’ fuels) are rapidly running out. There is also a growing worldwide scarcity of clean fresh water (India’s condition is among the worst): so much so that the outgoing Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, has warned that the major wars of the 21st century are going to be over control of available water. And what is most frightening is that in the ’60s and ’70s there was at least some alarm over these things even in high places, and some efforts were made to find viable solutions: today a strange apathy seems to have gripped all of us, from leaders to scientists to laymen alike, as though we all know the problems are so big and intractable that they don’t bear thinking about, so we’d be better off having fun with no thought for the morrow: mankind is doomed anyway!

While certain areas of science and technology have indeed witnessed spectacular advancement (electronics and microsurgery, for example) and some others are currently showing very great promise (to wit genetic engineering and nanotechnology), other fields have definitely stagnated. Asimov’s robot stories sound as fantastical as when they were written, half a century or more ago: we still see intelligent (and loveable or sinister) androids only in movies. Organic houses – which grow by themselves according to pre-set plans, and know how to repair themselves, one of those fantasies suggested in the book – likewise. Many more people certainly live into their nineties these days, of course, but they are certainly not on the average half as fit and active and cheerfully enjoying life as the book had predicted they would be: we still know far too little to seriously slow down the ageing process, and both society and psychologists understand the mind too little to help very old folks stave off loneliness and boredom, even when they are not starving or being abused. I believe, rather, that science has yet learnt only how to keep people alive a little longer so that they can suffer more misery! Space exploration has gone little beyond the splendid achievements of the 50s-to-70s, mainly because the non-military spinoffs have been found to be too little, too slow and too uncertain while the technology still remains too clumsy, expensive and risky. So let alone starships capable of making hyperspace jumps, there are no really large-scale and permanent space stations in near-earth orbit serving as factories, power-stations and hotels, no mines on the moon or Venus, Mercury, Mars or the asteroids, indeed no ambitious plans to send manned exploratory missions there either. And, despite the long-search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, it is curious that we still seem to be a very lonely species adrift in space, so public interest even in sci-fi space movies seems to have waned lately: nothing spectacular has happened in that area since the days of E.T. and Star Wars barring stray successes like Spielberg and Tom Cruise’s recent re-telling of the venerable War of the Worlds. The bulk of our trains and buses run on technology that is basically a century old – again, I have been hearing and seeing TV shows about hovertrains and maglev trains that run at 500-plus km/hour for more than three decades, but thus far and no farther. It’s the same in the field of aircraft: nothing essentially pathbreaking has happened since the first Boeing 747 ‘jumbo jet’ rolled out in 1969: the Airbus 380 about to enter service is just a bigger, quieter version, while the supersonic Concorde has been retired as a very costly failure after two decades of trial and has not been replaced by anything better – hyperplanes capable of transporting two thousand people at a time from New York to Sydney in two hours are not even likely to start being produced soon. The same applies to megaships, though Frederick Forsyth wrote a book about a million-tonne oil tanker almost two decades ago. The first 100-plus storey building, the Empire State in New York, was finished in 1931; we haven’t got a 200-storey building yet. And the most widely-used gun in the world, the AK 47, is of World War II vintage!

At the most basic level of physics – the ‘queen’ and trendsetter of all the sciences for three glorious centuries since Newton was born – there is likewise only stagnation and confusion, so far as I can tell from the science columns of the newspapers and the occasional relevant book that I read. At the turn of the century there were so many rapid-fire discoveries of momentous proportions – the electron, the photoelectric effect, quantum mechanics, relativity, the e = mc2 equation and what have you – that vast vistas, whole new realms of knowledge at both the microcosmic and macrocosmic levels, seemed to have been suddenly opened up. ‘Bliss was it in that new dawn to be alive’, most of the best brains in the scientific world were drawn into the exhilarating vortex of atomic physics and astrophysics, and it seemed that perhaps the ultimate mysteries of creation and existence were about to be revealed to mankind; scientists, in Einstein’s words, were really at last going to look into the mind of God. But then things seemed to go awry. Instead of things becoming increasingly clearer and simpler and more organized, chaos abounded. The deeper scientists looked into the ‘heart of the matter’, the more complex and protean it seemed to become, like opening up Russian dolls (which themselves kept shape-shifting in most bizarre ways all the time). So these days we hear that instead of three more or less stable subatomic particles there are ‘actually’ at least 64, many of which cannot often be differentiated from one another or have any stable kind of existence; we hear that nobody is sure whether we live in an oscillating universe or a stable one or one which alternates eternally between the Big Bang and the Big Crunch, or even whether there are multiple universes, budding off baby universes after the fashion of amoebae now and then and fusing into one another sometimes; we hear that scientists have been grappling in vain with the challenge of the Grand Unification Theory because gravity is proving to be unmanageable, and also (something that is certain to confound the thinking layperson) that perhaps there is no such thing as gravity after all: it is only a ‘distortion’ in the uniform field of space-time caused by the presence of very massive bodies. We hear that at the level of the very building blocks of matter we must not talk of strict causality because only probabilities are allowed by something called the uncertainty principle, and at the level of a dying or just-being-born universe there arise such things as ‘singularities’ when space and time themselves stop having any meaning, so we are no longer allowed to ask when and where! At the most esoteric level, there are groups of scientists who do not believe in particles at all, but insist that the universe is ‘actually’ composed of multidimensional ‘strings’, or ‘superstrings’ (and there are a couple of dozen superstring theories happily coexistent and quarreling, because apparently not one of them can be conclusively proved by experiment – once thought to be the sine qua non of real science! – owing to insurmountable technical difficulties). The newspapers these days keep regurgitating this kind of stuff as though they were the latest and very promising breakthroughs, but I have been reading more or less the same things since I was in high school – I have come across very little in the last five years that indicate huge progress has been made since, say, Asimov wrote his brilliant encyclopedic New Guide to Science. However counterintuitive – or, not to put too fine a point on it, plain weird – all this may seem to some of us, we are solemnly assured by the eggheads that reality is indeed like that; they have checked it all with mathematical rigour and precision. And all the time the math involved has become more and more complicated and arcane, so that over my lifetime the scientists doing ‘cutting-edge’ research have been claiming that only the initiated (meaning only they and their friends – scientists can be very disparaging and dismissive of even rival theorists, leave alone laymen, and by layman a particle physicist means even engineers and surgeons, leave alone history professors, politicians, clerks and bus drivers!) may even vaguely comprehend what they are talking about. But isn’t that just the way the church fathers insisted about their own brands of mumbo jumbo in the name of theology and religion for upwards of a thousand years? To think that science was born to fight and destroy that sort of religiosity and offer a better life to men here on earth!

Add to all this the fact that the public has understood at least two things rather clearly over the last half-century – that scientific ‘progress’ has severely harmed the natural environment that sustains us and very greatly magnified our power of mutual destruction through terrorism and war – and it’s no wonder any more that all over the world there has been of late a great ‘turning away’ from science, at least science of the ‘pure’ variety. Of course some wizards are still making vast fortunes by turning this or that application of science into enormously profitable businesses in the footsteps of Arkwright, Graham Bell, Edison, Brunel, Nobel and Eiffel – consider Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the young founders of Google Inc – but if you take the public as a whole, all over the west science has become ‘uncool’ among the young, while India and China are ‘catching up’ only by supplying the western, or western-style industries in their own domains, with millions of ‘scientifically educated’ labourers who basically do the work of glorified drudges, even when they are well paid, to keep the wheels of conventional commerce and government turning: they have not been trained or encouraged to do any original thinking, so very little pathbreaking scientific creativity ought to be expected from them. At this rate, the Enlightenment dream of knowing everything there is to be known and applying it for the good of Man might turn out to have been a mirage indeed.

Some of the best minds in basic physics have been taking a speculative, not to say metaphysical turn in recent times. Men like Fritjof Capra, Frank Tippler, Mani Bhowmik, Freeman Dyson and Paul Davies – all of them holding science doctorates from the world’s leading universities – insist that there cannot be a meaningful science without God, and those like Roger Penrose, who wouldn’t commit themselves so far, still urge us to consider that at least the stuff of human consciousness must be somehow factored into all scientific hypothesizing to make any significant progress hereafter. On the other hand, those like Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg and Richard Dawkins, following in the footsteps of Laplace who told Napoleon he had no need for the God-hypothesis, are in defiant denial, but they seem to be locked in an intellectual cul de sac. But much worse than that has been happening over the last fifty years. There is a global sense of failure and frustration with science (and even more ominously, with reason itself), and the turning away has been made manifest in a great many undesirable ways.

Since scientists are laying claim to ever larger funds for supposedly important research from the same public whom they cannot (or do not seem willing and eager to) convince about that importance, legislators in many advanced nations have greatly slashed many projects, if not cancelled them entirely – as has been the case with artificial intelligence and ever bigger particle supercolliders. Research into more advanced weaponry, on the other hand, just like research to develop ever more tantalizing cosmetics, keeps going on at a breathtaking pace, because the same legislators (and the voters behind them) can see the obvious ‘utility’ of such things. Meanwhile, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ongoing political reorientation of China, the only dream of creating a secular, rational, civilized (meaning one that outlaws poverty, vast and hereditary power, wealth and privilege and great injustice stemming from these things) utopia on a really large scale has vanished into thin air, but the western model of godless liberal-capitalist democracy wedded to the pseudo-religion of consumerism is neither accessible to the whole human race (because the earth’s resources are not infinite, nor are the rich willing to share enough) nor palatable to all – as a result religion, including religion of the organized and aggressive variety, has begun to appeal to a great many people again everywhere. Now this wouldn’t have been a bad thing if religion had complemented science in consciously and deliberately making a better world for all of us – heaven knows mankind needs a healthy sense of purpose and direction. If religion could have made us better human beings – kinder, quieter, more tolerant, self-possessed and self-assured, less material-obsessed and greedy, more aesthetic – that would have been wonderful. Unfortunately, that is not the kind of religion that is making converts and sympathizers in droves. It is religion of a very parochial, bigoted, violent, ritual obsessed and superstitious sort – precisely the kind of religion that science had struggled so long and hard to banish from the human mind – that is making a comeback with a vengeance all over the world, whether it be within the folds of Islam or Hinduism or Christianity. The zealots want blood, and absolute, unreasoning, inhuman faith; they conjure up apocalyptic visions and promise paradise hereafter, they lust after unbridled, irresponsible power; they want to turn the clock back. And now they have far more potent weapons – not just bombs and guns and poison but the fantastic tools of mass propaganda and collective brainwashing created by science itself – in their hands to do mischief with. Often these religious ‘leaders’ and the hordes of their passionate devotees have acquired at least a smattering of ‘scientific’ education. Is it not a very sad irony that this should have happened after four centuries of the pursuit of knowledge and human welfare?

‘The best lack all conviction/ the worst are full of passionate intensity’. This was written a long time ago, but it might have been a description of the present day. A majority of young people all over the world today – well-fed and supposedly well schooled – cannot spell or do math in their heads; they find both science and Shakespeare boring, last year to them is prehistory, and nothing apparently interests and excites them other than shopping, rave parties awash in drugs, inane sports like football and cricket, the celebrity of the hour and fashionable clothes to be bought and thrown away with hysterical frenzy. Real adventure of any kind is as anathema to them as charity; they hate hard work, they eat like pigs, and truth to them is what TV ads say it is. I know the old have always complained of the dissoluteness of the young, but look, I am not yet such an old man myself, and I have seen galloping decadence with my own eyes as a teacher in the last twenty-odd years. I can at least see how the Roman emperors kept the mob happy with bread and circuses; how well the same timeworn strategy works still, and how the mob hates, despises and ignores all those who tell them to wake up and look at the truth. The book did not foresee this at all, and I cannot foresee what the consequences are likely to be: but there is ‘much that I fear may chance’. What kind of labourers will these lazy morons make, and what sort of statesmen, artists, scientists, reformers and parents will be drawn from their ranks?

Another area where there has been no progress at all is with regard to the dream of a world government, which will have only the interests – especially the long term interests – of Man at heart. The Upanishads dreamt of a world which would live by the dictum of vasudhaiva kutumvakam, the world is my family, the earth is to be held in trust for posterity. Tennyson dreamt in Locksley Hall of a world governed by the ‘Parliament of Man, the federation of the world’; Russell insisted in the middle of the 20th century that without such a thing Man had no future. The first truly international effort to articulate this dream took the form of the League of Nations, which died an early death because most of the powerful members had neither any real understanding of its need nor were willing to give it a fair trial; they were still stuck with nationalistic world-views of medieval ancestry. There followed the unspeakable horror of the Second World War, and the ghastly apprehension (at least in the minds of a few thousand articulate scientists, journalists, generals and statesmen) that a third World War might spell the doom of civilization as we know it. So the League was resurrected and given a shot in the arm in a new avatar, the United Nations, and there was in the mid-1940s some hope that this time round the Great Powers of the World would be moved by both reason and conscience to voluntarily delegate many of their hitherto ‘sovereign’ powers to this body for the greatest common good: prevention of war, rapid development of the poorest countries, encouraging trade, controlling global menaces of crime, pollution, natural-resource depletion and so on globally – which is surely both the most efficient and the most equitable way. Alas, the modicum of good sense generated by the catastrophe of two successive world wars within three decades was dissipated all too soon. When I was born, the world was frozen into a Cold War; the bulk of the resources of the ‘superpowers’ was being eaten up by the arms race and the mutual-hate propaganda race. Whatever dribbles of charity they gave to the poor nations of the world was strictly tied to their own hegemonistic ambitions; they wanted their ‘satellites’ to become either pale clones of themselves or helplessly dependent on them for everything, from advice to technology, forever, when they were not providing cannon fodder for proxy wars in furtherance of the geopolitical interests of the USA or the USSR. Very little genuine developmental work could be done for those countries which needed it most because there was so much bad blood between the superpowers that they would not cooperate. The UNO became a vast, grand, and (compared with the early hopes it had raised) nearly useless bureaucracy spinning out endless beautifully worded and ineffectual resolutions and covenants for the benefit of all those it could not really serve – hundreds of millions of sick, handicapped, poor, elderly people and minorities, including women, who were victims of extreme oppression or neglect all around the planet, not to mention the natural environment, which industrial man’s greed continued to despoil and pollute as though there would be no tomorrow.

Then, when I was nearing thirty, there was sudden cataclysmic change again. The Soviet Union collapsed and vanished, and there was America triumphant: unbridled and unabashed global capitalism seemed suddenly to become the almost unopposed order of the day. The UNO had become, when it was not kowtowing to American interests, irrelevant. The earth and all its riches was up for grabs, and the overwhelming military might as well as cultural leadership of the USA (a very weird leadership though it is, to put it mildly – a leadership of lazy and mindless opulence: the kind of ‘leadership’ that decadent Rome gave to Europe, Africa and the Middle East after the second century C.E.) was there to protect the greediest and most reckless players all around the planet. But these last fifteen odd years have been, from a historian’s point of view, a mere wink of the eye: with failure in Afghanistan, looming disaster in Iraq, China and the European Union growing stronger with every passing year, many governments as well as peoples in both rich and poor countries quietly resentful and resisting, America’s brief moment of unchallengeable authority on the world stage is already becoming a thing of the past. Economically speaking, the world in fifty years’ time is certainly going to be a multipolar world – of that all the experts seem certain. The trillion-dollar question is, will such a world survive politically without a global government to hold the reins, without a global charter of basic human rights (and duties) in force? To put it in another way, will the nations learn to reach that desideratum through relatively smooth, painless and quick negotiations, or shall we arrive at it only through many decades of war and natural disasters whose scale boggles the mind? This no one can tell. On this non-technical (and therefore much more difficult) question the book remains absolutely silent.

So on the whole the book raised far more exciting possibilities than have actually materialized; and the world to me today seems much darker than it had hoped for. This I say though I have been very, very lucky not to have suffered seriously myself over these last 25 years: individual life trajectories often vary greatly from average prognostications aimed at very large numbers. For a lot of people of my parents’ generation and mine, things have shaped up far worse – all those millions who have been rendered destitute refugees by war, revolution and environmental disaster, for instance. On the other hand, things have become better than expected for only a tiny minority of people: mostly rich males in the world’s ten most advanced nations who are still healthy and active. May that remain a warning for my daughter and all her contemporaries. If I look down the road, I will not dare to make forecasts about what the world would look like 25 years hence: experience has taught me to doubt my own wisdom. I shall certainly hope for a few good things to happen, even some unexpectedly good ones, but I shall go on worrying that too many things will take a turn for the worse, and men will wake up to danger only when it is almost too late.

((begun January 1, 2007 , finished January 6, 2007)