The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   43

Imagined Worlds

by Freeman Dyson

Harvard University Press, 1997

Uncle Freeman's Stories

Freeman Dyson has, in one person, experienced an astonishing fraction of the range of science in the second half of the twentieth century (that is to say, of the Golden, though not the Heroic, Age) --- operations research in WWII, the most fundamental sort of physical theory in QED, the design of nuclear reactors, half-visionary plans for space colonization, intensely abstract mathematical physics, and even that odd creature, theoretical biology. He is now slipping into the role of Nestor, and, fortunately for us, it suits him. He's telling stories now, lots of them, and well. Some are about what makes science tick, and the many ways of doing it, here roughly split into the Napoleonic (think Big Science) and the Tolstoyan (think ``fast, cheap, and out of control''). Some are about technology, and what it takes to get a good technology to evolve (a need, a thousand maniacs going in every direction at once until they bash all the bugs out, and no governing ideology, no matter how well-intentioned) and why there are so few really good new technologies these days. Some are about evolution, taking really long views, both into the past and the future, and guessing how our species is likely to wind up: a quintillion descendants-of-human-beings, swarming through the solar system in a million engineered and hybrid forms, sharing memories and consciousness through ``radioneurotelepathy'' --- a benign rendition of Schismatrix. And of course ethics, not only the ethical dilemmas science and technology continue to present us with --- following here in the footsteps of his great inspirer J. B. S. Haldane, in Dædalus --- but the need to strive for ``more learning and less vice, more leisure and less greed, more justice and less revenge.'' (I believe all my brothers and sisters in AFT local 3220 would join me in applauding Dyson's encomium of Samuel Gompers.) In a sense, all the stories are about continuity, seeing oneself as part of something larger than oneself with a history extending far beyond the present in both directions, and all of them are informed by his deep, almost Panglossian sense of the ultimate benevolence of the universe, that at the end of the day (or the End of Days) it will promote the things Dyson values --- diversity, independence, plenitude.

The stories are well told, and worth listening to; Dyson is not merely a humane and vastly learned man, but a genuinely wise one. All the same, when I lay the book down, I can't help but entertain more than a few doubts. Sometimes his facts are a bit wonky (e.g., claiming that early exposure to computers causes economic inequality). Sometimes, and very surprisingly, he shows a certain lack of imagination --- considering that such a half-assed effort at administration as the Roman Empire lasted until 1453, and how much better we are at creating and maintaining formal organizations than all previous ages, it would not surprise me unduly to learn that states now in existence were still strong a thousand years from now (whereas I would be flabbergasted if, in those same thousand years, mounted nomads from central Asia had conquered sedentary states).

More importantly, I can't take his stories about the future too seriously. Partly this is because I think he, like another of his inspirations, the physicist and Communist J. D. Bernal, he relies on a false notion of human evolution. Our tools evolve so that we don't have to. Artifacts, to distort Herbert Simon's teachings just a bit, are interfaces, that must fit both sides, us and the world. So long as improving artifacts can keep up that balancing act, there is no need for us to evolve, and surely no very compelling reason. Again, that the human brain, as evolved, could be retrofitted for radiotelepathy, let alone collective memory and consciousness, seems to me supremely doubtful, and there's no reason to think it would confer any advantage over our normal sorts of memory and consciousness. (Solidarity forever is one thing, redoing humanity so as to bring a true hive mind into existence for the first time quite another.) So I think he's misconceived the way we evolve, and the mechanism driving that evolution; but there is another, perhaps even more compelling reason not believe his, or indeed any, stories about the future of science and technology and their effects. By definition, we cannot know the content of any discovery until it is made; yet it is precisely the effects of discoveries lying in the future we wish to know! (Even if we were perfect Laplacian calculators, we would need to know not just what the true laws of physics were, but that our knowledge of these laws was accurate and complete, which could never be determined on empirical grounds.) This argument against all forms of prophecy seems to have originated with Karl Popper in The Poverty of Historicism (1945) and has never, so far as I know, been refuted.

In some ways Imagined Worlds is an admirable piece of science fiction, only without the conventional fictional form; as I hinted above, SF writers have already begun to mine Dyson for ideas, as their predecessors mined Haldane and Bernal. (Fair's fair: Dyson has taken inspiration from many of the great works of SF, and also Jurassic Park.) Like the best pieces of science fiction, it enlarges the mind --- both what we think possible, what our imaginations are willing to conceive, and what we care about, the horizons within which our interests are bounded. Unlike many of the best writers of science fiction, Dyson is not in the least gloomy (something I can't help but feel has to do with his being a working scientist and not a writer). The next few years, maybe even the next century or two, might be full of trouble and decay; but over all the curve is upward, in the long run intelligence will live for ever, mutate and take over the worlds. Those who go to the prophet Dyson to learn what the future holds are, alas, wasting their time: our picture of the future turns round and round like a small wheel in the middle of Fortuna's greater wheel. But those who go to hear Uncle Freeman spin his yarns will see the dry bones of speculation rise, covered in the flesh of compassion with the breath of hope in them, and live.

216 pp., black and white photographs and reproductions of paintings, bibliography, index.
Cultural Criticism / Philosophy / Popular Science / Science Fiction
Currently in print as a hardback, US$22.00, ISBN 0674539087, LoC AC8 D97
May Day, 1998