New Opportunities and Threats
for 21st-century Life
Joseph N. Pelton
The George Washington University
The future of humanity lies far beyond Earth.
Men have become the Tools of their Tools.
—Henry David Thoreau
These two dramatically different quotes from Henry David Thoreau and Carl Sagan represent the dialectical extremes of philosophical thought and about where advanced technology is taking modern society. There can be no doubt that satellites and other advanced electronic technologies bring us both new opportunity and new types of concerns about humanity's future.
Brockman's (2000) book about the greatest inventions over the past two millennia provides some useful insights. It reveals, in a series of short vignettes, what progress we have or have not made in the last 2,000 years. Brockman managed to con some of the world's greatest scientists, engineers, and scholars into contributing their thoughts on this subject. The results are actually quite a mixed bag. Some took the assignment quite seriously and others much less so. One rather dry response was: “Nothing much. ”
The most remarkable thing about the majority of these “great inventions” as inventoried by Brockman is how ordinary or routine most of them seem to us today. Most are virtually “invisible” in our everyday lives. Electricity, batteries, telephones, TVs, radios, computers, running water, modern medicines, anesthesia, vaccines, sterilization, birth control, books, printing, automobiles, trains, jet airplanes, modern cities, specialization, fiber optics, satellites, automation, manufacturing, democracy, and, heaven help us, even marketing made the list of nominations. All-time favorites such as astrophysics, spandex, and chewing gum, however, did not make the list.