Saturday, October 01, 2005

Doom-Sayers


From the book Four on the Floor, Second Edition


An old story has it that in about 1899, the man in charge of the U.S. Patent Office said the government could close down patenting. It was his idea that everything that could be invented had already been invented. There was no reason to keep the doors of his institution open.

We seem to go through periods of people forecasting that the end is in sight, that our economy and our standard of living have reached their limits, and that we might as well get ready for a long, bumpy ride down hill to poverty and disease.
What did the 1899 expert miss? It was the automobile. It turned the world upside down. He also missed the invention of the airplane.

Often, when foolish people make predictions about the dismal future we are going to have, we are on the brink of something really useful that helps mankind enormously.
In 1945 we were at the same place with similar predictions when penicillin, atomic energy, the transistor and television were on the threshold of changing the world.


It was about 1971 when books about the dismal future of Americans were again popular. Someone I knew was so distressed that he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. We were on the very brink of the computer revolution. The standard of living of most Americans rose quickly since 1971. I cannot begin to list the developments that have changed our lives since then.

Computers and science have continued to help us live better and longer since 1971. Scientists are making great strides in medicine by discovering what is in our genome (the cell that determines our physical characteristics), thanks to the computer and the Internet. Medicine may well be the next area of great improvement. Or, maybe it will be space exploration.

Another area where we can look forward to bold, helpful changes, is in energy. We depend on coal, oil, and natural gas for much of our energy needs. These three energy sources tend to pollute. They are also expensive. (Other countries pay much more for energy than we do, but that is because they put heavy taxes on the supplies. It is about like shooting yourself in the foot. We Americans tend to keep guns pointed away from our feet, so we pay less. But energy is still expensive.)

Suppose a cheap, new source for energy could be found? It would be very damaging to oil companies and the countries where oil is found, but it would give the rest of the world a low cost way to produce food, water, medicines, and transportation. Think what that would do for poor countries in Africa! The standard of living for all people would suddenly rise.

Energy is just one example. There are many other new developments waiting for us in the future. And wouldn’t you know it? Just recently, another foolish person wrote that the end of scientific development was at hand.

It sounds like we are on the edge of a new, exciting technology.

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