Rarely am I made to feel sick. Movies have done it to me a few times—say, Silence of the Lambs or the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. But today was the first time I’ve felt sick from a book; some of you may have heard of it: Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by 2100, by Michio Kaku.
Kaku’s argument is simple. When predicting the future, the most common mistake is to underestimate the rate of scientific progress. In 1903, for example, the New York Times claimed that airplanes were a waste of time; and the chairman of IBM, in 1943, expressed doubt that demand would ever exist for more than a dozen or so computers. Here Kaku is right: what each of them, along with countless others, got wrong was the exponential pace at which the sciences develop.
So what was it that made me so sick? In the epilogue, Kaku describes the life of an “average” person in the year 2100:
After a night of heavy partying on New Year’s Eve, you are sound asleep.
Suddenly, your wall screen lights up. A friendly, familiar face appears on the screen. It’s Molly, the software program you bought recently. Molly announces cheerily, “John, wake up. You are needed at the office. In person. It’s important.”
Slowly you drag yourself out of bed and reluctantly head off to the bathroom. While washing your face, hundreds of hidden DNA and protein sensors in the mirror, toilet, and sink silently spring into action, analyzing the molecules you emit in your breath and bodily fluids, checking for the slightest hint of any disease at the molecular level.
Leaving the bathroom, you wrap some wires around your head, which allow you to telepathically control your home: you mentally raise the temperature of the apartment, turn on some soothing music, tell the robotic cook in your kitchen to make breakfast and brew some coffee, and order your magnetic car to leave the garage and be ready to pick you up. As you enter the kitchen, you see the mechanical arms of the robotic cook preparing eggs just the way you like them.
Then you put in your contact lenses and connect to the Internet. Blinking, you see the Internet as it shines onto the retina of your eye.
What follows are example after example of human life transformed by ‘amazing’ scientific advancements. Magnetic cars cruise effortlessly through vast networks of superhighways; workers on Earth telepathically operate robots on the moon; doctors manipulate the genomes of unborn children, optimizing all the expected categories—even human aging has been halted (the main character asks his robotic doctor if his seventies are an appropriate age to start having kids).
But I’ve still avoided the question: what brought on my sickness? It wasn’t the unrealistic depiction of a classless, conflict-free technotopic future. Nor was it its embarrassingly unoriginality (floating cars and robot chefs—really?). It was something much larger instead, not any specific point in his characterization of the future but—like a stage-light coloring the entire scene—the near-total lack of human connection. Upon awaking, for example, whose “friendly, familiar face” does the main character first see? Not his mother’s, the mother who patiently and lovingly raised him. Not his lover’s, the lover for whom his heart burns. Not even his dog’s, the dog who farts in her sleep. No. He sees the face of a computer program, one that thousands of other men probably see upon waking as well—a pornographer’s dream! And who cooks his breakfast? Not his mother; not his lover; certainly not his dog—but a robot.
Like the dominant culture, Kaku’s book encourages us to further remove ourselves from the random sway of nature and to establish ourselves as its master. We find a laughable anthropology in the introduction—“For countless eons we were passive observers of the dance of nature. We only gazed in wonder and fear at comets, lightning bolts, volcanic eruptions, and plagues, assuming that they were beyond our comprehension. To the ancients, the forces of nature were an eternal mystery to be feared and worshipped…” We civilized humans, though, are on the track to total mastery. “By 2100, our destiny is to become like the gods we once worshipped and feared.”
When I think of the future, of what kind of world I want to live in, I don’t see myself surrounded by more and more technology. I don’t see myself as a god. I don’t even want to be a god! I see myself living with the people I love most and, hopefully, the people who love me.
I see better now why I felt so sick, nauseous even, reading Physics of the Future. For me, Kaku’s world, along with that of other technophiles, is suffocating. It marks the realization of the fantasy of science—a sterile city-space in which every human interaction is mediated by technology. Nothing is left to chance. Nothing is left to nature. If I ever found myself somewhere on that endless sheet of aluminum that Kaku dreams of, I imagine that I would starve of loneliness.