the future ain't what it used to be

Thunk on or about 4th September 2003

I've been doing a bit of research recently into 18th century London and it got me thinking about quality of life, the universe and everything. About the best thing you can say about 18th century London is that it's a vast improvement on 17th century London.

The impetus for the change was not civic responsibility but because, in 1666, the London city planners' dreams all came true when a fire started in Thomas Farrinor's bakery in Pudding Lane and subsequently burnt down 80% of the city. Amazingly, advantage was taken of the opportunity and many improvements were made - streets were widened, building in wood was forbidden, a beautiful new cathedral was built (St Paul's) and everything generally was paved in gold.

Which merely left disease, poverty, crime, bad sewage and mostly useless medicine. Being in debt got you locked up until you could pay it off - tricky when you were locked up with no earning capacity. A huge number of what we now think of as minor crimes could get you hanged or, if really lucky, transported to Australia. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time could get you press-ganged into the navy which, as Johnson remarked, was just like being in prison but with a chance of being drowned as well.

So what does this have to do with anything? Nothing really, except that it got me thinking about life in Australia in the 21st century and the fact that my child will be growing up in it. Life has got a lot better since the 18th century. The upsides are pretty obvious - medicine, plentiful food, shelter, wealth - despite just being a humble programmer (contradiction in terms?) I am effectively wealthier than most people who have ever lived. Will it keep getting better? What about the downsides?

It seems to me that our problems have become both larger and less immediate. Certainly, in Australia, I have no immediate concerns about starving to death or being wiped out in a civil war. So what can go wrong?

1. Nuclear annihilation: an oldie but still a goodie. The stockpiles of nuclear weapons remain more than adequate to destroy life as we know it. The bugs might survive, large mammals will not. We haven't really worried about it since the Russian submarine commander Vasily Arkhipov declined to fire his nukes during the Cuban Missile Crisis but the threat is still there. The current squatters in the White House do not encourage confidence.

2. The Grey Goo Scenario: self-replicating nanobots eat everything in sight. Frankly, this one doesn't worry me a lot - it seems a tad far-fetched. On a related topic, I saw the other day that someone had built a "slugbot" which powered itself by catching slugs and dumping them in a chemical bath. This is a far more worrying development. Work on carnivorous robots should definitely be discouraged.

3. The Venus Syndrome: positive feedback sends global warming beserk and we all fry. For example, melting ice caps means less energy is reflected back into space which melts more ice which means less energy etc. I doubt that we'll end up in a Venusian acid bath as global temperature seems to be metastable - it changes rapidly from one stable state to another. It will get a lot warmer though. I wouldn't be investing in any low-lying islands right now.

4. Overpopulation: humanity outbreeds the available resources. This is an interesting one. Predictions of future populations are falling (the populations, not the predictions) as prosperity slowly spreads. Probably we'll be able to feed ourselves. Energy consumption is a different kettle - in a few years oil production will peak but demand will keep increasing. Still, I believe there are technological solutions to this one and as the need emerges, so will the will to implement them. Might be a few hiccups during the transition, however.

5. The Sky is Falling: sudden and catastrophic arrival of large meteor/comet/alien spaceship the size of a moon. The last can be dealt with by a couple of hackers in a captured UFO but the metor/comet could be more of a problem. We know of a lot of large objects which cross earth orbit. We also know there are a lot more we don't know about. Fortunately, efforts are now being made to find these. If we get lucky and get enough warning we can probably nudge the offending object off course. Still, it's not worth losing too much sleep over this one.

There are other cosmic disasters we can do nothing about. For instance, if two neutron stars collide within a hundred light years of us, we will probably be fried by the gamma rays. It may already have happened. Nemesis may be racing towards us at the speed of light. We'll never know.

We're a long way from Mr Farrinor's bakery. The main differences that I can see are that the Great Fire of London was almost inevitable but its effect was purely local. Resources could be pulled in from the rest of England and from overseas trade to rebuild the city. The threats we face now are far less inevitable (at least in the next century or so) but much harder to recover from because there is no other place to pull resources from.

What does this mean for our children? I guess they'll just have to deal with whatever comes, same as everybody else.


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