Science and Science Fiction Highlight Double-Edged Sword of Technology

May 3, 2017

Science fiction has always been a way to explore what our future might look like. As often as not, those imaginings are pretty dark - full of social and technological catastrophes. Hulu's new adaptation of A Handmaid's Tale has sparked renewed interest in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 clasic, with some calling it relevant, even timely.

Brave New World

Just as that series was debuting, though, researchers announced a breakthrough that seemed to leap-frog A Handmaid's Tale and jump straight to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. A team at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have created an artificial womb and successfully incubated several fetal lambs in it.

For many, it was a bit jarring to see a lamb in what looked like a giant ziplock bag. But George Annas, director of the Center for Health Law, Ethics, and Human Rights at Boston University School of Public Health, says that attitude could change.

"It was just kind of startling thing," said Annas. "But you could think about this as being beautiful in its own way. You have a living creature there in a liquid environment, and you can watch it develop. That's pretty astonishing."

An artificial womb could give premature babies more time to develop, avoiding the life-long complications and disabilities that preemies often experience. And the lead author of the study says human trials could be just a few years away.

But Annas sees both promise and peril in the advance. He says the technology could redefine the abortion debate, raising the possibility of unwanted or risky pregnancies not being terminated, but rather, transferred to an artificial womb. Whether that's a negative or positive development for women would depend on whether such a transfer is an available option or a legal mandate, and who has the right and responsibility of making decisions for the baby.

Default Reality or Walkaway

That kind of duality is a hallmark of most technological advances. Many prognosticators tend toward either optimism or doom-and-gloom, but both sides of the coin get a thorough treatment in Cory Doctorow's new novel, Walkaway.

The book opens in true dystopian fashion, set just a handful of decades into the future, in a world where climate change, consumerism, income inequality, and digital surveillance have been taken to extremes. Society is also suffering at the hands of something that sounds like a good thing, something Doctorow calls post-scarcity.

"It's a subject I've been pondering since my first novel, in 2003," said Doctorow, acknowledging he doesn't have a clear-cut explanation. "Scarcity is the intersection of what we want, what we can make, and how easy it is to get the things that we can make to the people that want it."

In a future where 3D printing is as omnipresent as inkjets are today, it should be possible to make whatever you want, wherever you want.

Doctorow imagines two responses to such a scenario. In “default reality,” the ultra-rich attempt to enforce scarcity and maintain the status quo. But a growing number of “walkaways” turn their back on all of it and set out to build a whole new society based on gift economy, where work and goods are in abundance and given freely.

Doctorow says, in his mind, the difference between dystopia and utopia boils down to one thing: “believing that your neighbors are the problem, or that your neighbors are the solution.”