Science fiction and Engineering in the Anthropocene Epoch
“There’s breaking news at the top edge of the geologic time scale today,” the Friends of the Pleistocene blog wrote in May. They were commenting on the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s report on renaming our epoch the Anthropocene, to reflect that humans are the drivers of change on Earth. I started blogging with the new Arts section of the Huffington Post this week and my beat is going to be the cultural impact of the Anthropocene Epoch.
“Who knows what might result if more people knew they were in the midst of creating and leaving behind an unprecedented impact – one that can be measured geologically?” the Friends of the Pleistocene asked. “Maybe humans could learn something from this change – if not about our impact, then at least about ourselves within a much longer geologic story.”
The Friends of The Pleistocene have drawn up a Geologic Time Viewer that graphically represents how previous epochs connect to our own. The Carboniferous period, 354 to 290 million years ago is especially significant. It’s when foliage from plants that thrived in the humid conditions fell but didn’t decay and over time was transformed into veins of coal. The Anthropocene Epoch is considered to have begun during the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century when methods for mining and extracting energy from coal were developed, transportation systems were invented to move raw materials and goods around the world rapidly in great quantities, and civil engineering projects enabled the growth of great cities. The Geologic Time Viewer draws a line from the Carboniferous Era to the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Centre and Yankee Stadium.
“It has not been science and scientists but science fiction and science-fiction writers that have anticipated some of the greatest engineering achievements of all time,” Henry Petroski wrote in The Essential Engineer. “Jules Verne had men reaching the Moon a century before the Apollo 11 mission, and Arthur C Clarke proposed a system of geosynchronous telecommunications satellites in 1945, two decades before they became a reality.”
In 1992 Arthur C Clarke published When the World Was One: The Turbulent History of Global Communications. He concluded with predicting the importance of mobile personal communications devices. “As the century which saw the birth of both electronics and optronics draws to a close, it would seem that virtually everything we would wish to do in the field of telecommunications is now technically possible. The only limitations are financial, legal and political. But have we indeed reached the limits of communications technology? Time and again the past men – even able men – have proclaimed that there is nothing more to invent, and they have always been proved wrong.”
By the end of the twentieth century science fiction was presenting the collapse of the natural world as the end result of the ingenuity of manufacturing and building technologies. “You know what? I was always aware that this whole Earth is on overload,” Ridley Scott said in 2007, on the twenty fifth anniversary of Blade Runner. “I’ve been like that for 30 years, and people used to think I was a — not exactly a depressive, but always dark about it. And I’d say, “It’s not dark, mate. It’s a fact. It’s going to come and hit you in the head.” It’s right where we are right now, where we’re still going, arguing in circles. There’s some politicians who still seriously believe that we haven’t got global warming.”
William Gibson said of his science fiction of the 1980‘s: “In some cases, I believe that I inadvertently provided “illustrations” for technologists who might otherwise have been unable to explain what they were trying to do.” In his Bridge trilogy (Virtual Light – Idoru – All Tomorrow’s Parties) of the 1990‘s he predicted the world as we know it would end as the millennium turned but no-one would notice. “We are come not only past the century’s closing,” said Yamazaki, the Japanese existential sociologist, “the millennium’s turning, but to the end of something else. Era? Paradigm? Everywhere, the signs of closure. Modernity was ending. Here, on the bridge, it long since had.” What ended was the notion that we could keep averting disaster with large scale inventions and dominion over nature.
The ingenuity and inventiveness of the Bridge trilogy was small scale, the refugee community on the ruined Golden Gate bridge created their own power and water and waste management systems from scavenged materials.
The millennium was a fork in the road. In one direction progress continued to be equated with bigger construction projects, the maniacally complex city-structures in Dubai, for example, until the world financial crisis closed them down. In January Wired Magazine declared that the Next Industrial Revolution would give individuals access to vast factories in China. 3D printers and rapid prototyping would allow people to easily and quickly devise their own products and they’d negotiate directly with factories to get one, or thousands, made up for themselves.
The other path counters the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution, the damage to the environment caused by the mining and burning of coal and the unchecked mass production of disposable products. 3D printing and rapid prototyping technologies can be used to extend the life of products by printing replacement parts and to generate prosthetic limbs. People may find personal alternative power sources. There’s a prototype of a Wellington boot that collects power generated through the heat of the feet that can be stored and used to recharge mobile phones. And the iconic construction projects are by architect Shigeru Ban, whose primary building material is humble paper tubing, reinforced and snapped together in repeating patterns for structural strength. He builds cathedrals and museums and hip designer furniture but also refugee housing.
“Having an idea is different to the infinitely harder and longer process of invention” James Dyson says. “At Dyson we’re inspired by the ingenuity and tenacity of the great inventors. For me, design is about how something works, not how it looks. It’s what’s inside that counts. The best designs come from someone questioning everything. Designers, engineers look at the same things as everyone else. But they see something different. And they think what could be – and make it happen – even if it takes 5,127 prototypes to succeed.”
Sharing and renting products is becoming prized more than owning them. Utility and reliability matter more than design and brand. Two new models of the Dyson vacuum cleaner, the DC24 and DC25 Drawing resemble prototypes and are annotated with the tests on the various components and how long it took to develop them: “Tri-Lobular Handle. Development time: 7.5 months. Result: maximum transmission. Steering feels as light as possible.” “Hose Stretch Test Pneumatic rig stretches hose assembly. Repeated for 150,000 cycles.”
In the twenty first century William Gibson abandoned the conceit of placing his novels in the future, and stopped inventing devices and technologies for his books. As Great Dismal he tweeted a quote today from computer pioneer Alan Kay: “You can’t fix a natural system. You can only negotiate with it.”
His new trilogy (Pattern Recognition – Spook Country- Zero History) is set in the present. “The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone”, he recently told a Booksellers convention. “Ahead of us, there is merely…more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidian … If Pattern Recognition was about the immediate psychic aftermath of 9-11, and Spook Country about the deep end of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq, I could say that Zero History is about the global financial crisis as some sort of nodal event, but that must be true of any 2010 novel with ambitions on the 2010 zeitgeist. But all three of these novels are also about that dawning recognition that the future, be it capital-T Tomorrow or just tomorrow, Friday, just means more stuff, however peculiar and unexpected. A new quotidian. Somebody’s future, somebody else’s past. Simply in terms of ingredients, it’s about recent trends in the evolution of the psychology of luxury goods, crooked former Special Forces officers, corrupt military contractors, the wonderfully bizarre symbiotic relationship between designers of high-end snowboarding gear and manufacturers of military clothing, and the increasingly virtual nature of the global market.”