Freeman Dyson is one of the great, much-honored scholars of modern science and technology. Although he admits in his new book, "The Sun, The Genome and The Internet," (Oxford University Press, $US 22) that he didn't foresee the growth of the Internet (then again, neither did Bill Gates), he hasn't been slow to grasp its implications for the world.
Teaching and studying at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (where Einstein was), Dyson has written a book that advocates using the tools of scientific revolution - especially the Internet -- to create a better world, and a more equitable distribution of the world's wealth.
Dyson's central premise is this: solar energy, advances in genetic engineering and the worldwide communications potential of the Net can have enormous social consequences, if they are seen as tools for social change, and not just for recreation and profit.
The Net and the Web draws all sorts of different people who use it for all sorts of reasons. Some collect music, others program, millions stay in touch with their kids or grandchildren, many make money or look for sex, many are looking for community. A growing number of people coming online, especially younger ones, are almost continuously rooting around ways to put the Net into some positive political or social context. Dyson has a movement for them. A good name for it would be Ethical Technology.
Solar power, he argues, could bring electricity to even the poorest and most remote communities in the world, ending the cultural isolation of the most impoverished countries. Breakthroughs in synthetic and genetic engineering could give humans healthier lives.
"?during the last fourteen years," writes Dyson, "the Internet and World Wide Web have exploded. They have become the dominating technology in modern life."
The new century, he argues, is as good as time as any, to make ethical technology a political movement. "Technology guided by ethics has the power to help the billions of poor people all over the earth. Too much of technology today is making toys for the rich. Ethics can push technology in a new direction, away from toys for the rich and towards necessities for the poor. The time is ripe for this to happen. The sun, the genome (the genetic material of an organism), and the internet are three revolutionary forces arriving with the new century. These forces are strong enough to reduce some of the worst evils in our time."
Dyson advances a radical, new and very powerful notion of the Net as a political force. It is, he argues, essential to enable business and farms in remote places to function as part of the modern global economy. It could permit people in distant places to make business deals, to buy and sell, to keep in touch with their friends, to continue their education, to follow their hobbies, with knowledge of what's happening in the rest of the world.
Dyson's vision of the Internet would be truly global and universal. It would use a network of satellites in space for communication with places that fiber optics can't reach, and would connect to local networks in even the smallest villages. The new Internet, he argues, could end the cultural isolation of poor countries and poor people.
For this to happen, writes Dyson, two technical problems would have to be solved, that of large-scale Net architecture and what he calls "the last mile." Large-scale architecture means choosing the most efficient combination of land-lines and satellite links to cover every inch of the planet. The problem of the "last mile," connecting individual homes and families, wherever they happen to be, is much more difficult, says Dyson. It would have to be solved piecemeal.
Dyson is no fuzzy-head Utopian. He doesn't claim that any of his technological advances would create a perfect or problem free world.
Still, the ideas outlined in "The Sun, The Genome and The Internet" are logical and convincing. And they are very big ideas in a tiny book just over a hundred pages.
The Internet continues to terrify much of the rest of civilization. The handful of perverts, pornographers and virus-makers who dwell online continue to generate almost insanely disproportionate attention and concern.
This distortion - with sex, hackers, crackers, cyber-vandals, online militias -- overwhelms the social and political possibilities of the vast and diverse new world taking shape here, hardly any of which are discussed in the journalistic or political culture outside of the Net. For that matter, they aren't discussed all that much online.
For many, the biggest question about the Net (increasingly being equated by scholars as the equivalent of the discovery of fire, language or the printing press), for those online or off, is whether or not this revolutionary and transformative new technology can have sweeping social or political implications beyond the machinery itself.
Dyson says yes. His credentials are astounding.
To purchase this book, head over to Amazon and help Slashdot out.
(Question: I'd be curious to know from those of you more techno-savvy than me whether the universal, global Net that Dyson proposes - the architecture and delivery, especially -- is really possible, or if's a pipe dream?) firstname.lastname@example.org">