Ah, the contrast! Last night, I was lucky enough to attend Popular Mechanics magazine's 2005 Breakthrough Awards, a reminder that wonderful things that benefit human health are still being invented all the time. Tonight, though, I'll hear a panel discussion about "the future" that will include sociologist Frank Furedi, who argues that imaginative policy debate is now all but impossible because society has become so irrationally risk averse, seeing only the downside of change (for example, only the negative side effects of new drugs, to take an example explored in ACSH's own report on Weighing Benefits and Risks).
While most of our (largely useless or counterproductive) "big picture" intellectuals lament the disruptive and dangerous effects of modernization, globalization, technology, markets, getting out of bed in the morning, going outdoors, meeting new people, thinking new thoughts, etc., progress is mostly made by brilliant people who focus on one practical thing. The inventors honored at the Popular Mechanics event included, for example, a team from my old stomping grounds, Brown University, who've created an implantable microchip that can be placed in the brain to replicate lost nerve signals in paralytics, enabling them to move limbs again.
This is exactly the sort of modern marvel that injured people of the future will probably take for granted someday, benefiting enormously while ungrateful big-picture intellectuals lament that change is dehumanizing us. Of course, it is also one step closer to making us a race of cyborgs, but it's a reminder that that isn't always a bad thing (coincidentally, Batman started dating a robot this week in an issue from DC Comics -- I just love being able to "Batman is dating a robot" -- and I'm confident that cyborgs will seem hip and familiar to us by the time they truly arrive). Then again, as Dr. Leigh Hochberg from the Brown team told me, the wonderful thing about the microchip is that it enables people to keep using their own limbs instead of requiring mechanical ones.
Artificial limbs were well represented at the awards event as well, though, by Dr. Hugh Herr, who lost both legs to frostbite at age seventeen but subsequently went from being a mediocre student to leading the MIT Biomechatronics Group, which has created smoothly-moving computer-assisted prostheses not so unlike the ones he now wears, enabling him to resume rock-climbing, the hobby that led to his injuries in the first place. One big improvement: now his leg length is variable and he has nifty gadgets such as ice-gripping foot-claws to make some aspects of climbing easier than they were before (this makes Herr somewhat similar to the famous real-life, albeit implausibly named, detective Jay Armes, who lost his hands in childhood to a dynamite accident but vowed to use various specially-designed prosthetic ones as aids in his quest to become the world's greatest private detective, working for such celebrities as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Elizabeth Taylor; I swear I'm not making him up, even though I thought for decades that the 1970s action figure inspired by him was purely fictional -- in fact, he now lives in a large estate with a tiger and several monkeys and may become the subject of a biographical film produced by Stan Lee).
Much as the little kid in me was excited about the NASA "scramjet" on display at the Popular Mechanics event, which instead of whirring turbines uses a superpowerful compression chamber to create shockwaves that propel to speeds up to Mach 9.6 (about 7,000 mph), the father-daughter team who created rocket-powered bicycles, the Zoe autonomous Mars explorer robot, and the Humvee gun mount, the adult in me (who is just getting old enough to understand what the grown-ups meant decades ago by phrases such as "back pain") realizes that advances directly applicable to human health and longevity are often the most important ones, advances like the a smoke detector that electronically communicates with all the other smoke detectors in a building and can set them off simultaneously or an amazing new powder that can remove bioterror agents from the air and trap them in its own dense fog, dragging them down to earth, to name two more of last night's winners.
But speaking of dense fogs that drag things down to earth...
Contrast the ongoing technological progress of the human race with our ever-growing fear of change and new things. As Frank Furedi said in an interview on Spiked-Online, "our culture creates this sense of vulnerability, but our experience conflicts with it." Upheavals occur, and more often than not, humanity endures, changes, and gets smarter, healthier, and more prosperous. Yet environmentalists fear that each new technology will poison us or destroy one lynchpin species holding the entire biosphere together like a house of cards. The left sees nothing but economic disruption and layoffs in each new technological advance or business reorganization. And the right worries that cloning and mass media are destroying human nature.
The implications of all those fears for the sort of new health technology that ACSH celebrates are obvious, but Furedi will address a much grander point at a debate tonight in New York City (6:30pm at the CUNY Grad Center at 34th and 5th, hosted by the new group NYSalon, which was inspired by Furedi and Spiked's associates at the Institute of Ideas -- it will likely be followed by a party full of bloggers at K Lounge, open to the public). In conversation with sociologist Richard Sennett and historian of ideas Russell Jacoby, Furedi will address the concern explained in his new book, The Politics of Fear: that if we start applying extreme precaution not simply to individual innovations but to any and all talk of policy reform or philosophical change, all productive political debate effectively comes to an end (witness the narrowly-averted effort to prevent more-efficient pollution emission rules from going into effect, a struggle touched on in ACSH's recent report on Regulating Mercury Emissions from Power Plants). All change has some downsides, and if downsides -- risks, mistakes, even actual physical injuries -- have become intolerable, then we're stuck with things as they are. Jacoby makes the related point that we've given up -- for good or ill -- on thinking about utopia and now bicker over even the tiniest alterations in law or social customs as if any change might spell apocalypse.
And if that's the case, then things must be absolutely perfect the way they are now, right?
Luckily, though, scientists and inventors have never taken that view, so even if media and some members of the public choose to cower, it's a safe bet that Popular Mechanics will have new breakthroughs to celebrate in 2006, that life expectancy will be slightly longer than it is now, and that someday people will look back on our era and wonder how people tolerated living in such primitive conditions. The fastest way to escape those current conditions, of course, is to overcome fear and do the bold work necessary to improve them. Our imaginations exist for something other than conjuring nightmares and worst-case scenarios.
Todd Seavey edits HealthFactsAndFears and has recently written about the likelihood of New Orleans culture enduring for NationalReview.com and for TechCentralStation and will probably have a third piece on the topic up on Spiked. He will himself host a debate on an arguably less epic but highly entertaining topic, "Is New Jersey Inferior to New York City?" on Oct. 5 (8pm) at Manhattan's Lolita Bar, under the auspices of JinxMagazine.com.