15 November 1997
Source: The New York Times, November 15, 1997

Is Democratizing Technology the Key to Heaven on Earth?


Ever since Plato wrote the "Republic," idealists have been setting out their visions of the perfect society.

Thomas More, who wrote "Utopia" in 1516, wanted to restore the traditional village and fend off the emerging market system that allowed "rich men to buy up all."

Frenchman Charles Fourier believed man could rationally determine the most harmonious social unit: by his calculations, 1,620 people on 5,000 acres. In the 1780s, the religious, communal Shakers began establishing villages with celibacy as the cardinal principle; seven decades later, John Humphrey Noyes founded the religious and socialist Oneida community, where every woman was the wife of every man and vice versa.

The latest entrant to the utopian ranks seems to be Freeman J. Dyson, the 73-year-old mathematician and former physicist, who is now a futurologist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Like the scientific utopians at this century's start, Dyson says technology provides the bridge to a heaven on earth.

He conjures up a world where trees, not oil wells, produce fuel, where rural villages are the major source of wealth, and former slum dwellers are hooked up to the Internet.

In his vision, new technologies pointed in the right direction could create such a poverty-free utopia, leapfrogging the dishearteningly slow efforts of the World Bank and other do-gooders to promote development.

Dyson laid out his theory in a lecture in Manhattan Nov. 5 sponsored by the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs. His starting point was the way rural villages in Britain, Germany and France are abandoning agriculture to become residential centers for the middle class and sites for business and light industry.

These villages became sources of wealth, he argued, because "they have what wealthy people seek, peace and security and beauty." He then asked himself the obvious question, "How can a God-forsaken Mexican village become a source of wealth?"

His answer: "The sun, the genome and the Internet can work together to bring wealth to the villages of Mexico just as the older technology of electricity and automobiles brought wealth to the villages of England."

"Technology guided by ethics has the power to help billions of poor people all over the earth," he explained. "The thousand megawatts of solar power falling daily on every tropical square mile is enough to support "a dense population with all modern conveniences."

Of course, photoelectric conversion is expensive, but in time, geneticists could develop mutated trees "that convert sunlight to liquid fuel and deliver the fuel directly through their roots to a network of pipes," Dyson said. Then "economic forces will move industries from cities to the country."

Finally, all these new rural production centers could be linked via the Internet, allowing "people in remote places to make business deals, to buy and sell, to keep in touch with friends, to continue their education."

The obstacle, he said, is not that science cannot achieve this, but that technological research is heading in the wrong direction, concentrating on "making toys for the rich."

Genetic researchers, for example, seek mainly to advance human "high-tech medicine," which primarily benefits the rich, while manufacturers prefer to upgrade products, keeping them "out of reach of the poor."

Dyson said ethical values as well as the desire for profit can drive technological research just as technology sometimes influences human values. Thus the Protestant work ethic, which emphasized personal responsibility, fathered capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. But what made the spread of Protestantism possible in the first place was the invention of printing, because it popularized the Bible.

What research into this holy trinity of solar energy, genetics and computers now needs, Dyson said, is "a strong ethical push" to get all three technologies working in tandem to create "a socially just world."