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A Scientist's Notebook
Science is necessarily abstract, and technology must be concrete.
Indeed, concrete is a technology, invented by the ancients-and because it is old, we never think of it as miraculous. Yet it is not obvious how sand, lime, clay and water blends to make a hard, rugged stone, its chemistry still a subject of study.
How technology goes from a miracle to the commonplace is another theme of science fiction, nowhere more concentrated than in the visual media, which feed upon the new, the gaudy, the gee whiz.
Everything seemed set. Everybody agreed. The female lead character seemed particularly right, a match of motivation and plot.
Then the producer, a woman in her thirties, leaned across the lunch table and said, "She's just right, now. Only . . . how about, halfway through, she turns out to be a robot?"
I looked around the room, at the murals depicting famous scenes from old movies, at stars dining on their slimming salads in all their Armani finery, at the sweeping view of little purple dots that danced before my eyes. "Robot?"
"Just to keep them guessing," the producer added helpfully.
"But that makes no sense in this movie."
"It's science fiction, though-"
"So it doesn't have to make sense," I finished for her.
"I want a magic moment right here, at the end of the first hour," he said.
"Magic?" I asked guardedly.
"Something to bring out the wonder of Mars, yeah."
"Like . . . "
"See, when the astronaut is inside this cave-"
"Thermal vent. From an old volcano-"
"Okay, okay, vent it is. In this vent, he's trapped, right?"
"Well, not actually-"
"So he's banged up and he thinks he's going to die and he thinks, what the hell."
"What the hell."
"Right, you get it. He says what the hell, he might as well take his helmet off."
"Right, you got it. Big moment. Cracks the seal. And he smiles and takes a big breath, and says, 'Oxygen! There's oxygen here.' Whaddaya think?"
"I liked the robot better."
Yet I also saw around me the biggest, most complex technical social machine on the planet-a can-do paradise. How come, this contrast?
That was in 1926. Soon airplane manufacturing businesses sprouted alongside the citrus groves, then blossomed into a full-fledged aerospace industry. Other technology-driven industries cropped up, followed by facilities for the sort of scientific research that makes engineering creativity thrive. Now science and technology are far more deeply rooted in this semi-arid landscape than the few remaining orange trees.
Why Southern California, though?
The weather promises sunny beaches, mild breezes and a laid-back life, not the chilly intellectual air of an MIT or Harvard. But weather is not just a comfort-it shapes. First, the air is clear for jet testing and star gazing. Mt. Wilson and then Mt. Palomar drew the Andrew Carnegie Foundation to build the biggest optical telescopes because they offered the best astronomical "seeing" conditions in North America.
Clarity and dependable sunlight led to Hollywood's dominance over New York film makers. Being able to train troops out of doors drew Marines to Camp Pendelton and the Army Air Force to Edwards and other air bases.
For another thing, even eggheads ain't stupid. Many a rocket scientist presumably landed here simply because she saw the same bikini-in-January advantages that snowbound cheeseheads notice on sunny rosebowl Sundays.
Yet weather was less determining than determination itself. As Allen Scott suggests in his 1993 study of techno-growth, Technopolis, immigrants here had already crossed many horizons in the U.S., itself a nation willing to take chances. Unusually mobile and optimistic, they were willing to venture on conceptually, as well.
Key to this culture was a new idea: tools open us to fresh possibility faster than theories. Edmund Hubble peered through Mt. Wilson's clear air and discovered that the universe was expanding. Einstein came to Caltech to confer with Hubble, who had directly shown what Einstein had not ventured to propose: a universe growing larger, not static. A famous picture of the shaggy-haired genius lurching around Caltech on a bicycle caught the flavor: machinery sends us in new directions.
California has always been about movement, travel, speed. The eager boosterism of men like Clapp flowed into cross-cutting rip tides, as imported technical skills blended. Optical tricks could make better movies and bomb sights alike. Machinists at lathes could turn out better oil drills or tank barrels or airplane exhausts. Switching talent from one field to another enabled skilled workers to navigate the ebb and sway of industrial currents.
The Southland's new industries did not resemble William Blake's 19th century Satanic mills. The long beach refineries' flame-spouting, blade-runner-style pipescape was rare-though oil played a major role in pumping wealth from and to the region. Our tumbleweed-strewn oil fields pioneered many new methods of extraction. Raymond Chandler got himself fired from his oil company executive job in the early 1930s, partly because he was a drunk and partly because he could not keep up with the pace of change in the industry. This lucky failure gave us Chandler's wise-cracking skepticism about the mean streets we were spreading over the obliging land. Yet those ample, sun-splashed streets proved crucial to innovation's rapid spread. SoCal offered not the old way but the freeway.
Mobility was a state of mind; Californians did not stay put when firms went bust. They could cruise the mile-equals-a-minute freeways to new frontiers, where towns became mere offramps. A mobile cadre of people used to living by their wits made innovation paradoxically routine.
Building our paradise, we shamelessly mirrored the best of the Other Coast. Stanford was like Harvard, Caltech (CIT) like MIT, Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla like Woods Hole in the Massachusetts Cape. If San Francisco was like Boston, though, LA was like nothing in the East. For a while it seemed more like brawling Chicago, its cultural currents making for tricky navigation. LA's Old Money scarcely dated back more than a few generations, and usually kept its cash in real estate. Newcomers brought a sense of open horizons.
Here, position was not everything. The race for insight and new products alike came from restless intellectual resources, not from highly fixed natural resources, the old form of wealth. Quick minds gathered in close clusters were the crucial elements, realized early by a state that built a new kind of bridging institution: UC, the greatest of public universities.
Few now realize how revolutionary UC's close concert of university abstraction and business practicality was in the early decades of this century. From the beginning, UC was a driver of the economy. At UC Davis the system enshrined viniculture as a legitimate intellectual pursuit, fostering the nation's leading wine industry. Oceanographers at UCSD invented the wet suit, only to have a UC committee recommend not bothering to patent it, because only scientists would use it.
Medical radiation therapy got its momentum from high energy physics at UC Berkeley, where Earnest Lawrence's cyclotron provided the particles. Orange grove yields grew using the lore discovered at an agricultural field station in Riverside, later the kernel of UCR.
Caltech, Stanford, USC and the UCs made engineering central; even in the Depression, out here there were jobs. Though the Other Coast had invented and first developed the airplane, their advantages yielded to our sheer energy. By the 1950s the aerospace-electronics complex bestrode the largest high-tech industrial region in the world, a rank it holds today. The Jet Propulsion Lab and Ramo Wooldridge provided the first U.S. space satellite, Explorer, in 1958. A year later, Rocketdyne's Redstone engine drove the first Project Mercury flights.
The Shuttle lifts off from Cape Canaveral, but it lands at Edwards Air Force Base. Meanwhile, the U.S.'s most active space port is Vandenberg, at SoCal's northern edge.
In aerospace and electronics especially, SoCal pioneered the new high-tech heriarchy: well-paid managers, scientists and engineers, underpinned by a vast stratum of laborers who assembled and built the molded plastics, aluminum cowlings, printed circuit boards and, lately, personal computers. Growth was cutthroat and unregulated among this understory. Price gouging and lurching job growth brought their Darwinnowings of the small capital firms that came and went like vagrant, failed species in evolution's grand opera.
We are making fresh industries out of age itself. The sunshine draws retirees, who want better medical care. Today, nestled around the old-style aerospace complexes are brightly growing new-techs like medical device manufacture and biotechnology. To drive this synergistic complex harder, UCI has ushered onto the campus itself research labs built by private companies, which will hand them over to UC ownership a few decades hence: a back-current, commerce feeding research.
So far SoCal has uniquely managed the handoff from one tired wonder-tech to the newest--unlike Massachusetts Route 128, the highway along which high-tech companies cluster as in Silicon Valley, which is declining in clout and profits. Route 128 ceded its comparative advantages in computer design and manufacturing both to the Stanford-inspired Silicon Valley and to burgeoning assembly complexes in the San Gabriel Valley and San Diego. California's secret seems to be its decentralized, experimental style, easy-going only in appearances. Technology workers learned to value collaboration and collective learning among a jostling, competitive crowd of hungry start-ups. Route 128 settled into its middle age with a complacent band of a few self-sufficient corporations who learned little from each other. They tried to innovate by pyramid management, rather than draw innovation up from the grunts laboring below. Think 1970s Detroit for a comparison.
Not that older industries will not recede as these advance. A Dickensian jungle of faltering assembly plants and techno-sweatshop sociology could grow in the sunshine.
Whither our Sunshine Technopolis? Some in SoCal see ahead an era of limits, if only because it cannot build 'burbs to the Arizona border. A disjointed mosaic of seven counties and 200 cities is failing the Technopolis at the most basic, seldom mentioned level: infrastructure. Traffic now compells decisions about location and office hours. Gridlock hobbles Digitalwidget Company's ability to say where and what hours its employees can work. Air pollution limits what shops can set up in the region, so that some painting and finishing gets shipped to who-cares Nevada.
Even the techno-triumph of our water system is straining to carry so much water to agriculture, which drinks 80% of the supply. And the public schools woefully fail many students, leaving corporations two costly choices: educating their own workforce or relocating to where kids' technical skills go beyond lighting smudgepots.
There are limited techno-solutions to such problems, and we will try them all. SoCal could easily become the world's premier electric car complex. Biotech can find drought-resistant genes to tailor our commercial crops. Tele-commuting of great power can keep more of us working at home. More computers might marginally help some schools.
Sound familiar? California's fastlane culture discovers social problems as the squashed bug on a conceptual windshield. Early warning for other places, but rough on the bug. Which way SoCal goes will suggest now the global Technopolis will evolve.
I suspect the SoCal Technopolis is about to realize that to remain healthy and prosperous it must invent a regional government and discover leaders as imaginative as the scientists and technologists who thrive here. Southern Californians see science and technology as integral to the big socio-economic picture.
Perhaps the Technopolis will learn that it must have a regional government of imagination comparable to its own. No more municipal workers hired to fill out ethnic quotas or just provide jobs, jobs, jobs. No more constant bickering over local traffic and managerial levels, no streets jack-hammered up again and again because utilities do not cooperate in scheduling.
Before long they may send politics as usual packing-on the next space shuttle or bullet train. Fantasy is fine, but reality eventually bites.
Yet I knew that other conceptual castles were burning on the internet plain. Story managers in LA, I learned first hand, have an ill concealed contempt for the intellectual levels of the rest of the country. The most common reaction I heard, while pitching a story line that paid attention to the constraints of the possible, was "Nobody'll care about that. Don't waste time on scientific plausibility."
Not that I think any of us can alter that mind-set. If anything, New York is worse.
But are Los Angeles and New York central any more?
That question looms large over the mavens of publishing and TV, movies and magazines. Recently two major science fiction magazines went to Internet versions, paralleling their print editions of Analog and Asimov's; go to their Web sites, download their contents into your e-book-for a fee. Yet another trend.
And movies are in a digitizing dither. The Internet makes every dude with a computer master of his data-plex. Can LA and NY, once the castles of creativity, remain central amid the onslaught of innately de-centering technologies?
Probably not. We now live not an information economy, but an attention-starved one. Increasingly, information is like the air, free. NY & LA now compete for our attentions with Internet self-publishers and games programmers in Tucson.
Let's say you're a writer--novels, scripts, Internet 'zines, it doesn't matter. One afternoon you take a break from the pixel screen world and venture to a mall.
"Mr. Nogales," an AdWall recognizes you as you come in from the parking lot. "Those shirts you liked last year are on sale at ShopAll. The new designs--"
"Nope, I'm headed for CompuYou."
"They've been replaced by the so much better Chips'n'Discs, only steps away!" the AdWall says cheerfully, turning into a map showing the location. When you get there, the store knows you're coming.
"Mr. Nogales!" A clerk smiles and fades, flickering ghostly transparent for a moment so you'll know its a smart hologram. You can see the fringing fields, anyway. You ask to see the new rig that turns written text to a 3D visual. It's mated to a now-standard box that can take The Big Sleep and show you how Tom Hanks would have played Bogart. Not just a paste-on face, either--the Hanks software uses all his well-honed expressions.
"Look, I want to build my own," you say, a little irked.
"Oh, you want ScriptOut."
You try out the new device, which takes your script notes, some actors' still photos and reaction shots, and builds a rough cut of a film. "This one's a beauty," you say, noting that the trial actors have supple body movements, no jerky expressions, smooth voices mouthing your words. "I'll take it."
Eagerly you haul it home, where you'll make a movie in a month. Then you can pitch it electronically to H'wood, or better, one of the new studio-shops in Sydney, Australia. And your home is in Fairhope, Alabama.
Real estate prices in LA and NY long before pushed most creative people away, an economic force driving development of distancing tech. Left behind in their midget apartments will be the hacks who can only exist as studio/network parasites; people who can only sell in person.
California's Sunshine Technopolis will reward those who can work at a distance, staying away from the groupthink of studios.
This could emerge from a "smart" future, where art and entertainment are dispersed because the physical world is literally smarter. Everything from offices to clothes will be ever-aware of your presence, preferences, anxieties, even pulse rate.
Some see this future as an 'ad-topia" where objects importuning you at every turn. Others think it may be an "e-topia," milder and more subtle, once advertisers get the idea that consumers don't like being rudely approached.
In places this has already happened. Remember the talking ads in supermarkets that drove shoppers away? The talking cars that said "Stand back! You are too close." ? Like those, bad human software tailoring will get ironed out by markets. To be effective, ads must be entertainment, tailor-made to the individual.
This comfy culture will give us endlessly solicitous environments, only too happy to entertain and divert. Commonplace machines will answer when spoken to, give assistance in their own operation, self-program to our repeated needs without being told to. They will be true "house servants" because houses-indeed, all the high-tech metropolis-will come to be servants.
Everywhere, objects and people will both work smarter, not harder.
Why should consumers expect anything less of their entertainment? It, too, will be self-customizing. And the people who create it will resist working in the conceptual boxes of LA and NY. They will have to, for smart-tech gives consumers more control, not less. And they will demand not studio sameness, but the richness that comes from small scales.
Increasingly, New York will filter, not create. The fastest way to de-center yourself in the digital future will be to imagine that you are central, essential. That's when you'll know you're actually OOI--Out Of It.
Networking means diffusion of talent and knowledge. And distributed processing equals distributed intelligence, as chips get cheaper. This means that thrifty software can replace elaborate hardware in presenting images, music, storylines. Such "software-saturated smart places" will be the hip analog of coffee houses, and their entertainment will come from diffused sources, not LA or NY.
Not that matters will stop there.
In this 2020 vision, media are also lodged in our bodies. "Inset" wearable computers offer movies that can run on the inner surface of your glasses. Or books.
Not that most people read that way. No, any educated person owns a book. Just one, though, maybe with leather binding, sheets that feel like high quality bond. But the text is in a single chip in the binding, the words projected into the pages in whatever type style you prefer.
Back at the mall you stopped by BookNook to pick up a few, downloaded in a finger-snap from an online inventory sitting in New Jersey. No more entombing text in the bodies of dead trees, that then jam your bookshelves.
Back in the ancient year 2000, fresh from the TwenCen, the only major NY-style publisher to move to the Coast had been Harcourt, whose San Diego bastion heralded the diffusion of publishing. Now many houses are in unlikely spots like Portales, New Mexico or even Tahiti. Most writers, too, live outside the grasping Megapolis, which is too pricey for anybody but CEOs anyway. Some like classical books, but most have moved over to interactive modes. Either way, they're free of New York publishing thinking, because there are just as many major publishers on the Internet as on 6th Ave.
LA has always pressed its nose against the window glass of literary NY, as far back as when its own Book Review missed Raymond Chandler's emergence. Publishing is in NY, so they must know, went the mantra. Now that's corrected, because there's no There to bow toward in a literary landscape with plenty of hills, but no mountains.
Neither city will imagine that it rules American literature; the rest of us know that they never did.
Think of it: All humanity will go, riding on the shoulders of the actual crew through high-res digital TV, even 3D. The first Mars expedition will be a cliff-hanger (sometimes literally) lasting 2.5 years.
While Mars will be the center of events, to manage this torrent of data, we'll need the devices of infotainment. Recall those TV series of the 1970s, when we followed the lives of real people for a year, sharing their flaws and joys.
So what angle do you want to follow? The crew's personality clashes? Check today's exciting events! The science? Here's a compact summary, tarted up as a little playlet of discovery. Want to invest in RedPlanet Inc. futures?- online buying is available. You choose.
Mars as mega-event will resist top-down management. In our arts and entertainments, so should we all.
Only if we-that is, you-demand it.
Those producers and story editors think the larger public cares only for sensation, spectacle, fiery explosions and creepy monsters galore. Plot logic gets trampled along with physical reality.
But that was old Hollywood. The studio system just plain didn't get the technical accuracy and hard-edged grandeur of Kubrick and Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Their idea of a near-imitation was Silent Running, a maudlin, sentimental, forgettable epic which hinged upon nobody's realizing that a space-bourne greenhouse would get less sunlight if it cruised out to Saturn.
Southern California is a genuine sunshine Technopolis, one of the most dynamic regions in the world. Yet it has little respect for technical realities, or the people who hold that to be important.
As the Technopolis comes to realize its power, it will exert itself more-I hope!
Perhaps, with entertainment more flexible, we can get sf stories that pay attention to the world of science. At least a few of us will buy those. And just maybe they could catch on. They'll be more real, after all.
In an increasingly media-saturated world, glitz and glamour may give us a hunger for authenticity. The Technopolis will grow to a global culture, and just as science fiction began as the expression of a technical class which had no literary voice, so the Technopopulace will demand their own bards and ballads, but sung in just the key they want.
He ended up in Hollywood, writing unremarkable scripts and the unfinished The Last Tycoon, trying to catch the dream himself. A heart attack caught him instead.
So on the other hand, maybe I should've just nodded my head, saying, "Sure, yeah, make her a robot. When can you cut a check?"
Gregory Benford is the author of two novels set on UC campuses, Timescape (at his alma mater, UCSD) and Cosm (at UCI, where he is a professor of physics). Comments appreciated at email@example.com.
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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide