Lem at Amazon

Stanislaw Lem at Amazon

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1. Dilemmas

  Talk about the future. But isn't talking about future roses at least an inappropriate occupation for someone lost in the highly inflammable forests of the present? And the investigation of the thorns of these roses, the search for the problems of our great-grandchildren, while we cannot even deal with today's abundance of problems, does such scholasticism not border absurdity? If only we had the justification of searching for means to strengthen our optimism or of doing it for the love of truth, clearly visible in a future without storms, even literally taken, after the possibility of climate control.

 The justification for these words, however, does not lie in any academic passion, nor in unshakable optimism which imposes the faith that, whatever may happen, the outcome will be favorable. The justification is at the same time simpler, more practical, and maybe more modest, since while I am preparing to write about the future, I am simply doing what I am able to do, no matter how good I am at this, since it is my only ability. But if this is true, then my work will be no less, no more dispensable than any other, because every work is based on the assumption that the world exists and that it will continue to exist.

  Thus having made sure that the intention is free of unprincipledness, let us ask about the extent of the subject and the method. We will talk about various aspects of civilization that can be thought up, and which can be derived from today's prerequisites, however small the probability of their realization may be. The foundations for our hypothetical constructions, in turn, shall be given by technologies, i.e., the ways, dependent on knowledge and social abilities, in which goals are realized, goals chosen by the community as well as those which nobody had in mind initially.

  The mechanism of the various technologies, existing as well as possible ones, is not of interest to me, and I would not have to deal with it, if the creative activities of man were, godlike, free of any spoiling caused by the unwanted - if we could, now or at some time, realize our intentions in a pure state, coming close to the methodological precision of Genesis, if, by saying "let there be light", we could obtain, as a final product, the very light, without any unwanted ingredients. However, the above mentioned bifurcation of goals, or even the replacement of the chosen goals by different, often unwanted ones, is a typical phenomenon. Moaners find similar faults even in the work of God, especially since the introduction of a prototype for beings endowed with reason and the start of mass production of this model, Homo Sapiens - but this part of reflection is better left to theo-technologists. It suffices to say that, in doing anything, man almost never knows what he is actually doing - in any case he does not know it all the way. To reach for the extreme: the destruction of Life on Earth, so possible today, was not intended by any of the discoverers of atomic energy.

  Thus technologies are of interest to me somehow out of necessity, since a certain civilization includes all that the general public hoped for, as well as things which were nobody's intention. Sometimes, even more often, a technology is created by chance, e.g., in searching for the philosopher's stone, porcelain was invented, but the fraction of intentional, conscious goals, in the set of all events that are able to initiate technologies, is growing as knowledge progresses. What is indisputable is that, as they become rare, surprises can in turn grow to apocalyptic dimensions. As was actually mentioned above.

 There are only few technologies which are not double-edged, as is shown for example by the scythes attached to the wheels of the Hittite chariots, or the proverbial plowshares forged into swords. Every technology is, in principle, an artificial extension of the natural, inherent to everything that is alive, tendency to rule the environment, or at least not to be defeated by it in the struggle for existence. Homeostasis - the scholarly name for the striving for equilibrium, i.e., for survival in defiance of change - developed chalky and chitin skeletons which could resist the force of gravitation, legs enabling mobility, wings and fins, canine teeth making eating easier, horns, jaws, digestive systems, protecting armors and camouflage shapes, until this led to the independence of organisms from their environment by regulation of a constant body temperature.

 In this way small islands of decreasing entropy in a world of general entropy increase were created. Evolution does not restrict itself to this; from organisms, from types, classes and varieties of plants and animals in turn it creates superior entities, no islets anymore, but islands of homeostasis, forming the whole surface and atmosphere of the planet. The living nature, the biosphere, is at the same time cooperation and mutual eating, an alliance which is inseparably connected with fight, as is demonstrated by every hierarchy that has been investigated by ecologists: these are, especially among animal forms, pyramids, at the top of which rule the large predators, eating smaller animals, and these in turn others still, and only on the very ground, at the bottom of life's kingdom, acts the green transformer of solar into biochemical energy, omnipresent on the land and in the oceans, which by billions of inconspicuous blades carries the changing, for taking on new forms continuously, but constant, for not coming to and end as a whole, massifs of life.

  Homeostatic activity, which used technologies as specific organs, made man the ruler of the Earth, a powerful one actually only in the eyes of the apologist, which he is himself. In view of climatic perturbations, earthquakes, the rare, but possible danger of impact of a large meteor, man is in principle as helpless as he was in the last Ice Age. Sure - he developed methods of assistance for the victims of such and of other cataclysms. Some of them he is able to predict - if only approximately. He is still far from homeostasis on a planetary scale, not to speak of homeostasis of stellar dimensions. Unlike most animals, man does not so much adjust himself to the environment, as he rebuilds the environment according to his needs. Will this ever be possible with regard to the stars? Will there arise, maybe in a very distant future, a technology of remote controlling of intrasolar processes, such that creatures which are inconceivably small compared to the mass of the sun are able to arbitrarily control its billion-year fire? It seems to me that this is possible, and don't I say this to praise the human genius, which is famous enough in itself, but, on the contrary, in order to make room for contrast. Up to now, man did not turn into giant. Immense became only his possibilities to do good or bad to others. He who will be able to light and extinguish stars will have the power to destroy whole inhibited globes, turning from astrotechnician to stellar murderer, a criminal of a special, the cosmic, class. If the former was possible, then also the latter, however improbable, however small the chance that it might come true, will be possible.

  An improbability - I necessarily have to explain at once - which is not based on my faith in the necessary triumph of Ormuz over Ahriman. I don't trust any promise, I don' believe in assurances based on the so called humanism. The only way to deal with a certain technology is another technology. Today, man knows more about his dangerous inclinations than he knew a hundred years ago, and in another hundred years his knowledge will be even more complete. Then he will be able to benefit from it.

Translated by Frank Prengel