Dreams Engineers Have

by rthieme on January 1, 1997

Islands in the ClickstreamI confess: I’m a right-brain guy in a left-brain world. Images and visions are more real to me than abstractions, I see the future more easily than things that are right in front of my face.

That’s why I started writing fiction and sold my first story at seventeen. “Pleasant Journey” was published in Analog Science Fiction. It concerned a man selling a virtual reality machine to carnivals. Attach the electrodes and off you went into your own dream world. The carnival owner tried it out and didn’t want to come home. He wanted to stay in that virtual world forever.

I studied liberal arts. We were taught that art and literature mattered most; the loss of an art object or literary work was a tragedy. I remember a professor weeping for the lost plays of Aeschylus..

No one grieved, however, for the streetlights of Cordoba or the sewers of ancient Rome. Engineers were practical people. Their plans and drawings were seldom the subject of scholarship, and I don’t recall a single course in the art of engineers and how their dreams made real the infrastructure of our civilization.

In part, that was because plans and drawings were never intended to last. Once pencils were invented, plans were sketched in a way that smacked of impermanence, like something you’d draw on a napkin over lunch.

Leonardo da Vinci filled his notebooks with plans and sketches. Those notebooks, detailing his dreams, nearly disappeared after his death. He never published their contents, and more than thirty volumes were left to his friend Francisco Melzi with instructions for printing. Instead, they were ignored for fifty years. When the contents were finally published in 1880, most of Leonardo’s inventions were obsolete.

Bill Gates paid a small fortune for those notebooks. He knows that they’re works of art worth owning — the dreams that prefigure our civilization.

It was no accident that my first short story was science fiction and concerned technology enabling us to transform our lives. That’s the story of our century. The invention of electronic media, including the Internet, is the infrastructure that enables dreamers and thinkers to be creative in new ways. The medium is so much the message that we’re writing stories about the technology rather than the life it enables us to live. That will change, though. The technology, the new media through which we express ourselves, will fade into the background and become as transparent as contact lenses.

Henry Petroski’s magnificent study of “The Pencil” begins with an anecdote about Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau made a list of everything he needed to take to his life in the woods but neglected to mention his pencil. Yet his pencil was always in his pocket, and the Thoreau family business was … making pencils.

Science fiction is the way men and women in the twentieth century have dreamed of the future. I like to joke that people who call me a “futurist” are mistaken, that I describe the present to the ninety-five per cent of the population that hasn’t arrived at it yet. That’s why it sounds like the future. It’s the same with science fiction, which depicts what is right in front of our faces, coming around the corner at the speed of light. It sounds like the future only if you aren’t noticing what’s happening.

I recently did an article on biometric identifiers — retina and iris scans, fingerscans, voice prints, and the like — the use of part of us to stand for all of us. Those digital artifacts don’t merely stand for us, however, they become us in the social, economic, and political worlds to which they allow or deny access.

Our word will not be believed when a retina scan refuses to allow us into a secure area, just as we used to say “photographs don’t lie,” believing the photo rather than the person in the photograph. Now that photos and all forms of information can be digitized, we know that photos do lie. A photo is no longer worth a thousand words when both words and images are subject to digital manipulation.

What will it be like in the virtual world in which digital bits “pass” for ourselves? Let’s go further. What will it be like when the information that IS ourselves — i.e. our DNA code, the drawing or blueprint that is expressed as our bodies, our minds, our lives — can be uploaded and stored?

Teleportation used to be a sci-fi subject. Two years ago, an international group of six scientists confirmed that perfect teleportation is possible — but only if the original is destroyed.

That theoretical work changes teleportation from a sci-fi scenario into an engineering problem. If the information that constitutes our pattern or code can be transmitted and replicated, and the original is destroyed in the process — who arrives? Who is left behind?

In a similar way, we used to think the hard copy was the “real” document and photocopies were secondary. Now we think the virtual copy stored in digital memory is the “real” document and hard copies are mere images of the real one.

The network is the computer, and Marvin Minksy reminds us in “The Society of Mind” that turning over a multiplicity of representations in our collective mind instead of getting stuck in one way of seeing things is what we mean by thinking. The network does the thinking. We are merely cells in a single body, and a human being alone — like a stand-alone computer — is a brain in a bottle.

A Zen monk held up a cup and asked what was most important about it. One pupil said the handle, another the bowl, but the monk shook his head. “The most important thing about the cup,” he said, “is the space it creates.”

The Internet is “space” brimful of possibility and potential, but by virtue of its structure it organizes the form of our thinking and dreaming. Engineers who build the infrastructure of the world create the space in which we live and move and have our being, and we don’t even notice. It’s as transparent as Thoreau’s pencil. We don’t even know who’s dreaming any more — the individual or the collective mind — and what is science fiction or science fact. We DO know that engineers dream up our space and, like God in creation, are everywhere present in our lives but nowhere visible.

That’s the cost of making sketches with pencils. That’s the cost of using materials that decay. But then, everything decays, and digital images are more transitory than drawings. Art and artifact converge, and those who build the infrastructure that informs how we dream are at least as creative as Aeschylus, as practical as Leonardo, and as holy as that Zen monk.

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