Future Tense: Unintended Consequences

Maximum PC Staff

First of all, it is pronounced noo-klee-ar .  Not noo-koo-lur .

Please.  If we accomplish nothing else in the next twelve hundred words, could we at least stop mispronouncing it?

Without fail, every August anniversary of the first atomic war (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), the commentariat trots out the usual Monday morning afterthoughts about the rightness or wrongness of President Truman’s 1945 decision to use nuclear weapons.

Regardless of which side of the argument you take today, we also have to consider the circumstances under which the decision was made and the thinking of the moment.  With the victory in Europe secured, Americans wanted the war in the Pacific to end as well.  The nation was emotionally exhausted.

The prospect of an invasion of Japan was daunting.  Some military planners estimated a half million casualties or more.  Soldiers who had fought their way across Europe were already being shipped to the Pacific theater.  Marines who had island-hopped all the way from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima knew how ferocious the Japanese soldiers were, and many did not believe they would survive an assault on the home islands of Japan.

From Truman’s perspective, the decision to use the bomb was dictated by circumstances.  On the one hand, he could invade Japan in a long expensive, brutal, and bloody campaign that would cost hundreds of thousands of American lives and untold Japanese troops and civilians as well—a campaign that could go on for another year or two or three.  On the other hand, he could use the bomb and demonstrate to the Japanese that continued resistance was suicidal, forcing them to surrender.  Truman is quoted as saying that if he did not use the bomb, he would one day have to answer a million American mothers asking, “If you had a weapon that could have ended the war and saved my son’s life, why didn’t you use it?”

That’s the generally agreed-upon history of the decision.  But there was another factor as well that doesn’t get talked about very much.

It’s this simple.  Very few people on the planet understood the human dimension of nuclear weapons.  The first atomic test at Alamagordo in July of 1945 gave Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, and the other scientists who had created the bomb, their first inkling that what they had unleashed was going to transform the world.  By all reports, it was a very uncomfortable realization.  Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita.  “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

And this is my point.  Not one of those people involved in the decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki understood what nuclear weapons really meant to the world.  They had a lot of theory, they had the stats, they had the predictions—but they had no personal experience of the reality of nuclear weapons , so they saw everything filtered through everything they had experienced in the past.  To the military, the bomb was just a bigger and better boom—a more efficient way to destroy a city than sending hundreds of planes dropping incendiaries to create an all-consuming firestorm.

The idea that you could destroy a city a city with a single bomb, that people would suffer radiation burns and radiation sickness—that was the stuff of science fiction.  Except the science fiction writers of the time hadn’t even begun to consider the terrifying possibilities.  It wasn’t until the fifties that the realities of nuclear war became a science fiction theme in novels like Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon .  Only after human beings had actual experience of the reality.

The military justified the decisions to destroy Hiroshima and then Nagasaki as part of the cold calculations of war.  President Truman justified his decision (partly) based on the emotional exhaustion of the nation and the consequences of not using the bomb.  But whatever the reasons and justifications for the decisions to proceed—those decisions were also made in an experiential vacuum, because few people at the time could reliably predict or understand the vast future of unrecognized consequences that would inevitably occur.

Before Hiroshima, each global conflict was worse than the last, each had an exponentially higher death toll.  Today, we still have wars, but not on the same scale.  We’ve stopped raising the ante on ourselves.  Some military strategists say that’s because the realities of nuclear warfare are now so well known and understood that those consequences inspire genuine terror in politicians and military leaders alike, a very different understanding of the consequences than existed in 1945.

Now…what does any of this have to do with your phone, your laptop, your tablet, your gaming machine, or your desktop computer?


Today, we build new technologies because we can—because engineers and researchers see opportunities things that are newer, cheaper, faster, better, different.   Even the lay person can see the possibility that a cell phone or an iPod or a tablet will provide an advantageous access to information and communication.  But even as we build those things, we’re still looking in the rear view mirror—we’re designing them out of our experience of the past, so we can do more of the  things that we did in the past, only better. What we keep on forgetting is that what comes along for the ride, every time, are the unrecognized and unintended consequences . And those consequences are almost always transformative.

Things get changed—often drastically.  And in ways that are unpredictable before the event and look inevitable only afterward.

The cumulative effect of little things can be the most dramatic.  One automobile is no big deal.  A billion automobiles is a pollution problem.  One light bulb is nothing much.  A billion light bulbs is an energy problem.  One computer is interesting.  A billion computers is a network, and that’s an opportunity for thieves and hackers and malware of all kinds.  It’s also an opportunity for instantaneous global communication, for political and social movements, for viral uprisings and flash mobs.

Even though we have been building and using personal computers for 35 years, we are still in the infancy of the information revolution.  We still have only a glimmering of how technology is ultimately going to change our lives.  Even ten years out, we cannot foresee the changes we are about to experience—the cultural and economic and emotional and personal effects that the hyper-liquidity of information will create, not to mention what happens when our cars can drive themselves, when Skyping is commonplace, when cameras are so ubiquitous that privacy disappears, when personal biology is augmented by implants of all kinds, when software agents are managing all the myriad details of memory.

Already today, we’re seeing transformations.  The internet has changed global politics.  Twitter produces virtual flash crowds—and real ones too.  The tablet is making the internet a portable interface.  Smartphones and YouTube have validated Andy Warhol’s prophecy—“In the future, everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes.”  Do something above and beyond the call of ordinary stupidity and you’ll not only get a million hits, you’ll even get a web-redemption from Daniel Tosh.

And all of this is still only the beginning.

Tanith Lee, in her wonderful book The Silver-Metal Lover , postulated a world where body-modding was commonplace, where sexuality was fluid, where the cultural moment shifted so fast that there was no continuing culture at all.  Authors like Frederik Pohl and Damon Knight wrote of walled communities that locked themselves into specifically defined and limited cultures.  Still other authors have written of worlds where cultural phenomena rise and fall in a matter of hours—along with fortunes.  That last one may have been the most prescient.  Before the internet, back in the days of fanzines, a good flame war could last months, even years.  Today, it’s rare that an online flame war goes for more than a week before the participants either give up, go away, or move on to the next topic.

The unintended consequence of all of our computer technology has been a dramatic acceleration of the pace of life.  We are bombarded daily with more information than we can assimilate and it is coming in at ever-increasing rates.  Email, social networks, Twitter, advertising, television—everything.  We are advancing both the scale and pace of all of our economic and social interactions—and we’re doing it without any serious recognition of the ultimate limitations of the human mind and body.  There are going to be consequences, both for the individual and for society at large.

We will experience the effects medically, socially, emotionally, and personally .  Increased rates of autism, irrational and delusional behavior, extremists of all flavors, greater investment in conspiracy theories, a general increase in neuroses and superstitions, and that impending sense of doom that feeds into end-of-the-world manias—all of these and more have been postulated as consequences of our unstoppable headlong rush into an accelerated world.

Fat Man and Little Boy transformed our world, and not necessarily for the better—the risks of nuclear disaster, nuclear terrorism, even nuclear war, are still with us.  The technology revolution will be even more transformative and possibly even more dangerous.  It’s the unintended and unrecognized consequences that will have the greatest impact on all of us.

The future is going to be very exciting—and like that famous Chinese curse, we are going to be living in interesting times.  Perhaps we will also be smart enough to use our new technologies to make ourselves more humane .

What do you think?  What would  you predict?


David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including "The Man Who Folded Himself" and "When HARLIE Was One," as well as hundreds of short stories and articles. His autobiographical story "The Martian Child" was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com

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