Isaac Asimov gave his views on what he envisions of the world at the end of the millennium in the June 1983 issue of the Harvard International Review. Asked to look almost 20 years into the future, Asimov presents what he believes to be helpful in moving forward from the 1980s. A biochemist, Isaac Asimov served as a tenure professor of biochemistry at Boston University for many years. He is, however, most famous as the author of numerous popular science and science fiction novels throughout his lifetime, including the popular Foundation series. His novels not only dealt with futuristic technological developments in themselves, but also how these advancements would change society. As someone who imagined and built societies of future worlds, Asimov was in a unique position to present what he saw were the obstacles for the world of 1983 and how to overcome them.
This article was originally published in the Summer 1983 issue of the Harvard International Review.
I would like to begin by getting some of your thoughts on the concept of progress. It was Aldous Huxley in his essay, “Ends and Mean,” who theorized that real progress is progress in charity. He puts this forward as the only acceptable criterion of progress, which he thought was in serious retrogression when he was writing during the fascist era of the 1930s. To what extent do you agree with Huxley that technological advance is useless without progress in charity—that indeed it may be worse than useless, by merely providing us with more efficient means for going backward?
Well, I see Huxley’s concern too. And of course it is very easy to suppose that somehow scientists ought to supply the wisdom as well as the technological advance, and that there is something seriously wrong with science because in the three or four hundred years that modern science has existed, it hasn’t been able to make us wise as well as more comfortable; that after doubling our lifespan and freeing the human species of much of its hard and difficult labor and increasing our food supply, there is yet something wrong because science has not made us wise and charitable.
Well, the people who are supposed to make us wise and charitable are our religious leaders, and they’ve been at work as long as the human species has existed. In particular, I suppose the leaders of the religion that is now dominant in the more powerful sections of the world—that is Christianity—have been at work for 2000 years, and they have not managed to make us more charitable and kinder and wiser. It is no surprise to me that scientists haven’t been able to do it in 400 years.
Furthermore, scientists, without making us wiser and kinder, have nevertheless managed to abolish some of the darker aspects of humanity. In other words, by supplying us with a substitute for human muscle, they have made slavery uneconomical, and slavery has therefore tended to disappear. There are other miseries that have taken its place, but at least there is no longer the economic necessity to enslave human beings; we have machines doing the labor for us, and the coming of robots may again make it unnecessary for human beings to do all kinds of repetitive, stultifying, and useless work. This is not the result of an increase in sweetness, light, and charity in the human heart, but if you make evil unnecessary, that accomplishes the same purpose. If you cause people to do decent things simply because it does not pay to do indecent things, then you accomplish the same thing as if they had done decent things because they loved humanity. This is one thing that science does do.
Our period is clearly living through the decline of Christianity as a resonant theme and binding ligament for society. We are heir to a centuries-old legacy, enunciated lucidly by the French Utopian socialists and Henri de Saint-Simon in particular during the last century, of the religion, or cult of science. How do you view this concept in our age? It seems that these evangelical hopes for science have receded and that, indeed, the general populace may now fear technology in a way they might not even have feared the Old Testament God, given their fellow man’s capacity for global destruction.
Yes, it obviously makes sense to fear the misuse of science. You cannot fear science as an abstract entity since it is clearly and obviously always possible to use scientific findings wisely and peacefully, so that what you have to fear is the human spirit that makes it possible for man to use scientific advance in a destructive and vicious manner, as a result of greed and hatred; this you can rightly fear. But it is the greed, and human hatred, the superstition and the folly of humanity, and not simply knowledge, that does it.
On the other hand, if knowing more is dangerous, you can find safety in knowing less and those who dread science are in the uncomfortable position of having to maintain that we would be much better off if we were ignorant. The question then arises, “How much scientific advance might we unwind? How ignorant ought we to get? Ought we to repeal only the modern electrical age and the nuclear age, or to go back and repeal the entire industrial revolution? Shall we give up the mariner’s compass and the printing press? Shall we go back all the way to the discovery of fire and give that up?”
The history of humanity has been a constant increase in knowledge and a constant increase in some kinds of dangers which have been balanced by an increase in greater security in other ways. We always have to balance the good and the evil.
If we stop to look at it now, the evil possibilities and potentialities are so huge, that such a balance seems beyond reach. And it is always the result of an outmoded social system—of an outmoded political system. In other words, we are living in a world of 19th century nation states, each of which assumes that it has free and unlimited right to make decisions on its own and to do anything it wishes without regard to the good of humanity as a whole. Then people, who should be fearing the anachronistic nation state and the cruelty of such a concept, are directed instead to fear knowledge, which in a way is the only possible salvation for man. It is part of the folly of humanity that they cling to custom long after any rational excuse for that custom is gone. It is the “good-old-days” psychosis. You always somehow think the past is wonderful, and you feel that the present represents a degeneration, when actually the degeneration arises because you haven’t changed with the times; you cling to a dead past.
Do you have any prescription for the populace at large in terms of mobilizing behind an agenda that might make leaders respond as we grapple with the initial challenges of an emerging global consciousness?
I would like to see humanity consider that which is good for humanity as a whole. I am not interested in splitting up the human species into tiny subdivisions based on ephemeral properties such as physical appearance, language, culture, geographical position, et cetera. I do not believe that one set of human beings is significantly better than another set of human beings. I believe that all sets may keep their own ways, their own customs, their own language, their own culture—whatever they want, provided they understand that this doesn’t give them any special quality of greatness. Instead, what I want them to consider are those aspects of the human species that affect all of us regardless of all these ephemeral differences. For instance, if we are going to have a nuclear war, we will all die; if we are going to pollute the planet, we are going to all perish; if we are going to run out of our resources, we are going to all starve; if we are going to breed relentlessly, we are going to destroy ourselves. All of these things should be prevented. The only way we can prevent them is by international cooperation, and by advancing technology to its fullest extent. I would like to see us move out into space, make use of new resources, new sources of energy and materials, move our industries into space, free the biosphere as much as possible of industries and their wastes, and broaden and make more versatile humanity itself. All of this can only be done by global effort, by international cooperation, by all abandonment of the very concept of the nation-state, by the recognition of the futility of all this needless competition of conflicting “rights” and national security, and national prides and all the rest of that 19th century outmoded nonsense.
Let’s talk about the types of political leaders present-day societies tend to elevate. You have said that the problems confronting us are indeed complex in terms of the interface between nation-states, and dishearteningly, the minds of our leaders are mediocre to the task. Do you still feel this way?
Well, there are largely two kinds of leaders in the world today. There are leaders who have achieved their position largely as a result of intrigue through political elites and they are in a perpetual state of insecurity, and their first concern is to maintain their own position. This is not the sort of thing that allows for a broad vision. And then there is also a group of leaders who depend upon the vote of people in general. I suppose that in any nation the number of the unthinking is greater than the number of the thinking, so that anyone who wants to stay in power has to cater to slogans and to folly. So either way you are not going to get leaders who are truly going in the direction of greatest wisdom.
Do you think that it is only by fluke or aberration that leaders of genuine vision, who have an idea of where they would like to see the world move in terms of unity or cooperation, could ascend to power?
The times make the man. In times of non-crisis, the United Kingdom would never have selected Winston Churchill as Prime Minister. He lacked the capacity to work through the byzantine politics of the English ruling classes, and he lacked the capacity to win the votes of enough people. But, when the situation was sufficiently bad, such that there seemed there was nobody who was willing to try to handle it, the United Kingdom turned to Churchill.
Similarly, I think that in times of crisis it is possible that those men who are capable of dealing with a crisis and willing to try to do so will come to the top. Over and over again we see in history that there have been remarkable men who have managed to come to the top. Often they were exceptional men in that they could win battles, and thus you have the Napoleons and the Alexander the Greats. I do not particularly admire them. But on the other hand, you also have the people who can do remarkable things. Abraham Lincoln was the man that we needed at the time of the Civil War. The only trouble is that things move so quickly now, that by the time we recognize a crisis that requires a remarkable man and hope that he shows up, it may be too late. So, I am not certain that we are going to weather the present crisis as a result of finding a leader—I can merely hope.
Do you see any of the kind of global consciousness we have discussed, even of the slightest degree, emerging at present among ruling elites of the world? After all, with transportation and communications technology growing exponentially, today’s leaders must know that if they are to co-exist in the future, new concepts of international cooperation will ultimately have to be developed and must also develop organically.
Well, I see occasional glimpses of sanity. When the United States wants to throw its weight around, it chooses a place where it doesn’t think the Soviet Union will feel directly threatened, and so we secretly subsidize attacks on Nicaragua. The Soviet Union, in seeking ways of expanding and of interfering directly in a neighboring nation, carefully picks the one neighboring nation that is virtually impossible for the West to defend, Afghanistan. In other words, there is a deliberate attempt not to cross some “Rubicon.” Similarly, the Soviet Union labors to control Poland through the Poles and doesn’t invade Poland. On the other hand, the United States, though full of rhetoric about Poland, doesn’t actually attempt—as it attempts in Nicaragua—to directly subsidize Polish rebels. So there seems to be some understanding that no matter how much we yell, we don’t really want a war. Furthermore, the people of the world seem to be ahead of leaders in this respect. The bellicosity of a leader like Reagan, for instance, is always punctured by the clear reluctance of the American people to be as bellicose as his rhetoric. And I presume the same sort of thing goes on in the Soviet Union in a more underhanded way because it is not as open a society as ours.
The lunar module of Apollo 11 bore a plaque reading, “We came in peace for all mankind.” As we move from space “exploration” to “exploitation,” the dream of a global effort in space seems to have faded. If you were president and running on a space platform, and had a constituency backing you, what policies would you pursue?
The first thing l would do would be to make sure that advancement is possible by making every effort to avoid the bleeding-off of funds and emotion into space war technology. If we view advances in space primarily for the purpose of setting up advanced weapons in space, then obviously the whole business of expanding the range of humanity, creating space industries, moving science out into space, placing mines on the moon, moving humanity to the asteroids, et cetera—all that would be lost. Because of the massive expense and effort required, it is not possible to both create advanced weapons and create homes in space.
So right now, we face an either/or situation?
Exactly. And it looks as though it is the decision of the Reagan Administration to go for guns, not butter. I consider this deadly. It will encourage the Soviet Union to try to do the same. There will be a race of that sort which is inherently non-cooperative, and which will use up every bit of resources we have, gradually preventing us from doing anything in any other direction, space or non-space, and leading directly to the suicide of civilization. I am extremely distressed about this. As far as I am concerned, if this is what space is going to be used for, I would rather scrap the whole thing.
How do you see your role and the role of science fiction in general in shaping our vision of the future?
Science fiction in general, I think, made the trip to the moon possible, because most of the people—perhaps all of them—who were instrumental in the early days of rocket development were spurred on by reading the science fiction of their day. I think that H.G. Wells was the most important factor in this, more important than politicians and businessmen put together. It may be that when people look back on the forces that led to the internationalization of the world, science fiction as a whole will prove an important influence, because in science fiction stories, earth is almost always treated as a whole.