Non-Fiction Reviews

The Coming Convergence

The Surprising Ways Diverse Technologies Interact to Shape our World and Change the Future

(2008) Stanley Schmidt, Prometheus Books, US$27.95, hrdbk, pp336. ISBN 978-1-591-0-2613-6


Stanley Schmidt is known in SF circles as a long-standing (25 years to date) editor of the US magazine Analog: Science Fiction and Fact whose editorial remit, though different, is not that distant from The Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation. So from the off, this non-fiction title is more likely than not to be of interest to Concat's regulars.

Condensing it right down, Schmidt's thesis has four components. The first is that considerable advancement arises from strands of knowledge that come together from completely different areas of human activity. Second, that this heterogeneousness-driven advancement enables a particularly fecund range of applications. Third, this advancement and fecundity is increasing non-linearly (more or less exponentially). Finally, the resulting applications can be used for good or bad.

At this point I should mention that to achieve the above summary I have sacrificed clarity and that Schmidt's book is extremely easy to read. The publicity blurb cites the example of the CAT scan whose invention relies of three disparate founding areas of knowledge: X-ray technology, computing, and finally medicine. More dramatically, but arguably currently prominent in the US socio-psyche, is that 9/11 could only have happened due to the development of mass air transportation combined with extensive 20th century urbanisation and downtown high-rise conurbations.

Of course the first two components to this thesis are not at all new. In fact polymaths have been around throughout history albeit in vogue to different degrees at different times. However much of the latter half of the 20th century has seen increased specialisation combined with fundamentalism. In biology, my home turf, there was an explosion of research into molecular biology that in turn enabled the rise of multibillion-pound (and dollar) pharmaceutical industries. Indeed developments in molecular biology were such that the first draft sequence of the human genome was completed within a year after the century's end so enabling genomics and in turn proteonomics, which respectively held out the (as yet unrealised) promises of gene therapy and pharmacogenetics. I myself was lucky for the end of the 1970s in Britain's higher education did see a small (but I consider important) birth of both new multidisciplinary and (the quite distinct) interdisciplinary areas of study and research: though it has to be admitted that there was, and still is, a fair bit of dross between meaningful nuggets. Yet this late 20th century dominance of looking at molecular and cellular biology was at the expense of whole-organism biology or even science relating to whole populations of species and their relationships let alone this and the biosphere perspective. A very few (at least at policy-maker level) felt this to be myopic. Remember that back in the 1970s and '80s many viewed James Lovelock as somewhat of a heretic though today what are called 'Earth system scientists' more or less take his work for granted. Add in the arts/humanities and science/technology divide into the mix and you get Edwards O. Wilson's concerns expressed in his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. In short the first two parts of Stanley Schmidt's thesis really are not new, and it is a pity he does not acknowledge this more, even though he has effectively presented effectively the same case in a very digestible manner.

The third part of Schmidt's argument is that through bringing together (the 'convergence' in the book's title) disparate areas of human knowledge and development is increasing advancement and potential both in a far bigger way than the sum of their components as well as in the number of goals achieved. This is what is behind what Vernor Vinge has called the 'singularity' and indeed Vinge is duly cited. (Inevitable really given Vinge is an SF author and Schmidt an SF editor.)

Finally Schmidt points out that the resulting potential of all this development can be used for either good or bad. This again is something that others have articulated before. The notable recent example in one of my interest areas -- human ecology -- is that of the planet's carrying capacity. It is one of the notions alluded to in Joel Cohen's 1995 book How Many People Can the Earth Support. Here Cohen states that there is no such thing as a fixed value for the Earth's carrying capacity, by which he means we could, for example, increase our population and erode our ability to sustain that growth in the future or develop the means to enable the Earth to sustain a greater population. Similarly Schmidt points out that yes, we have the potential for 9/11s at the 20th century's end which was not there at its beginning, but that also both the state and individuals also have greater potential and part of this can be used to counter threats. He also points out that there are growing tensions between the goals of individuals and the state as well as between the good guys and evil folk but does not presume to predict where this will all end. (Though his view on the Fermi paradox was both sober and depressing.)

As said, all this is told in a very easy-to-read style and along the way not only is there science but numerous references to SF. So authors like Asimov, Bear, Le Guin and even Robert Sawyer are cited alongside scientists such as Einstein, Dawkins and Pimental. The hardback is now out so this is something to look out for when you are next in the library. (In fact you could do worse than encourage your library to get a copy.) However if you want a copy for yourself then I would wait for the paperback. It is not that this is not a worthy book but it is not the sort of work that one would invest hardback expense in the expectation of the added value of reference use: if nothing else the absence of a subject index does not help. Having said that, as a library read brilliant, and if (or when?) the paperback comes out then it would not hesitate to recommend it especially as its SFnal references will be appreciated by genre readers.

Jonathan Cowie

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