Technology and Society
Book Reviews
Home
What's New
Privacy & Individual Rights
Commerce, Security, & the Law
Net Culture, Art, & Literature
International Affairs & National Security
Ethics, Rhetoric, & Metaphysics
Science Fiction

Other Resources
News
Publishers
Other Book Review Sites
Letters
Contact
Copyright

Title: The Sun, the Genome, & the Internet
Author: Freeman Dyson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Copyright: 1999
ISBN: 0-19512-942-3
Pages: 168
Price: $22.00
Rating: 85%
In The Sun, the Genome, & the Internet, Freeman J. Dyson attempts to couple space travel and conquest with the Sun, the Genome, and the Internet. His "high road" model predicts the future of society without the aide of social sciences. Unfortunately, Dyson's writing lacks a historical context that would elucidate comprehensive meaning. Even though, this book is a collection of speeches by Dyson, his overall model lacks social intuition. His utopia leaves behind historical context to focus upon scientific tools. Suspiciously, funding sources are left out of the story. His insistence that the total expansion of science to a free market institution will lead to further successes in social justice is not supported. The Sun is perhaps Dyson's most formidable component. However, his avoidance of social structure impedes any sustenance that could be attained. Dyson's work is an imaginative effort. Yet, it must be reevaluated within the context of history and society. This book is important for those interested in understanding how science is embedded in society from the point of view of a "natural" scientist.

Dyson's "model" is an interesting forecast for the coupling of civilian and scientific development. Most importantly, he constructs a story about human development that has the potential to urge scientists to think "big," without large budgets. His positive and hopeful outlook enthralls the reader. Thick descriptions of the endless possibilities that the Genome, Space, the Sun and the Internet offer send excitement down the reader's spine. Most of his indices focus on science as the emancipator of social life. This sort of narrative leaves little room for anything other than science. Yet, his book is an exciting and quick read.

According to Dyson, our future lies in a utopian vision of human existence somewhere in the galaxy, grounded within a soup of science. This broth's concoction of science will penetrate every aspect of social life. Through this lens, mystical forms of ethics floating over the human species propel science and technology toward expansion and social justice. The National Science Foundation (National Science Board) has recently published results indicating that very few Americans know much at all about science, or science in practice and theory. We can assume Dyson views scientists as the best people to lead the world, maybe even the galaxy. He grounds this "model" in an assumption that science in practice can predict the scientific enterprise as well as the future of society. However, he neglects to understand that both of these entities are uniquely cultural and societal in nature. What gives "natural" sciences the privilege of this task over sociology, political science, history, or cultural studies? Dyson does not address this question in his current work. Instead, he reifies the need for an expansion of free market tendencies that will catapult the world's scientific and technological development.

Funding can be used to illustrate the problematic nature of Dyson's prediction. For instance, in the early 20th century, the Carnegie Foundation funded eugenic sciences. By funding eugenics Carnegie advocated faulty science. More importantly, it incorrectly constructed faulty knowledge. This knowledge acted as the basis of discrimination and terror for many people. Carnegie could have funded a multitude of other projects. Instead they chose one according to "state of the art" knowledge that elevated science as the arbiter of social desirability. Why? Carnegie had interests just as all producers of knowledge do, regardless of whether they are funders or practioners. In this sense, Dyson's notion of science as the deliverer of social justice is questionable. His notion fails to articulate that science is not value-free. Values are embedded in science as they are in society.

Furthermore, he extends the value-free nature of science by incorporating value-free tools into his story. This sort of logic totally neglects the interaction that occurs between human agency and material agency. Instead of addressing this "dance of agency" (Pickering, 1995), Dyson refutes it by negating "social constructivist" perspectives via the overdone Sokal affair (Sokal, 1996). If new tools drive science, and not new concepts from scientists, then how do we explain the underlying abstract "models" that lead to concrete "theories"? Dyson cannot possibly answer this question because he bases his ideas in the notion that models and theories are distinct entities that cannot be linked to one another. Even though his model is flawed, Dyson does capture an important avenue for future science - alternative sources of energy.

The sun is perhaps Dyson's most influential prediction. His intent is to promote the development and use of alternative sources of energy. According to Dyson, this sort of technological development will allow increasing numbers of people around the world to enjoy access to technology. He implies that access to technology will free the world's poor from isolation. However, what is striking about Dyson's notion of using sun energy to bring science and technology, and improved health and wealth to impoverished people is that his thesis leaves little room for social structural changes in society itself. Without changes in the structure of society, increased science and technology will only further the divide between those that have and those that have-not. Dyson sees abstract scientific knowledge and practice conceived and performed by a group of elite people (scientists with supposedly no individual or collective interests) to be the inspiration for a free market search of galactic social justice. If ethics can lead science and technology, and science and technology can in turn, lead ethics, who decides which direction to go? With the rewriting of these speeches, Dyson has left room for contemporary debate on the future of science and technology.

The sun can offer people around the world (and in future generations around our galaxy) more opportunities to participate in modern social life. Dyson hopes for a free market explosion of science and technology that will create an institutional fervor both inside and outside of the scientific enterprise. Unfortunately, he avoids many of the substantive issues that require knowledge of what social justice means and how it is implemented. Earth's "answers" are not necessarily located on Mars or Europa. These are the questions that Dyson will not touch in his speeches. Yet, they are some of the few questions that really count.

The Genome and the Internet are symptoms of social life, not causes to be looked at as equalizers of social justice. Instead, the structure of society is an inherent component in determining social justice and science. In this sense, social structure is the cause not an effect! This may appear to be a small distinction for a "natural" scientist. Unfortunately for Dyson, it's a huge miscalculation if he intends to predict the future. The answers for social justice lie on Earth. Therefore, one should advocate space travel, the Genome, and the Internet for their own values, not in the name of social justice. Regardless, his informed intent captures this reader's attention.

Dyson's faith in the free market leads him into a circular argument. Since scientific knowledge and production will solve human suffering, then science is an essential form of knowledge. This sort of reasoning drops the social out of the argument. Science and scientists are left standing. If we could use one-quarter of Dyson's effort to investigate novel forms of knowledge production we might end up understanding the human condition much better than we currently do. In the end, we might also avoid wasting billions of dollars on trying to inhabit Europa or Mars for the curiosity of it all. Having said this, The Sun, the Genome, & the Internet snares the reader into a discourse on the world's scientific and technological future.

REFERENCES

National Science Board, Science & Engineering Indicators, 1998. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 1998 (NSB 98-1 ).

Pickering, A. (1995). The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Sokal, A. (1996). Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Social Text, 14, 217-252.

Sokal, A. (1996). A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies. Lingua Franca, May/June, 62-64.

--John D. Wilkins, Ph.D. Candidate at Virginia Tech