What’s Bugging Us?

Posted: 08/1999

The Letter

What’s Bugging Us?

Khali HendersonNot
nearly enough, it seems.

In my favorite science fiction novel, "Ender’s Game," author Orson Scott Card
fashions a world that is connected by computer network, allowing people to communicate in
online forums not unlike today’s chat rooms. Two of the characters, genetically
architected prodigies, hide their youth and identities behind the veil of the network and,
using pseudonyms and lab-made genius, galvanize a planet at war with an alien race of
bugs, thus ultimately shaping the destiny of Earth.

When it was written in 1985, Card could not have known that his fantasy would begin to
come to life a decade later in the commercial Internet and the World Wide Web. His vision
is not complete, of course, as it suggests a time when every human is plugged into the
network and that people on the strength of their ideas–not age, money or political
influence–could mold public opinion, social conscience and lawmaking.

On this first point, there may be progress. The digital divide is closing. According to
research from the Pew Research Center, Washington, as quoted in the July 5 edition of Fortune
magazine, 54 percent of net veterans (online more than a year) earn more than $50,000 a
year, but 57 percent of newbies (online less than a year) earn less than $50,000.
Similarly, age, race and gender gaps also are said to be narrowing. A spring study by
Stanford, Calif.-based CommerceNet and Nielsen Media Research, New York, found that the
number of Internet users in the United States and Canada is now 92 million.

A growth plateau is inevitable since remote villages–void not only of telephone
service but also of electricity–will remain unconnected until such time as these
obstacles are overcome. One scientist, a mathematician-turned-philosopher named Freeman J.
Dyson, has suggested that solar energy and genetic engineering along with wireless access
will make Internet ubiquity possible. In his brief book, "The Sun, The Genome and The
Internet," Dyson explains in some detail about genetically engineering nonharvested,
permanent energy forests that convert sunlight to cheap and abundant liquid fuel.
Overcoming the expense of solar energy can capitalize on its ubiquity, he says. "This
is my dream, that solar energy and genetic engineering and the Internet will work together
to create a socially just world in which every Mexican village becomes as wealthy as
Princeton [N.J.]," Dyson writes.

He is pragmatic in pointing out that inequalities always will be, but he is hopeful
that we humans are on the right road to lessening them. He urges that while technology
pulls, we must apply a strong ethical push in the direction of social justice. Perhaps
doubtful, Professor Dyson ends his lecture: "It does no harm to hope."

But it does no good. We are no nearer to his vision or Card’s imagined world. No
offense, my fellow earthlings, but I doubt we ever will be; that is, until our own planet
becomes a Bugger takeover target.

Khali Henderson


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