|THE TOOLS OF A REVOLUTION|
June 16, 1999
JIM LEHRER: A Gergen dialogue. David Gergen talks with Freeman Dyson, Professor of Physics at Princeton University, author of The Sun, The Genome, and The Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions.
DAVID GERGEN: Dr. Dyson, at the heart of your new book is this statement: "The new century will be a good time for new beginnings. Technology guided by ethics has the power to help billions of poor people all over the earth." Tell us more about that.
FREEMAN DYSON, Author, The Sun, The Genome & The Internet: Yes. Well, that's, of course, a hope rather than a prediction. We don't know that it's going to happen, but at least there's a chance it could, and if we push hard enough, we can make it happen. Technology by itself, of course, doesn't particularly favor the poor. It tends to favor the rich. As we see at the moment, the Internet, in some respects, is making the gap between rich and poor wider. People who are wired are better off, and the people who are not wired are worse off. However, it could be different, and the point of this book is explaining how it could be different. And I think one of the things we have to do is to be willing to learn from other countries. This country, in fact, isn't leading the world in all respects. In some respects it is. But, for example, Finland has a much higher fraction of the population on the line, hooked up to the Internet than we do, and there are many such examples. Smaller countries very often are leading the way, and this country should be prepared to learn, not just to pretend that we know everything.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, you say there are three revolutionary forces in technology that in particular should change the way poor people live. One is the sun, the second is the genome, and the third is the Internet.
FREEMAN DYSON: Right. Of course the sun means solar energy, and we don't yet know how the make solar energy cheap. That's a big problem. That's a technical problem. I think that the key to that is probably genetic engineering. That's why the genome is important. If we can engineer trees and other such crop plants to produce chemicals cheaply from sunlight, that will help enormously. And that's of course something we don't yet know how to do. One could imagine genetically engineered trees producing gasoline or alcohol or any kind of useful chemicals at a much lower price than we can do it today. If so, it could compete with coal and oil, and so it would spread the wealth much more evenly over the earth. It's just a happy thing about solar energy is that the sun shines more on the tropics than it does anywhere else, and that's where most of the people live.
DAVID GERGEN: All right. Now, so it would be that combination of solar energy coming into the rural areas or the poor areas of earth along with further developments on the genome side so that you could grow crops, particularly trees, much more cheaply.
FREEMAN DYSON: Well, we could genetically engineer trees so that they'd produce gasoline instead of wood. The trouble with wood is it's such a -- it's messy to harvest. You have to chop down the trees in order to harvest the wood. That's clearly an undesirable thing to chop down forests all over the world. If you could get out the energy without chopping down the tree, that would clearly be a huge plus.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, now we're transfixed by the human genome project, but it's interesting that you think that the genome projects that pertain to crops and to trees actually may hold so much more promise.
FREEMAN DYSON: I don't say more promise, but just extra promise. I mean, the fact is, of course, the genome is a huge promise for all kinds of reasons. It applies to humans, it applies to diseased bugs, it applies to mice and fruits flies and also wheat and barley and oats and rice, all the major crops. All those genomes are being done. I don't think anybody's yet doing trees, but they soon will.
DAVID GERGEN: So what you could envision with the use of breakthroughs in technology is that people could continue to live in rural areas or in villages in poorer parts of today's world, but actually would, by harnessing solar power, harnessing the genome and then bringing the Internet into those communities, it would make it a very desirable place to live, and you could raise their living standards.
FREEMAN DYSON: Right. It's something like what happened in England, where I come from. In England, 50 years ago, I mean, we had when I was a kid 70 years ago, we had two technologies, electricity and the automobile, which changed the face of the English countryside, and because of electricity and the automobile, it meant that people moved out from the cities to live in villages and gentrified the villages. So the villages became beautiful and pleasant to live in and no longer just poor peasants but middle-class people.
DAVID GERGEN: So you have an IBM headquarters in an old village, an old English village.
FREEMAN DYSON: Exactly, which is a village where near I used to live. It's not the headquarters; it's one of the big centers for IBM Europe. So you have these high-tech industries dispersed in villages, and I think the same thing could happen all over the world. It doesn't mean that people have to live in villages, but it means that you don't have to move out. The people who are living there could actually afford to stay there.
DAVID GERGEN: What are the chief impediments to getting to this new world, this brave new world? Are they -- will the marketplace alone do it?
FREEMAN DYSON: Well, the marketplace helps undoubtedly to get things started, but also you have to have politics and you have to have ethics, all has to work together.
DAVID GERGEN: What do you say to those free marketeers who say we should just let the marketplace have a free hand because that's what's produced so much technology in this country?
FREEMAN DYSON: Well, I would say that it's not really true that we're on the cutting edge. Sometimes we're on the cutting edge, and sometimes we're not. But there's this terrible arrogance in this country. I mean, look at the way we go into a panic about bomb secrets being stolen by the Chinese. There aren't any bomb secrets. I mean, that's all a lot of nonsense. The bombs are pretty much the same in China as they are here. And we have this illusion that somehow we're ahead of everybody, but it's not true. And it's even less true, of course, in other fields. So we should relax a bit and be willing to learn from the others.
DAVID GERGEN: Let me ask you a final question about the lessons of the 20th century regarding technology, because you've studied these so closely. We've had an uneasy relationship with technology in this century, and what can we learn from that that would help us in a more positive direction in the next one?
FREEMAN DYSON: Well, we have to be prepared, of course, to push to get technology widely accessible. I think -- there should be strict laws about access to the Internet, for example, just as there have been in the past for electricity and telephones. If a company has a monopoly to serve a piece of the country with electricity, they're by law required to give everybody equal access, and the same was true of telephones and various other monopolies. Something like that should apply to the Internet. At the moment it doesn't, but I think in the future it could, so -- and the same is true, of course, about biotechnology. When the time comes, which won't be very distant, when we can decide to program our babies to make them better, that also has to be accessible to everybody. Otherwise you'll get an even worse division of humanity into different genetic castes, where only rich people can afford to have healthy babies, and that's clearly unacceptable. So we have to be prepared to make rules, which are not just free market rules. The free market is fine within its limits, but it mustn't be allowed to prevail over everything.
DAVID GERGEN: Dr. Freeman Dyson, thank you very much.
FREEMAN DYSON: You're welcome.