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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Social Science Fiction – Counting the Cost of Unintended Consequences


“It is easy to predict the automobile in 1880; it is very difficult to predict a traffic problem.” – Isaac Asimov

It’s a failure of imagination, a sort of tunnel vision.  We’re not even aware of the blinders that are labeled “the law of unintended consequences.” We can see the bright light ahead of us, but not the train behind it.

Sometimes the unintended consequences are positive.  Sinking ships in shallow waters during wartime creates artificial reefs and habitats for marine life.  Aspirin was developed as a pain reliever – but is now prescribed to prevent heart attacks.  Call it serendipity.  Call it good fortune.  But we didn’t see it coming.

Sometimes the unintended consequences are problematic.  Use of an herbicide to kill weeds in the front lawn kills the evergreens and poisons the topsoil of the entire neighborhood (Djuricic, 28 -29).  A bounty paid on cobras - to decrease the cobra population in British Colonial rule in India – leads to entrepreneur types breeding cobras in order to collect more money, and actually increasing the number of cobras.  Training and arming the mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets creates the Al Qaeda terrorist organization.  We might have, if we would have looked closer, but we didn’t see it coming.

What he is unable to imagine, what he is unable to predict is that the chronoscope can be trained to the very recent past – to  see what happened 1/100th of a second ago, resulting in a sort of worldwide voyeurism, the complete elimination of personal privacy. 


Science Fiction author Isaac Asimov’s short story The Dead Past deals with this inability to foresee the larger consequences of prediction.  In the story a historian, Arnold Potterley, wishes to use the “chronoscope” (a device that enables one to view the events of the past anywhere in the world) in order to further his research into ancient Carthage.  But the device is controlled by the bureaucratic government and its use very limited.  Frustrated by what he perceives as an unconscionable restriction on his intellectual freedom, Potterley and his associates clandestinely build their own chronoscope.  Potterley believes that the device will enable him to pursue his research with greater freedom, will be a benefit to the world.  And so he releases his design to the world, circumventing the bureaucratic restrictions of an authoritarian government.

Science-Fiction can help us to see the bright lights in our future, the marvels of technology, the wonders of invention.  The best of science fiction will help us to ask questions about those bright lights.  Social science-fiction will help us to examine the possible dangers, to count the costs before those costs become too great. 



Asimov, Isaac, “The Dead Past.” Astounding Science Fiction (April 1956)
Djuricic, Aleisha. "Herbicide Use and Its Unintended Consequences." Countryside & Small Stock Journal 96.2 (2012): 28. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 Oct. 2014.

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