Speculative Engineering


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    In these essays I describe things that engineers could have built, might have built, and may yet build as expressions of our civilization, as set dressing for the stage on which we enact the dance of Humanity. Some of these speculations may push current scientific knowledge to its limits and perhaps a little beyond, but I want to restrict these essays to the near-term plausible, so you likely won't see essays on teleportation devices or interstellar hyperdrives.

    A living civilization exists in its people, in their knowledge, their beliefs, and their ideals. The buildings, the roads, the machines, and other works of human endeavor merely express a vision that those people continuously realize as they choreograph their day-to-day activities. If we conceive the world as the stage upon which we play out the dance of civilization, then our engineered constructions represent the stage settings that help shape the dance and that are shaped by the dance. But then we come to the question of the music.

    To what music shall we dance? What melodies and rhythms do we hear in the ongoing social intercourse of our society?

    Let the Utopian hymn and the Arcadian symphony provide the yin and the yang of the music of civilization. In this country we find the former in Alexander Hamilton's vision of an urban society of factors and merchants guided by Adam Smith's invisible hand. And we find the American Arcadia in Thomas Jefferson's dream of an agrarian society of philosopher-kings (and, of course, philosopher-queens). We see the dialogue between those ideals choreographed outwardly in the grand dance of American civilization. The participants range from the Amish, who organize their lives around a largely Eighteenth-Century technology (building a horse-drawn buggy or raising a barn is still an act of engineering), to urban teenagers continuously connected to each other and to the vast expanse of the Internet through their portable telephones.

    And in the ArcadiUtopian fusion of human civilization we can discern major themes based on the dichotomies between Arcadian (mainly rural) and Utopian (mainly urban) and between Apollonian (with its emphasis on rationality) and Dionysiac (with its emphasis on feeling). In the combination of those themes we have:

    1. Dionysiac-Arcadian; the traditional lifestyle of the Lakota people offers us a good example of this kind of pattern. A Romantic life lived in intimate relation with the natural world gives us the setting for rural ecstasy.

    2. Dionysiac-Utopian; the Pueblo people of the American Southwest (and also the Aztecs and the Incas) stand as prime examples of an urbanized culture united by ecstatic rituals.

    3. Apollonian-Arcadian; one of America's national parks, such as Yellowstone, might give us a glimpse of a Rationalist rural society of this kind and of Thomas Jefferson's vision for America.

    4. Apollonian-Utopian; America in the 1950's offers us a fair example, albeit a blemished one, of this vision of civilization and had it not been disrupted by the Dionysiac excesses of the 1960's, we might today be living in the kinds of cities that we saw depicted in the comic strips and science-fiction stories of that time.

    Civilization, then, is the stage on which we enact the human drama. It evolved from our ancestors' efforts to protect themselves from what they feared: animals, weather, famine, disease, evil spirits, etc. And it grew and still grows into something more. In these essays I want to explore how much more.


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