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Thursday, September 8, 2016
FORTUNE : JUNE 1955
CAN WE SURVIVE TECHNOLOGY ?
By John von Neumann
Budapest-born John von Neumann, like many fellow scientists of the atomic age, harbors a streak of the blues but his delicate shade may be called constructive pessimism. It does not hamper creativity. One von Neumann creation, the mathematical and numerical integrator and calculator (often called MANIAC), played a key role in building the H-bomb, and has also produced new meteorological understanding that may aid climate control. Dr. von Neumann is also celebrated for his pathbreaking study of strategy in poker, business, and war (Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, written with Oskar Morgenstern and discussed in Fortune, June, 1949). Dr. von Neumann joined the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1933, four years before he was naturalized, and took leave after President Eisenhower appointed him to the AEC. Born in 1903, he studied engineering and mathematics in Europe. Since 1940 he has been a consultant to the U.S. armed forces, and for contributions to Los Alamos and similar projects he has won two major U.S. decorations.
“The great globe itself” is in a rapidly maturing crisis—a crisis attributable to the fact that the environment in which technological progress must occur has become both undersized and underorganized. To define the crisis with any accuracy, and to explore possibilities of dealing with it, we must not only look at relevant facts, but also engage in some speculation. The process will illuminate some potential technological developments of the next quarter-century...
In all its stages the industrial revolution consisted of making available more and cheaper energy, more and easier controls of human actions and reactions, and more and faster communications. Each development increased the effectiveness of the other two. All three factors increased the speed of performing large-scale operations–industrial, mercantile, political, and migratory. But throughout the development, increased speed did not so much shorten time requirements of processes as extend the areas of the earth affected by them.
The reason is clear. Since most timescales are fixed by human reaction times, habits, and other physiological and psychological factors, the effect of the increased speed of technological processes was to enlarge the size of units–political, organizational, economic, and cultural—affected by technological operations. That is, instead of performing the same operations as before in less time, now larger-scale operations were performed in the same time. This important evolution has a natural limit, that of the earth’s actual size. The limit is now being reached, or at least closely approached...
Technological evolution is still accelerating. Technologies are always constructive and beneficial, directly or indirectly. Yet their consequences tend to increase instability–a point that will get closer attention after we have had a look at certain aspects of continuing technological evolution.
First of all, there is a rapidly expanding supply of energy. It is generally agreed that even conventional, chemical fuel–coal or oil–will be available in increased quantity in the next two decades. Increasing demand tends to keep fuel prices high, yet improvements in methods of generation seem to bring the price of power down. There is little doubt that the most significant event affecting energy is the advent of nuclear power. Its only available controlled source today is the nuclear-fission reactor. Reactor techniques appear to be approaching a condition in which they will be competitive with conventional (chemical) power sources within the U.S.; however, because of generally higher fuel prices abroad, they could already be more than competitive in many important foreign areas...
The carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by industry's burning of coal and oil -- more than half of it during the last generation-- may have changed the atmosphere's composition sufficiently to account for a general warming of the world by about one degree Fahrenheit.