In 1982, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan fame released his debut solo album, The Nightfly. The first track on the album, I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year) is perhaps better known by its chorus "What a Beautiful World."
The song is an optimistic ode to the promise of the coming technological revolution as imagined from the late 1950s. Along with its kindred track, New Frontier, I.G.Y. positions popular culture, science and art within the omnipresent din of the Cold War.
The track takes its name from an international collaboration of scientists that ran from July 1957 to December 1958. The International Geophysical Year (actually eighteen months) featured the cross-national scientific and technological research of more than five dozen participating countries. During this venture, the United States and the Soviet Union both launched their first artificial satellites. Other important events during the period were mapping of ocean ridges that helped confirm plate tectonics and discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts.
Fagen’s lyrics in I.G.Y. make reference to futuristic concepts such as solar power, transatlantic high speed train tunnels and spandex. More evocatively, Fagen references "a machine to make big decisions, programmed by fellows with compassion and vision … we’ll be eternally free, yes and eternally young." In Fagen’s utopian vision, art and culture flourish unfettered by the mundane struggle for mere existence.
True to the Steely Dan aesthetic, Fagen sarcastically wanders from the naïveté of Disney’s City of the Future to the early 1980s, when much of the idealism and promise had been subordinated to the reality of technology for the sake of better missiles. It’s not that spandex, cell-phones and supersonic travel hadn’t happened, just that they were a developmental spillover rather than cultural liberators.
In the interim, we met HAL the domineering computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apple Computer’s stark 1984 commercial warning against computers that hasten Orwellian groupthink slavery.
Contrast this with the musings of celebrity genius and intellectual heir to Albert Einstein, Michio Kaku. As one of the co-founders of string theory, Kaku has a demonstrated ability to imagine (and substantiate said imagination mathematically) far greater than most of us. In a recent interview with American Way magazine, Kaku was asked to gaze into his crystal ball of technology yet to come.
"So you can imagine what the next 50 to 100 years will bring. During the last 100 years we went from being dirt farmers to this. Our grandkids will have the power of the gods — timeless bodies and mental control of objects. It’s just a question of time before these things become economical and wind up on your desktop or in your living room," Kaku stated.
Yes, well, Dr. Kaku, what a beautiful world that will be; what a glorious time to be free.
If we step back from the easy pessimism wrought of the last few decades, Kaku may be on to something. If we think back to the time just before the dawn of steam power, the technological paradigm of humanity looked pretty much the same as it had for millennia. Sure, we could point to Gutenberg, Da Vinci and other visionaries, but the mass of humanity dwelt in diseased peasantry, much as it had since Biblical times.
Steam power upends this arrangement and with it, the whole order of human society. Harnessed steam makes possible many of the subsequent niceties of mass produced goods and economies of scale. Oil-based power and electricity follow in relatively short order. Technology circa 1890 doesn’t so much slope upward as it makes a left turn into the stratosphere. The nuclear, electronic and computer ages unroll like ticker tape across human civilization.
Post-modernity, swaddled in the cloth of the information superhighway, doesn’t so much hope for innovation as demand it. Therein lies the plausibility of Kaku’s thesis: In all previous eras innovation was often the purview of rarified and isolated inventors. Since the middle of the last century, efforts such as Bell Laboratories and NASA have shifted toward a collaborative model in which technology expands geometrically.
Things may never be "all graphite and glitter" as Fagen’s lyrics suggest, but perhaps they’ll shine a little brighter for everyone.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org