Eternity versus Infinity

I just completed reading, at long last, Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. Like many of his novels, EoE is a morality play, an explanation, a whodunit, and a bit of a prank. The hero Andrew Harlan, is a repressed buffoon at the mercy of various sinister forces. Eventually Harlan finds his way to a truth he doesn’t want to accept. In EoE Asimov plays with time travel in terms of probabilities. This mathematical exploration of time travel resolves many of the cliché paradoxes that scifi usually twists itself into. Go back in time and prevent your mother from meeting your father and what you have done is not suicide. You have simply reduced probability of your future existence.

In EoE Asimov considers two competing desires in human culture: The urge to keep things the same forever and the urge to expand and explore. Asimov distills these urges into the Eternals, who fight what they think of as dangerous change by altering time, and the Infinites, who sabotage the Eternals because they believe “Any system… which allows men to choose their own future, will end by choosing safety and mediocrity…”

In one masterful stroke Asimov explains why we haven’t invented time travel. If we did, we’d kill baby Hitler! But then we’d work on elimination of all risks! Eventually we’d trap ourselves on planet Earth and die out slowly and lonely when our single world gets hit by a comet or our Sun goes nova. In EoE, Asimov has a force of undercover Infinites working tirelessly to keep the probability of time travel to a near zero value. This way humanity continues to take risks, eventually discovers space flight, and avoids extinction by populating the galaxy.

You’re probably not going to read EoE. It’s a bit dry for the 21st century. There are no superheroes, dragons, or explicit sex. While there is a strong female character she spends most of her time out of sight and playing dumb. EoE is a product of the 1950s. Yet For a book, where a computer is called a “computaplex” and the people who use them are consusingly called “computers”, EoE’s underlying message and themes apply very closely to our current age.

In our time, we have the science and technology to move forward by leaps and bounds to an unimaginable infinite–and we’re rapidly doing so except when we elect leaders who promise to return us to the past and we follow creeds that preach intolerance to science. I’ve read blog posts and op-eds that claim we can’t roll back the future. But we seem to be working mightily to pause progress. Just like the Eternals in EoE many of us are concerned about protecting the present from the future. Teaching Creationism alongside Evolution, legislating Uber and AirBnB out of existence, and keeping Americans in low value manufacturing jobs are just a few examples of acting like Asimov’s Eternals and avoiding the risks of technological progress at all costs.

I get it! I know that technological advancement has many sharp edges and unexpected consequences. Improve agriculture with artificial ingredients and create an obesity epidemic. Improve communication with social media and create a fake news epidemic. People are suffering and will continue to suffer as software eats the world and robots sweep up the crumbs.

But what Asimov teaches us, in a book written more than 70 years ago, is that if we succeed in staying homogenous-cultured, English-speaking, tradition-bound, God-fearing, binary-gendered, unvaccinated, and non-GMO we’re just getting ready to die out. When the next dinosaur-killer comet strikes, we will be stuck in our Garden of Eden as it goes up in flames. As Asimov admits, it might take thousands of years for humanity to die out in our self-imposed dark ages, but an expiration date means oblivion regardless of how far out it is.

Asimov shows us in EoE, and in rest of his works as well, that there is a huge payoff for the pain of innovation and progress. We get to discover. We get to explore. We get to survive.

Let’s face it. We don’t need genetic code editors and virtual reality. We don’t need algorithms and the Internet of Things. Many of us will never be comfortable with these tools and changes. Many of us long for the days when men were men, women stayed out of the way, and jobs lasted for a lifetime. This is not a new phenomenon: The urge to return to an earlier golden age has been around since Socrates complained that writing words down would destroy the art of conversation.

At the moment, it feels like the ideals of the Eternals are trumping the ideals of the Infinites. While a slim minority of entrepreneurs tries to put the infinity of space travel and the technological singularity within our reach, a majority of populist politicians are using every trick in the mass communications book to prevent the future from happening. We have our own versions of Asimov’s Eternals and Infinites today. You know their names.

Like Asimov, I worry about the far future. We’re just a couple of over-reactions to a couple of technological advances away from scheduling the next dark ages. That’s not a good idea. The last dark ages nearly wiped Europe of off the face of the earth when the Black Plague hit. Humanity might not survive the next world crisis if our collective hands are to fearful of high-tech to use it.

At the end of EoE Harlan figures out that, spoiler alert, taking big risks is a good idea. Harlan chooses the Infinites over the Eternals. I’d like us to consider following in Harlan’s footsteps. We can’t eliminate all technological risks! Heck, we can’t even eliminate most risks in general! But we can embrace technological progress and raise the probability of our survival as a species.

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