How 'visioneers' inspire future innovation

Some scientists are staking out extreme frontiers in science and technology. Author W. Patrick McCray recounts how their visions have shaped - and could shape - our world.

Visioneer Gerard O'Neill believes futuristic space colonies could solve planetary overcrowding.

From the young, self-identified futurist to the older, semi-nostalgic intellectuals peppering the crowd, the audience at the DC Science Cafe is as character-driven as the book about which W. Patrick McCray has been scheduled to speak.

McCray is a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the author of "Visioneers," a newly published tome chronicling the history of a group of scientists from the 1970s who advocated some pretty fantastical ideas. These scientists were not just leaders in their respective fields; they were strong personalities willing to push aggressively for their technological vision of how the future should unfold.

McCray defines visioneers as people who are willing to bet that technology can trump future limitations. The two primary examples in his book are scientists Gerard O'Neill and Eric Drexler. O'Neill believed space colonies were the answer to the inevitable consequences of population growth and a continued drain on planetary resources. Drexler thought nanotechnology and self-replicating machines would solve many of the world's ills. Neither scientist's vision for the future has come to pass. Technical challenges and economic realities mean their ideas may never effectively be realized.

But that doesn't mean O'Neill and Drexler were (or are) without influence.

There are pros and cons to O'Neill's and Drexler's brand of technological utopianism. Says McCray:

"I think it's easy to make the case that a lot of people got enthused about space exploration or nanotechnology, in general, from having read some of the popular treatments that O'Neill and Drexler put forth on those subjects. They wrote best-selling books. The books were translated into a lot of languages, so they certainly reached an international audience... The other reason that I think that [visioneers are] important is that when they're considered by professional scientists and engineers, they kind of stake out the extreme of what the frontier is... and they kind of provide the space for the scientists and engineers to explore those ideas."

But if there's a positive side to visioneering, there is also a negative one. McCray talks about the single-minded nature of visioneering pursuits. In one sense, visioneers expect technology to provide a get-out-of-jail-free card. There's little to no acknowledgement of the political, economic and social forces at work, or how science on its own is unlikely to help humans overcome complex challenges.

In his talk, McCray reflects not only about visioneers of the past, but also on scientific cure-alls being pondered today. If migrating people off planet wasn't the ideal solution to population growth in the 1970s, neither is geo-engineering a silver bullet for global warming in 2013 , he notes.

"I would hope there are better ways to think about solving planetary ills rather than just putting giant mirrors into space," says McCray, somewhat wryly.

Inevitably the audience at the D.C. Science Cafe wants to hear McCray's views about prominent thinkers of the 21st century, and where they lie on the visioneering spectrum.

Here are some of McCray's tell-tale signs: they have a strong vision of the medium-term future, a science and engineering background, and an ability to generate interest and mobilize supporters with rather charismatic arguments.

McCray is reluctant to go much further than that or to lay out his own predictions about where science and technology are headed, based on his study of the past.

He does share one observation toward the end of his talk: there were a lot of astronauts featured in this year's Super Bowl commercials. Whether that means we're headed to Mars or toward eventual planetary destruction by asteroid, McCray isn't about to venture a guess. We'll just have to wait for the future to find out.

Top Image Credit: Offworld Colonies, Daniel Voyager's Flickr photo stream

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