Speculation, Innovation, Regulation

40 years of covering science and technology


The time is sometime between 1973 and 1980. Our man sits down to his telephone. It is a deluxe model, with a television screen, television camera, teletype outlet, electronic writing pad, copier, and, yes, a handset. He flips on the machine and speaks towards the television screen (there is a mike and speaker next to it). He identifies himself and asks for his "mail." The computer checks his voiceprint and visual identity, and then displays the return address of the first "letter" on the screen, at the same time announcing it over the audio.

"No audio, please," he demands of the computer. "And skip this letter for now. Do you have the one from Betty?"

"Yes," the computer flashes, and displays a short handwritten note. He reads it and asks the computer to file it electronically under both her name and the date. The display fades and is replaced by a diagram sent by one of his engineers. He instructs the comp. to file it under name, date, and 3 cross-referencial subject headings after making a copy for himself. He finishes the rest of his mail, answering as he goes along, with the comp. automatically entering a "carbon" of each letter he writes into his file. Most letters he dictates to the comp. Some he types, and the note to Betty, he writes with the light pen.

Those visionary paragraphs appeared in the mimeographed September 1968 edition of reason. The date was a little optimistic and some of the details were off, but founding editor Lanny Friedlander basically described the world we live in today. Using computers, we communicate via electronic mail, viewing the messages on video monitors, and—in some cases—have them announced ("You've got mail!"). We can dictate emails and memos using voice input software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, we can write them using a stylus on tablet computers, and, of course, we can type them. We routinely save "carbons" of our emails, files, and articles. And we often take security measures to protect their privacy.

Appreciating the liberating possibilities of technology and science is deeply inscribed in reason's intellectual DNA. Though concrete predictions such as Friedlander's have been rare, the magazine has concentrated on breaking the regulatory shackles that limit scientific research and hobble technological progress. In that effort, reason supplied intellectual ammunition that helped break up government-sanctioned monopolies controlling mail and telephony. We explained how government exacerbated various energy crises and killed people by slowing medical progress. We explored the failures of industrial policy, NASA's death grip on space travel, and federal efforts to snoop on private citizens. And early on, we identified the statist strain within the environmental movement as a danger to technological progress.

Reading back through 40 years of reason also reveals, somewhat dishearteningly, that Luddites and technoconservatives never quit, and that no advance of technological progress is ever permanently secure. And yes, we occasionally got some things wrong.

Imagining the Web

Friedlander wasn't the only reason writer to anticipate the communications and computer revolutions. In January 1977, the economist David Levy hailed the vinyl video disk as a way to break the stranglehold of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on television. "Freedom of speech entails the right to annoy people. Unregulated video disks will create the right of the producers and the purchasers of video message to annoy anyone they wish," Levy wrote. "The production of television signals will be freed from the veto power of groups acting through the political process." Though Levy's dismissal of videotape as being too expensive for home use proved less accurate, his insight that consumer access to non-broadcast video would reduce the FCC's power was right.

In October 1983's "Hanging Up on Your Phone Company," Peter Samuel noted that 15 years after AT&T had first applied for a license to build a cellular phone system, the FCC finally issued 25 permits to build networks in Chicago, New York, and other cities. "Within just a few years," he predicted, "millions of cellular-radio subscribers will be placing calls with portable telephones like the Motorola Dyna TAC hand-held unit." Described as the "world's first truly portable phone," the Dyna TAC weighed 1.8 pounds, measured 8 by 3 by 2 inches, and was good for 12 three-minute phone calls on a battery charge. By 2008, one-fifth of American adults had ditched their landlines altogether, and nearly everyone carries smaller, cheaper, and much more powerful cell phones in their pockets.

"'Telecommuting' is another phenomenon that modern telephony can make possible," Samuel noted, explaining that "with portable terminals hooked via telephone to remote computers and data bases, people can draw information from their offices down the phone line and feed their work back down it again." In fact, Samuel added, he wrote his article on a Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80 computer hooked to just such a phone line. The TRS-80 weighed 3.8 pounds, featured 8K of memory, and cost $599 (about $1,250 today). In 2005, a Reason Foundation study showed that telecommuters now outnumber mass transit commuters in most of America's 50 biggest metropolitan areas.

Even as we use such technologies to liberate ourselves, the government seeks to use them to control us. The attorney Robert Corn began August 1985's cover story with a confident prophecy: "Two-way wrist radios used to be a comicstrip fantasy; soon you'll be able to buy them at the supermarket." Today, of course, prepaid cellphones can be purchased for cash at many supermarkets, drug stores, or convenience stores—though most people refrain from wearing them on their wrists. But Corn was worried about the ability of the police to use cell signals to track citizens. To avoid this problem, he suggested that cell phone companies allow subscribers to "unlist" their phone's locator functions or provide an on/off locator switch.

Corn observed, "Perhaps the most important measure would be for cellular-telephone companies to contract with their subscribers not to release information without the subscriber's consent or a court order." Unfortunately, as Americans recently discovered, AT&T and other telecoms have for years turned over the records of millions of private phone, email, and text messages to the National Security Agency, in defiance of the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Distressingly, Congress approved legislation earlier this year granting retroactive legal immunity to companies that cooperated with the illegal spying.

In March 1989's cover story, "Capital Flight," the economist Richard McKenzie reported that portable computing was internationalizing capital. "As a consequence," he argued, "the power of government to tax and regulate may be in its twilight years." McKenzie, optimistically, suggested that the technology-enabled freer flow of capital explained the fall in income tax rates in most developed countries during the 1980s.

In July of the same year, Jerome Ellig of Citizens for a Sound Economy worried that regulatory hurdles were slowing the spread of videotext services into homes. "In the not-so-distant future, nearly every household with telephone service could reach out and touch, and be touched by, thousands of new consumer services through an inexpensive screen and keyboard plugged right into the phone outlet," he wrote. If the Baby Bells were allowed to compete, he argued, they would supply home videotext services. Right idea, wrong competitors. Even as Ellig was writing, consumers were being brought online by CompuServe, Prodigy, and America Online.

In January 1991, the novelist and game designer Greg Costikyan described a Secret Service crackdown on hackers and pointed out the ways it imperiled free speech on the nascent Net. Costikyan argued that electronic bulletin board services should be legally treated as common carriers and that networks should not be viewed as criminal enterprises just because they may have once carried data used in or derived from fraudulent activity. Why? Because Costikyan lyrically foresaw a brilliant future for the Internet. His vision is worth quoting at length:

"The Net has the capacity to improve all our lives. A user of the Net can already find a wide variety of information, from encyclopedia entries to restaurant reviews. Someday the Net will be the first place citizens turn to when they need information. The morning paper will be a printout, tailored to our interests and specifications, of articles posted worldwide; job hunters will look first to the Net; millions will use it to telecommute to work; and serious discussion will be given to the abolition of representative government and the adoption of direct democracy via network voting.…[W]e can see that something remarkable is happening, something that will change the world, something that has the potential to transform our lives. To ensure that our lives are enriched and not diminished, we must ensure that the Net is free."

The New Biology

From the beginning, reason has had a strong interest in the biotechnology revolution. The nuclear engineer Winston Duke hailed the advent of "The New Biology" on the cover of our August 1972 issue. Amazingly ahead of his time, Duke sounded very much like today's transhumanists (or as they prefer to be called these days, bioprogressives). Here he is explaining how to make a clone: "Insert an adult diploid nucleus into [an] ovum and simultaneously…remove the maternal haploid nucleus," then "test tube growth to blastocyst and uterus implant." This is exactly the procedure that Scottish biologist Ian Wilmut followed when he produced the sheep named Dolly, the world's first cloned mammal, in 1996. Duke even anticipated the possibility of producing genetically matched cloned tissues and organs for transplantation.

Duke also suggested that the British researchers Patrick Steptoe and Bob Edwards might succeed in producing the first "test-tube baby" within the year, if politicians and religious leaders didn't get in the way. "Genetic engineering will soon make such conveniences as sex selection in offspring a trivial matter," he predicted. He even speculated that biological research would eventually lead to physical immortality.

Nearly 40 years later, we know that Duke's timeline for biological progress was a bit optimistic. The first test-tube baby was not born until 1978. Parents using in vitro fertilization (IVF) can now choose the sex of their children, but transplants derived from human embryonic stem cells have not yet been conducted (though the technique has been shown to work in animals). Immortality, alas, is not yet here.

In November 1985, I wrote a cover story about Jeremy Rifkin's campaign to halt all biotechnology in its tracks. I opened the article with a pair of biotech scenarios slated for the 1990s, in which a patient is cured of colorectal cancer by means of a tumor vaccine and crops are protected from frost damage using genetically modified bacteria. Tumor vaccines are not yet available, and the project to develop ice-minus bacteria was dropped—in part because Rifkin's opposition made it too expensive. On the other hand, I was correct in predicting crops genetically engineered to resist pests, hormones to boost milk production, and biotech hepatitis vaccines. Rifkin, meanwhile, has been an inspiration to the ongoing movements against genetically modified crops and human enhancement technologies.

In the December 1994 reason, the libertarian feminist Wendy McElroy reflected on recent headlines revealing that a 59-year-old British woman had borne two children using donated eggs. Instead of cheering a development that increased the range of women's reproductive choices, a number of feminists had denounced it; they also attacked other emerging reproductive technologies, including sperm and egg donation, in vitro fertilization, embryo freezing, and surrogacy. Science and technology, they argued, were patriarchal tools to control women's reproductive lives. McElroy reflected on the irony that feminist bans on new reproductive technologies would restrict rather than liberate the choices of women.

In November 1995, the physicist and science fiction writer Gregory Benford wrote a cover article titled "Biology: 2001." He predicted that genetically engineered organisms would digest waste, biotech crops would resist pests and diseases, and drugs would be produced in "pharm" animals and plants. One of his more charming visions involved herds of genetically modified ants that would harvest corn and deposit each kernel in a granary while dispersing corn waste over the fields as fertilizer. Benford was confident that "mundane" measures with obvious market roles would encounter little social resistance. "This includes pollution policers, simple bathroom cleaners, crops that resist pests and herbicides, pharm animals, 'designer' plants (blue roses, low-cal fruit), bacterial mining, and the like," he wrote. "Even correcting human inheritable diseases will probably go through without major opposition. All this, perhaps within the first two decades of the new century."

We now know Benford was too optimistic. Activists oppose releasing genetically modified bacteria, even those designed to clean up pollution or assist in mining, and they vigorously fight biotech crops of any sort. And with regard to fixing inheritable diseases, the European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine bans biotech interventions if their aim is "any modification in the genome of any descendants."

After Dolly the cloned sheep was born, President Bill Clinton hastily called for a ban on human cloning. In the June 1998 reason, the California attorney Mark Eibert defended cloning research as a way for incurably infertile people to safely produce genetically related children. Eibert worried that the fear of cloning was already bearing bitter fruit in the form of "unprecedented extensions of government power, based either on unlikely nightmare scenarios or on an unreasoning fear that humans were 'not meant' to know or do certain things. Far from protecting the 'sanctity' of human life, such an attitude, if consistently applied, would doom the human race to a 'natural' state of misery."

More recently, reason's Kerry Howley took reporting on reproductive issues to a new and more personal level. In her October 2006 story "Ova for Sale," Howley contracted with a fertility clinic in Chicago to sell her eggs for $10,000. "Opponents of IVF have long warned that the bond between mother and child will be eroded by further advances in assisted reproduction, the implication being that mothers will eschew the time and labor of traditional pregnancies once they can outsource to the lab," she wrote. "In practice, IVF seems to demonstrate the opposite extreme: Women value pregnancy to such a degree that they will spend lavishly to approximate the experience, adding expense, discomfort, and ethical quandary to the already burdensome ordeal of childbirth. The desire to stick to the traditional script of family is surprisingly robust, and reproductive technologies allow potential parents to follow that script even when nature erects barriers."

Apocalypse Then

reason has generally been skeptical of the often apocalyptic claims of ideological environmentalism. But the magazine didn't start out that way. Our cover story in July 1971, by the systems theorist Jay Forrester, declared it "certain" that "resource shortage, pollution, crowding, food failure, or some other equally powerful force will limit population and industrialization if persuasion and psychological factors do not." Forrester was the creator of the World Dynamics computer model, the source for the doomsday predictions of the 1972 Limits to Growth study. Nearly 20 years later I spent a day with Forrester asking him about his predictions of imminent resource depletion. "I think in retrospect," he testily told me, "that Limits to Growth overemphasized the material resources side."

The chemist Ronald Merrill warned against "The New Anti-Science Movement" in January 1973. "The mainstay of the modern attack on science is the claim that technology is destructive; that progress has such dangerous sideeffects that it should be abolished, or at least limited," he asserted. "The political implementation of these claims is accomplished primarily by means of the 'Environmentalist' movement." Merrill was a bit cavalier about the effects of air pollution and water pollution, but he was surely right when he wrote, "One of the unpleasant by-products of a technological society is the close interaction of science and politics, as technical issues become politically relevant."

In August 1978, an economist at Texas A&M named Philip Gramm wrote an article for reason called "Debunking Doomsday." Gramm's chief argument was that the world was not about to run out of petroleum—a bold claim to make in the era of the "oil crisis" and The Limits to Growth. And he was right: By the early 1980s, the price of oil had fallen from by two-thirds. Gramm, incidentally, eventually became a Republican senator.

Samuel Blumenfeld was less prescient in January 1980, when he argued for a large-scale agri-fuel industry, writing that it would cut pollution, raise farm incomes, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and "increase individual freedom by undercutting the perceived need for the federal farm bureaucracy, the energy bureaucracy, fuel rationing, and the environmental protection bureaucracy." Nearly 30 years later, inventors and entrepreneurs are still trying to commercialize cellulosic ethanol production. The bureaucracies in question have not been harmed in the process.

In January 1990, the futurist T.A. Heppenheimer tackled global warming, arguing that "the greenhouse effect is real, but that's no reason to throw out industrial civilization." Heppenheimer made the case that future prosperity would enable humanity to successfully adapt to the effects of higher global temperatures. "Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of industrial growth and of a prosperous economy," he noted. "Ill-considered actions against this gas could give us the worst of both worlds: an imperfect reduction in its emissions that barely delays the warming and robs us of the prosperity that might allow us to cope with its effects."

In November 1997, Gregory Benford argued that "if we treated global warming as a technical problem instead of a moral outrage, we could cool the world." Benford examined a number of different proposals to use geo-engineering to lower the earth's thermostat, among them planting forests to sequester extra carbon dioxide, fertilizing the oceans with iron to encourage algae growth to absorb carbon dioxide, and launching gigantic space screens to reflect sunlight back into space.

The Unfree Frontier

If there's an area where reason's writers have tended to be overoptimistic, it's space exploration and exploitation. In April 1979, for example, then-editor Robert W. Poole Jr. predicted that the 1980s "will mark the dawning of the age of space industrialization—the time when man can start living in, working in, and exploiting outer space." The development of the reusable space shuttle was going to make this possible by cutting launch costs from $1,000 per pound ($2,900 in today's dollars) to $250 per pound ($750).

Instead, the cost to carry cargo into orbit aboard the space shuttle hovers around $25,000 per pound. Poole did wisely warn, "If there's one thing to be learned from the history of technology, it's that government support entails hidden perils. We can—and should—develop space without government 'help.' "

In the same issue, NASA consultant Gary Hudson predicted that communications satellites would bring us hundreds of television channels, plus pocket phones that could transmit from any spot on the planet to any other spot. He also suggested, less accurately, that "by the 1990s, it should be possible to mine a nickel-iron asteroid and profitably return loads of cobalt, platinum, rhenium, vanadium, osmium, iridium, and gold to earth."

In January 1985, the journalist Patrick Cox detailed how NASA's bureaucrats were thwarting private competition, chiefly by subsidizing cheaper shuttle launches. Despite NASA's efforts, the entrepreneurs did not disappear: In May 1988, Poole described efforts to build private space stations. They weren't successful, but the government's alternative wasn't very impressive either. As T.A. Heppenheimer reported in May 1991, the space station was "rapidly evolving into something that is all too common in Washington: a program that promises to consume funds without limit, while never reaching completion or delivering useful services to the taxpayer."

Since the astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt returned from the moon in December 1972, no person has visited any other extraterrestrial body. Frustrated by the slow progress, space aficionados have cast about for new ways to finance a trip beyond the atmosphere. In our February 1999 issue, The New York Times' John Tierney outlined the idea of the Mars Prize, in which the government would award $20 billion to the first team to visit and return from the red planet. The best feature of such a prize: The government wouldn't have to collect taxes to pay for it until the team returned.

In January 2007, reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward profiled several entrepreneurs attempting to commercialize near-space travel. One startup, Bigelow Aerospace, has successfully launched two inflatable space habitat prototypes, the Genesis I and Genesis II, into orbit using Russian ICBMs. The British entrepreneur Richard Branson is working with Ansari X Prize winner Bert Rutan to develop a vehicle that can be used in suborbital space tourism industry. Who knows? Maybe those 1970s dreams of private space travel could still come true.

The Next 40 Years

Abject poverty is humanity's natural state. As the Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr demonstrates in his wonderful 2002 book The Gifts of Athena, it is only with the advent of free institutions in the West two centuries ago that sustained technological progress and rising prosperity became possible.

But as reason's reporting has shown for four decades, the opponents of progress are legion. The battle over the future of technology is shaping up as the defining political conflict of the 21st century. "Activists, bureaucrats, and lawyers are hampering promising research and making it more costly," writes Mokyr. "But the achievements made possible by new useful knowledge in terms of economic well-being and human capabilities have been unlike anything experienced before by the human race. The question remains, can this advance be sustained?"

Over the next 40 years, reason's writers and editors will do their best to ensure that the answer is yes.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent.