Science & Technology

Choosing Our Own Future

Will we greet new technologies with more regulation or more liberty?


Future Imperfect: Technology and Freedom in an Uncertain World, by David Friedman, New York: Cambridge University Press, 351 pages, $30

In Future Imperfect David Friedman presents a wide variety of possible futures, "some attractive, some frightening, few dull." Looking through a lens of science fiction and fact, Friedman explores how libertarian ideas can help us adjust our lives and institutions to technological change ranging from computer crime to nanotechnology, from contracts in cyberspace to aging research.

Friedman, a professor of law at Santa Clara University and the author of the libertarian classic The Machinery of Freedom, applies law to economics and economics to the law, enhancing our understanding of both. He is properly skeptical of lawsuits: "Litigation is a clumsier and less efficient mechanism than trade; on average, of every dollar spent by a defendant only about fifty cents ends up with a plaintiff, the rest going to lawyers, court costs, and the like." Yet future technologies will have to pass through the legal wringer, and Friedman excels at projecting what will happen when they do.

Take online privacy. Friedman's view picks up from David Brin's foundational 1998 book The Transparent Society: Public surveillance is clearly growing, banks and governments monitor credit and bureaucratic transactions, cameras in public areas have been effective at reducing crime in Europe and their use will inevitably rise. Some law enforcement officials are arguing that governments should use microphones to augment the cameras. Friedman thinks they soon will cover every urban area in every developed nation.

The scenario sounds Orwellian, but Friedman (and Brin) argue that we can use it to enhance our freedom. For this to happen, surveillance cannot be a police privilege; it must belong not just to the powerful but to everyone. In the Friedman/Brin vision, instead of a centralized state watching its subjects, everyone will watch each other. The cameras become a public resource, assuring that no mugger is hiding around the corner, that our children are playing safely in the park, and that police are not abusing their power.

Recall how dispersed surveillance capabilities helped reveal official wrongdoing in the Rodney King case and the recent killing of an unarmed man by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer in Oakland. "In Brin's world," Friedman writes, "every law enforcement agent knows that he is on candid camera all of the time and conducts himself accordingly."

Trying to be realistic, Friedman details the steps required to assure that a transparent society evolves in a way that enhances rather than restricts freedom. For example: We have no system for recording ownership of personal information, unlike, say, ownership of land. A registry of such data that forces a user to pay the owner would make mass use impossible. "If my particular bit of information is only worth three cents to him, a legal regime that requires him to spend a dollar checking the restrictions on it before he uses it means that the information will never be used." A registry business would then allow markets to work while providing defenses for those who want to keep their data secure.

There is no avoiding some loss of privacy, Friedman says. But if the transition is handled properly the benefits should outweigh the costs. "While it is clear why I am in favor of my having privacy," he writes, "it is not clear why I should expect my gains from my having privacy to outweigh my losses from your having it, why people should regard privacy, generally speaking, as a good thing."

Which is not to say he sees no problems with this future. The victory last year of California's Proposition 8, a ballot initiative denying marriage to gays, prompted opponents to hector the ballot initiative's donors, whose names were listed in public records, and to promote boycotts against their employers. In some cases these protests led Proposition 8 supporters to quit their jobs. Those incidents illustrate the perils posed by general knowledge of one's opinions. "In Brin's future transparent society," Friedman acknowledges, "many of us will become less willing to express our opinions of our boss, employees, ex-wife, or present husband in any public place. People will become less expressive and more self-contained, conversation bland or cryptic. If some spaces are still private, more of social life will shift to them."

But there are much worse scenarios. Brin's "argument, after all," Friedman says, "is that privacy will simply not be an option, either because the visible benefits of surveillance are so large or because the technology will make it impossible to prevent it. If he is right, his transparent society may at least be better than the alternative—surveillance to which only those in power have access, a universal Panopticon with government as the prison guards."

Also presenting an immediate public policy challenge is rapid biological innovation. The core issue Friedman addresses is human reproduction, surely the most emotional of our biological concerns. Already two technologies, paternity testing and in vitro fertilization, have battered some of the assumptions behind the last millennium's family. "It is no longer only a wise child who knows his own father—any child can, given access to tissue samples and a decent lab," Friedman writes. "And it is no longer the case that the woman from whose body an infant is born is necessarily its mother."

Here, as with his prescription for privacy, Friedman takes a familiar Orwellian scenario and stands it on its head. In the 20th century, eugenics suggested a host of repressive policies, from restrictions on which people were allowed to reproduce to the officially sanctioned murder of the "unfit." Now, amid exploding possibilities, Friedman urges what he calls "libertarian eugenics," a voluntary approach in which individuals rather than institutions are in control.

The earliest depiction of libertarian eugenics may have appeared in a science fiction novel, Robert Heinlein's 1942 tale Beyond This Horizon. In Heinlein's story, couples use genetic technology to control which potential children they can bring to life. With expert advice, they select among the wife's eggs and the husband's sperm, ordering up a mix that will produce the child they most desire—as Friedman puts it, "the one that does not carry the husband's gene for a bad heart or the wife's for poor circulation, but does carry the husband's good coordination and the wife's musical ability."

In Heinlein's fictional world, parents need to determine the genetic structure of egg and sperm before they are combined. That's currently impossible and probably will be for a generation or two. First we will pass through a stage that I've called the "editing-out" era, when we select against known genetic diseases. Few resist the idea that parents should be able to choose not to produce children with inheritable disorders such as Down syndrome. But many reject what's coming in the editing-in era, when parents can select positive aspects of their children's genetics. A crude version of this already happens when people choose egg and sperm donors.

Battles over biotech often begin with calls for a "moratorium" on research, presumably to gain time while we think through the ethics of biotechnology. Friedman is rightly skeptical of this approach. Scientists and engineers look for solutions, not a time-out. Usually, the more work you put into a problem, the better your chance of solving it.

In contrast, professional ethicists tend to seek out problems, not solutions, just as lawyers look for cases. Experience shows that if you put more ethicists on a problem, you can end up with more problems. Should breakthroughs wait while panels noodle through ethical mazes, often of their own devising? Many of the ill and afflicted can't afford the time.

Americans have a unique viewpoint on these issues, most holding that those powers not expressly given to government are reserved for the people. In this context, it is hard to argue that any government, state or federal, should have a say in how people choose to reproduce themselves. Friedman unambiguously sides with personal freedom, with the idea that adults should decide for themselves and their children whether to employ biotechnology to enhance life.

Given the American bias against government intervention in such intimate matters, lawmakers usually call for bans on tax-funded subsidies for certain types of research rather than bans on the research itself. As with stem cells, they do not try to stop privately funded research. This distinction promises a way through the moral thicket.

By applying a libertarian ethos, Friedman argues, Americans can free themselves from the endless debates other societies will have to confront. Let any risks be borne by those who seek the gains. Let people learn through trial and error which uses of biotech are desirable and which are not. Some people will decide to avoid technological advancements, as is their right.

If this optional approach produces a society that prospers and advances, others may choose to adopt the same principle. A fruitful competition will emerge between cultures, with individuals free to vote with their feet about where they wish to go for treatments, for technologies, or even to live.

Why are so many opposed to letting people make their own reproductive decisions? Friedman sees three major explanations. The first is the "yecch" factor. "That reaction," he says, "may slow the introduction of new reproductive technologies but is unlikely to prevent it."

Second is that "new technologies usually do not work very well at first," so caution tends to overrule freedom. But without those initial users, no progress happens. Concern about the perils of playing God has firmed the argument against human cloning today, but time will weaken this. Experiments in cloning other large mammals have produced immediate results in breeding better farm animals and race horses, and they teach us more about how to do cloning right.

Friedman's final explanation is that individual reproductive choices, when added up society-wide, are already producing some negative unintended consequences. In China the alignment of abortion and amniocentesis has led to a gender imbalance that some estimate now approaches 120 boys for every 100 girls. The government's limits on family size do play a major role there, but Friedman notes that "a similar but weaker effect has occurred in India even without a restriction on number of children; recent figures suggest about 107 boys for 100 girls." Gender imbalances can also be seen in U.S. hospitals serving Latino and Asian communities. Excess males may generate more violent societies and certainly will enhance women's status as they become a sought-after minority.

The physicist Freeman Dyson and the biologist Lee Silver have worried that we may eventually see societies with a "gene rich" class of wealthy people who will have a large competitive advantage over the "gene poor." Such a development could warp society. "Even without marriage," Friedman writes, "if rich men are believed to carry superior genes—as, after a generation or two of Lee Silver's hypothetical future, they would be—that is one more reason for less rich women to conceive by them, a pattern that, however offensive to egalitarian sensibilities, is historically common. Put in economic terms, sperm is a free good, hence provides a low-cost way of obtaining high-quality genes for one's offspring." Still, he says, we can count on "the traditional human mating pattern—monogamy tempered by adultery—to blur any sharp genetic lines between social or economic classes."

Biotechnology will disrupt not just traditional patterns of birth but traditional patterns of death. Reviewing the state of aging research, Friedman predicts this century will see solid progress on extending life spans. I agree, mostly because of the advances made possible by huge recent gains in understanding our genomics. So what happens if elders hang on for, say, 150 years?

"One way of understanding aging is as a shift from fluid to crystallized intelligence," Friedman writes. Solving new problems demands fluid thinking, whereas if you remember a solution you found last time and use that, you're deploying your crystallized intelligence. As we age, we use our solved problem base more and innovate less. If societies of much older people develop this pattern, scientific, cultural, and economic progress could slow considerably.

Possibly, though, we will have old people with the minds of the young. "We've never seen such a society, wise yet vigorous," Friedman writes. Given recent evidence that lab animals bred for long life are robust in old age, this scenario holds genuine promise. Then again, we might "discover that the mental characteristics of the old, short of actual senility, were a consequence not of biological breakdown but of computer overload, the response of a limited mind to too much accumulation of experience."

Either way, Friedman is willing to let individuals experiment and see what outcomes emerge. Europeans, unlike Americans, tend to think wiser heads (in government, usually) should set limits on biotechnology, preventing people from enhancing themselves in ways that might lead to trouble. Friedman favors individual liberty, believing that in the face of uncertainty this is the best way forward toward a better future.

Gregory Benford ( is a professor of physics at the University of California at Irvine and the author of many books, most recently Beyond Human: Living With Robots and Cyborgs (Tor), co-written with Elisabeth Malartre. He is also a founder of the Genescient corporation.