Step #1: Achieve All Goals

Step #2: renew gym membership.

Okay, this is not the stuff I was thinking about, but as I was strolling through the Internet I couldn’t help but notice that it’s once again turning into a wonderful Engineer’s Springtime, with all the pretty blockheaded flowers all in bloom, and so naturally I had to take a moment to stop and smell their delicately practical bouquet. Therefore, from Bloggity-Blog-Blog-Blog, this link to Wired’s report on the world’s most ridiculous shopping list, reproduced here for your convenience:

The Grand Engineering Challenges of the 21st Century

Make solar energy affordable.

Provide energy from fusion.

Develop carbon sequestration methods.

Manage the nitrogen cycle.

Provide access to clean water.

Restore and improve urban infrastructure.

Advance health informatics.

Engineer better medicines.

Reverse-engineer the brain.

Prevent nuclear terror.

Secure cyberspace.

Enhance virtual reality.

Advance personalized learning.

Engineer the tools for scientific discovery.

Yes, it’s a simple matter of restoring, advancing, providing, improving, enhancing, preventing, securing, developing, managing, and (above all) engineering. What could be simpler? I particularly like the bit about reverse-engineering the brain. Yes, we should get right on that. I really think that would be a good idea.

Oh, no, wait: I think I like preventing nuclear terror better. For Christ’s sake, I mean c’mon! Prevent it, already, you lazy bastards!

Sheesh. Buncha knuckleheads. And while you’re at it, engineer some better medicines. Don’t care what they are, just so long as they’re, y’know, better. So hop to it!

Also, how many times have I told you to secure that cyberspace?

This one actually kills me. What does it mean? Why would it be a good thing? I have no idea. Oh, and also “cyberspace” is kind of, what’s the word, not even real. Cyberspace? What’s that? Is that where my mother goes when I show her a picture of something on the computer screen? Absurd. Sexy, of course: but absurd. This is not Neuromancer. There is no “cyberspace”.

But maybe, if we could only enhance that virtual reality stuff, there would be. Honest to God, I laughed out loud at this one. What a priority, it’s amazing! “Enhance virtual reality”. Gosh. I mean, it’s already so great, though, isn’t it? Hard to see how it could be better…

These just start to sound like a bunch of dogs barking, after a while. “Provide energy from fusion!” Actually I think providing the energy from fusion would be the easiest part of the whole trick, don’t you? But oh well, never mind…

Set the controls for the heart of the sun!

Immanentize the eschaton!

Of course, I’m not saying it’s all just bunk. Honestly, I’m not. Not all of these things are crazy the same way, and some of them aren’t even that crazy. Yes, a lot of them just boil down to “Stabilize the improvement vectors!” “Bring the accomplitrons to full power!” “FIRE!” which is to say they’re just a kind of Orwellian Treknobabble…which, okay, is none too good, but it’s so cute! that I can’t stay mad at it for long. “Engineer the tools for scientific discovery!” Woof woof woof. Who’s a good boy?

Reconfigure the stick-throwing matrix!

No, it isn’t the Treknobabble part that’s the problem. The Orwellian part, though…I mean some of these conceal some fairly nasty assumptions about how to recognize “progress” when you see it, eh? Or worse, they conceal no such assumptions, and are therefore twice as nasty. “Advance personalized learning” kind of fills me with a little bit of horror when I consider all the things it could be twisted around to mean…”provide access to clean water” is another one that bugs me, because it does not actually say make sure people have water but only suggests that providing “access” to it…sorry, “providing” “access” to it…would be a good thing to do. And maybe it would, I don’t know. I’m just not sure what’s being said, there. And so I think…

It might not grow up to be so nice, once it’s taken out of its little theoretical bassinet.

But maybe that’s just my slithery brain at work again. I mean, surely “restore and improve infrastructure”, surely there can’t be anything wrong with that? Hmm, but I’m not so sure, actually…not so sure a real engineer mightn’t have some objection to the incredible vagueness of that directive. But you know, what really bothers me is this: what if there are no engineers left, who would object to it? That would be a pretty darn bad omen, if you ask me. “Fix our society, Engineers!” “Nothin’ to it, Boss!” Yikes. So what do you do first, do you round up all the urban geographers, or…?

Many of these things start showing their scary sides as soon as words like “improve” or “develop” get glued onto ’em, in fact. It isn’t just preventing nuclear terror or securing cyberspace…although, you know: yikes…but even very good-sounding things like advancing health informatics, these too can quickly assume dark aspects. What does it mean to “advance” them? Why are they called health informatics instead of bio-informatics? What are the word-choice implications here?

And if that’s bad, what about the staggering implicational freight that “reverse-engineer the brain” is carrying?

It isn’t that they can do it, you understand. In point of fact, they can’t: this is just word-jazz, it doesn’t mean anything. Create alternatives to circumstantial effects! See, there’s nothing there. But that this is the lingo being used, yeah, that’s a bit chilling to consider. Orwell famously remarked that the word “fascism” seemed to have come to mean, simply, “something bad”…

What, then, would he have made of “reverse-engineer the brain”?

Well, I won’t go on and on about it. You can see it for yourself. “Make solar energy affordable”, uhhh…

You mean it isn’t affordable?

Of course it’s better than affordable: it’s free.

So what’re they talking about?

Answer: they’re talking about something else.


Okay, this has been pleasant, but I have to move along and get back to thinking, now. Now more than ever, now that I know so many people aren’t…

Enjoy the sunshine, Internet!


10 responses to “Step #1: Achieve All Goals

  1. At least they were able to cross “obscure the specificity of human need” off of the list. It’s a good thing, too; once you’ve decided to ignore the specific needs whence innovation proceeds, you no longer have the problem of measuring your dynamic new ideas against them.

  2. Yeah, to both…and Dan, I’m kicking myself for not thinking of “Obscure the specificity of human need”. So, I know this particular travesty wasn’t Wired’s direct fault, but…oh Lord, I’d just like to tape some “digerati” mouths shut for a while, you know? Not all of them, necessarily. But some.

    More to say after coffee, probably. But here’s one that really gets me: “prevent nuclear terror”. Because the thing is, these fools can’t even get that obfuscation right, even though it’s everywhere these days. What, I ask you guys, is truly meant by “nuclear terror”? This terror word has gotten out of its cage, perhaps, I think…they are maybe referring to “the terrorists”? A little bit of Bushian political jargon, there? But no, it seems more like that kind of “terror” has become a noun with a different, more poetical, more undisclosed meaning — like Jung’s “God”, it’s become in these guys’ hands a word, that points to a word, that points to an ineffability. It’s isn’t “prevent acts of terrorism”, nor is it “prevent nuclear war”…it isn’t “track decaying Cold War military material”, nor yet is it “resurrect SDI”…Orwell would be all over this usage like white on rice, I believe. What can it mean? More importantly, what part of it constitutes an engineering problem?!?

    Yeesh. Somebody get these eminent men a brochure from their local community college. I mean, what good is Eminence if it can’t get a passing grade in Anth 100?

  3. “What good is Eminence if it can’t get a passing grade in Anth 100?” is the title of the best short story Philip K Dick never wrote.

  4. I like to imagine our old pal Phil being turned loose on Amazing Spider-Man for a five-year stretch or so.

    We would’ve seen some new villains, anyway.

    “Spider-Man…At The Mercy Of The Sino-African Consensuo-Bugs!”

    “Ugh! Their secretions! All around me! Dissolving my costume…or CHANGING it???”

    The Bugle had just become a giant oak tree, you understand, and he was racing to save Betty.

    Man, I can’t imagine a better successor to the Lee/Ditko team than Dick/Romita, can you?

  5. – “Spider-Man…At The Mercy Of The Sino-African Consensuo-Bugs!”

    – “Ugh! Their secretions! All around me! Dissolving my costume…or – CHANGING it???”

    Actually, I think Straczynski may have written that one already.

    How about Phil and Jim Starlin? His loopy Adam-Warlock-dissolves-into-the-Cosmic-cube art always made me feel like I’d dropped some tabs. Or Humberto Ramos with his less-than-sane body proportions?

    Or maybe Rob Liefeld? Nah.

  6. You may note, Clone, that I’ve decided to make a whole new post out of just this insane idea. And I’ve blamed you for it.

    Meet you over there?

  7. I always thought it was just perfect of George Lucas to have Anakin say “life seems so much simpler when you’re fixing things”. Ladies and gentlemen, I present the man for the Grand Engineering Challenges of the 21st Century (or any century), Lord Vader!

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