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The end of the world as we know it - -- - AGAIN? 2000-03-14 by Tom Wolfe

We survived Y2K, but advancing technology might just end the world anyway.

That's the opinion of a man named Joy, detailed in a 20,000-word Wired magazine essay that hits the newsstands this week.

Bill Joy isn't just another doomsday screwball. (Although he does have an uncomfortable respect for the anti-technology manifesto of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, a fellow Berkeley alumnus.) Joy is the co-founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, the leading Web technology manufacturer.

He is a credible, enormously successful technologist, and his essay was treated thoughtfully in recent articles published by the Washington Post and New York Times.

As a social commentator, however, it should be noted that Joy now lives in Aspen, Colo., a town that considers Goldie Hawn, Hunter S. Thompson and Barbi Benton ``just folks.''

The science of his essay is undoubtedly sound, but some of the Berkeley-meets-Hollywood predictions might better fit a great screenplay. Oliver Stone and Arnold Swarzen-egger come through Aspen now and then. Maybe they could help bring the more provocative aspects of Joy's vision to the big screen.

Remember Hal, the out-of-control computer from the movie ``2001: A Space Odyssey''? Some of Joy's ideas are even bigger and creepier.

``The 21st century technologies -- genetics, nanotechnology and robotics -- are so powerful they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses,'' he writes.

Joy supposes that genetics research might lead to a ``white plague,'' a human-designed disease that could target particular populations. He worries that nanotechnology could produce microscopic self-replicating mechanisms that could cause global calamity.

And the confluence of such catastrophes could cause ``something like extinction'' of humans within the next two generations.

For context, the Washington Post quoted an Internet colleague who found Joy level-headed, ``the adult in the room.''

But the New York Times found someone more circumspect. Asked to comment on the sad tidings of Joy, Nathan Myhrvold, the great mind behind much of Microsoft's technology research, had this to say: ``People have made apocalyptic predictions about technology constantly for as long as there has been technology. I think it is because change frightens them. What is more, the most common form these dire predictions take is `this next generation' of stuff. Wow! That is really different and really scary.''

Change is especially unsettling when you're on top. Having it all means there is so much more to lose. The better things get, the more there is to worry about.

Is that what all the recent hand-wringing in our own area is about? Is that why Y2K and WTO and the Microsoft anti-trust suit and the SPEEA strike are all considered with such grave foreboding?

It's hard to imagine. Here we are, enjoying the longest period of continuous economic expansion in American history. The Cold War is over. Unemployment is low. Philanthropy is high. Inflation is practically dead, and spring is just a week away.

Time to lighten up. Even you, Mr. Joy.

Tom Wolfe is editor of the South County Journal

-- Martin Thompson (, March 20, 2000

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