And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
The infant personifies the future. You place your children into history. You are their past.
Futurists like to study population growth and trends in demographics, which is to say, people having children. The infant is no mathematical abstraction, though; a baby is the future howling aloud. Tomorrow now, born naked.
The delivery room is a place of primal hope and fear. It's a dramatic arena of suffering and risk. Few things are as common as a human child born all right, but when the futurist's own child is the hostage to fortune, there are very few comforts found in statistics. What if the baby dies? What if the mother dies? What if the baby is born deformed, with decades of sorrow ahead? The clock ticks, a child comes into the world, and no amount of rational analysis will stop that process. People must live with the consequences--because people are the consequences.
I like to think that as a father-to-be I fully deserved my many anxieties. Childbirth was certainly the most profound encounter with the future I have ever had. But unlike millions of jittery fathers in the past, I had a benefit in my possession that lacked historical precedent. I had a pocket photo of my child, taken before she was born.
I had a sonogram. It was a printout from a medical scanner. Its sonar nozzle had slid all over my wife's distended midriff, greased with clean medical jelly. The doctor had to wiggle this device about a bit, and peer and head-scratch through its Delphic, futuristic blurring, but he did it in real time and right in front of us. The child's limbs were in order, the growth numbers looked right, and to judge by the sonar shadows of her little pelvis, she was a girl.
What comfort we took from that technological artifact. With a sonogram at hand, you can abandon half the book of baby names. You can spin new plans for the colors of the curtains and the bassinet. This sonogram was like prenatal radar, full of swimming promise. Primeval darkness had left the womb. Its silent inhabitant was no longer a "pregnancy." "It" became "her."
That is how I first glimpsed my daughter: through an instrument. But my daughter did not, in fact, begin as an infant, or even as a sonogram. She began, just like her dear mom and dad, just like you, as an anonymous entity the size of a pencil dot. Humanity's origin is in the realm of the microscopic. That is the true start of our story.
Human eggs are minuscule, but we moderns can see them. They're no longer metaphysical, they're not folk legend or fertility ritual. They have become the province of rapidly advancing biotechnology. Single cells can be measured and manipulated, extracted and preserved. What we can see, we can sort, shape, and sell. We penetrated the realm of the microscopic with ever-growing technical sophistication. In the twentieth century we came to realize, with growing excitement, that the general business of life on Earth all runs on the same hardware. It's all cells, and at the centers of cells, it's always DNA. The business of life is Life-on-Earth Incorporated and Unlimited, a wholly owned subsidiary of deoxyribonucleic acid.
Genetic engineering is the twenty-first century's own new baby. In the century's dawn, biotech is its star turn. Biotech is by no means tomorrow's only major technology. The twenty-first century has the whole technological family crammed under its roof, fork in hand at the trestle table, a vast clan of hungry transformations, many of them centuries old: printing, clocks, railroads, electric power, radio, television, air flight, nuclear fission, satellites, and computation; it has the works. It's an orgy of sibling rivalry. But genetic engineering is tomorrow's native-born contribution to that family. It's the newest, the riskiest, and if it survives and flourishes, it will become the most powerful. Biotech is a baby Hercules that wants to kick the slats out of the crib.
Babies don't stay babies. My first daughter, for instance, is for the moment a thriving teen. Her rocketing passage toward maturity is written all over her; every day sees her blatantly learning and growing. Biotech is the baby industry now, but when it's big, it will reshape reality. To describe a biotech world, a world with a mature genetic technology, requires a new language. A new vocabulary, a new set of assumptions, a new literacy.
A baby, once she gets going, does not stop. It's a very different world, the future, but we're never going to "get there." There's no place "there" for us to get. The future is a process, not a theme park. The future itself has a future. We, in this present moment, are part of the future's past. The future is not an alien world, it is this very world, with different people, at a different time. Yesterday, today, or tomorrow, the clock never stops ticking. Every new stage must grow on the mulch of the last.
Bearing that in mind, let me introduce you into a biotech world. Here you are, let us say, reading a book. Not this book (unless you're some kind of antiquarian) but a similar one. Are there books in your biotech world? Yes. Made of paper? Sort of. Is that ink? Not ink as ink was previously understood, no; but why would you bother to notice that?
Let me make a few impolite personal observations as you sit there reading. By twentieth-century standards, you don't look very clean. In fact, you look rather greasy, and you're somewhat odd-smelling. But you are impressively robust and glittery-eyed, and full of animal vitality. Even though you are a harmless reader of late-twenty-first-century pop-science books, praiseworthily engaged in the intellectual trends of your own decade, you don't look especially scholarly. On the contrary: basically, you look like an athlete or supermodel. You look that way not because you're all egotistically eager to stand out from the norm but because that is your norm. An athlete or a supermodel is what men and women are willing to pay to look like. In your epoch, flesh and the processes of its construction are very ductile. You have no tooth decay, no dandruff, no enlarged pores. Though you read too much, you have no glasses.
Your home is snug and elegant. Its walls, floors, and furnishings are made of warm, organic substances that resemble cork, bamboo, and redwood, although they aren't. The lawn outside your membrane window has eight or nine hundred species living in it. It is a biodiverse menagerie.
You're just a normal person in a biotech world. You are not some grand chrome-dome master of biotech--no single mind can ever master such a broad field. Biotech is not even your personal line of work; you just live there. Your lawn is aswarm with living things because of social pressure from your neighbors. A mowed lawn is a scandal; you wouldn't subject the neighborhood to such a sight any more than you'd shave your children's heads to eradicate lice. You don't go out there and garden it, either. The lawn tools know more about plants than you do. And they work by themselves. It's a city lawn, not a wilderness. It's autogardening. The "wild" animals living in it don't know they are under surveillance.
Out on the street are scarab-colored nonpolluting vehicles that run on hydrogen. Like most industrial objects, they rot on command and return to harmless compost. Then there's your plumbing, or, as people put it nowadays, your "waterworks." In a biotech world, water networks are a bigger deal than bit streams. You're not made out of digital bits--like all living things, you are made mostly of water. So that's where you sensibly place your high-tech investments.
You don't have a "shower stall." You have a standard, everyday body-imaging system that gives you complete interior and exterior health scans every morning as it washes you. Your toothbrush scans the contents of your mouth and catalogs its microorganisms. Your toilet is the most sophisticated network peripheral in the home. It provides you with vital metabolic information about your body--the substances that enter and leave it and the vital processes within it. Only fools are squeamish about this.
Your bathroom cabinet is full of unguents, greases, and perfumes. There are some pills in there, but most of them do not contain drugs. Instead, they contain living, domesticated organisms that make drugs while living inside you. Some of the "pills" are cameras, with tiny sensors and onboard processing. Nothing in your medicine cabinet is sterile, not even the bandages. Modern bandages contain living organisms that are good for wounds.
"Sterility" is what people do need when they don't know what's happening on a microbial level. In a biotech world, sterility is a confession of ignorance. It's a tactic of desperation.
In your kitchen, the mops have more processing power than twentieth-century national bureaucracies. Your kitchen is mostly a place of filters and membranes and films; it is certainly not a butcher shop or a place to process raw vegetable matter. You eat delicate and tasty knickknacks that differ radically from grotesque historical foodstuffs. You have no fridge, because nothing in your house ever rots without your permission.
Even though this is a genetically altered world, there are no weird-looking "mutants" or "monsters" in your house, neighborhood, or city. You don't have, for instance, a six-legged dog. The cop on the beat is not ten feet high, and she does not look like RoboCop; if she has a baton, it doubles as a swab. It's not that such things are impossible for you and yours. Of course they are possible, but they are also crude publicity stunts dating from the eye-goggling infancy of biotech. In a mature biotech world, such nine-day wonders are considered crass and corny. They make no common sense.
Back in the early days of harnessing DNA, people were always fussing about full-grown multicellular beings--genetically altered humans, plants, or animals. There was a lot of anxious talk about clones (genetic duplicates) or chimeras (creatures with fused cells, whose bodies are mosaics of different species). Genetically modified organisms contained snippets of alien DNA, such as the artist Eduardo Kac's rabbit "Alba." That arty little rabbit, infused with jellyfish genes, could glow bright green in public. Alba the rabbit made a well-nigh perfect art-world cause célèbre at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Alba really panicked the bourgeoisie and was a nice succès de scandale, a worthy credit to the social insight of the artist. But once you'd manufactured a glowing green rabbit and shown it off, why would you ever want or need more than one?
For you, a modern DNA-literate person, weird animals have very little to do with the actual, real-world genetic industry. Frankly, the flesh of full-grown plants and animals just gets in the way. They might be dramatic examples of the concept (the way humanoid robots were once dramatic versions of the concept of automation). But the "threat" of "automation" turned out to be mostly hokum, and there were never any humanoid robots clanking around in real life, working on assembly lines. The same objection goes for monster Frankenstein animals. Yes, they sound really cool and scary, but go ahead, make one. Where is the market?
Expressing DNA in the genomes of large organisms is slow and clumsy. Creating an animal means deputizing some large and reluctant multicellular bureaucracy to carry out your will. That is not where the action is. It doesn't take efficient, industrial advantage of the raw power of DNA as a means of production.
Livestock requires long, solemn months of growth and delivery, just like a human baby. That is not industry, that is traditional unskilled labor.
All the real DNA action is in single cells. A genuine genetic engineer cuts to the chase and ratchets right down to the molecular hardware of the famous double helix. This news is no great surprise to you, for you were taught all this in grade school. You were shown the proper instruments for the job. You got down to the microbial level where DNA does all its heavy lifting, and you stayed down there. You marinated yourself in that seething point of view. You got all cozy with it. You got used to it. And if you happen to work there--and most people of your epoch have at least some kind of brush with DNA, the way most people used to have a nodding acquaintance with computers, or cars--then you study it and record it, analyze it, sequence it, copy it, map it, tag it, recombine it, commercialize it, exploit it, buy and sell it every day. It's how you modern folk live.
You know that DNA is not just a big molecule. DNA is history. Like a baby book, DNA is a personal archive, full of profound revelations about your identity. You shed clouds of your personal DNA wherever you go, the material evidence of your life and your flesh. DNA carried ethnicity out of the old-fashioned world of folktales and flag-waving and into your world of factual, measurable relationships between chains of human code. So DNA isn't "a molecule"--DNA is us.
Your ancestors knew just two kingdoms of earthly life: plants and animals. You know more than seventy. Most of those kingdoms--vast realms of metabolic activity--belong exclusively to the single-celled. That's where the variety is, where DNA's skill set has been best developed. Microorganisms were busily manipulating DNA for three billion years before anything multicellular showed up on the scene. Most life is, and always has been, microbial. The variety of microbes is colossal, much wider than that of all multicellular animals. There are microorganisms living in boiling water and eating cyanide and sulfur. They're as different from humans, and from one another, as tigers are from cabbages.
As a DNA-literate person at ease with these facts of real life, you know that genetics is not a realm of boffin technicians in white lab coats. White lab coats are absurd to you, hopelessly old-fashioned. Lab coats were designed to show spills, so that they could remain sterile. For you that garb is like the armor of a medieval knight. If you spill anything remotely dangerous or bioactive on yourself, the doorway will tell you; the bathroom will tell you; a taxi, an air conditioner, a stove can tell you. A five-year-old child can tell you not just that you have an influenza virus but what kind you have and where it came from.
You're into germs. Oh sure, you've got a cat; people who read books like cats. Sometimes they even like cat books. But you'd never expect your cat to do any industrial heavy lifting. Besides, your cat doesn't live inside of you. In a biologically savvy world, inside of you is where it's at.
You're into germs because germs are into you. No man ever walks alone. Every human adult carries about two pounds of living bacteria, or about a hundred trillion nonhuman cells. This is entirely normal and good. It's something you understand about the real world that twentieth-century people did not see and could not perceive. They had this crude, desperate insight they called "sanitation," while you possess a genuine insight and a hands-on technical mastery of that situation. Unlike those blind primitives, you walk your seething Earth in an aware, fully engaged, progressive, civilized fashion. You swarm inside and out with microbes, and it's good for you. You recognize and celebrate this. People chat about their germs over coffee--it's like comparing perfumes. In your world, germs are the perfumes. Anyone who smells bad is an utter ignoramus.
Your mother gave you her mitochondria when she gave you life. Mitochondria are formerly free-living organisms that have been perking along in the cells of human flesh for several billion years. They seem genetically foreign, yet they are also a vital part of humanity. Without mitochondria, we have no energy. It follows that to be truly antiseptic is instantly fatal. To lose your mitochondria "infection" would mean to die horribly, reduced to a flaccid bag of jelly. For you, losing your favorite microbes in and on your skin, bowels, and organs would be a grave environmental setback, like losing topsoil and songbirds. As for your handy mitochondria, you're very interested in souping them up. They are your beloved little engines--and you want some heavy-duty ones.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Tomorrow Now by Bruce Sterling. Copyright © 2002 by Bruce Sterling. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.