Can we survive technology? (Fortune, 1955)

January 13, 2013, 6:40 PM UTC

Editor’s note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. This week, to mark our Future Issue, we turn to a feature from June 1955 by John von Neumann tackling the profound questions wrought by radical technical advancement—in von Neumann’s day the atomic bomb and climate change. von Neumann was one of the twentieth century’s greatest and most influential geniuses. The polymath and patron saint of Game Theory was instrumental in developing America’s nuclear superiority toward the end of World War II as well as in framing the decades-long Cold War with the Soviet Union. In his time, von Neumann was said to possess “the world’s greatest mind.” Here is his characteristically pessimistic look on what the future holds.

By John von Neumann

Budapest-born John von Neumann, like many fellow scientists of the atomic age, harbors a streak of the blues but his delicate shade may be called constructive pessimism. It does not hamper creativity. One von Neumann creation, the mathematical and numerical integrator and calculator (often called MANIAC), played a key role in building the H-bomb, and has also produced new meteorological understanding that may aid climate control. Dr. von Neumann is also celebrated for his pathbreaking study of strategy in poker, business, and war (Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, written with Oskar Morgenstern and discussed in Fortune, June, 1949). Dr. von Neumann joined the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1933, four years before he was naturalized, and took leave after President Eisenhower appointed him to the AEC. Born in 1903, he studied engineering and mathematics in Europe. Since 1940 he has been a consultant to the U.S. armed forces, and for contributions to Los Alamos and similar projects he has won two major U.S. decorations.

“The great globe itself” is in a rapidly maturing crisis—a crisis attributable to the fact that the environment in which technological progress must occur has become both undersized and underorganized. To define the crisis with any accuracy, and to explore possibilities of dealing with it, we must not only look at relevant facts, but also engage in some speculation. The process will illuminate some potential technological developments of the next quarter-century.

In the first half of this century the accelerating industrial revolution encountered an absolute limitation–not on technological progress as such but on an essential safety factor. This safety factor, which had permitted the industrial revolution to roll on from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth century, was essentially a matter of geographical and political Lebensraum: an ever broader geographical scope for technological activities, combined with an ever broader political integration of the world. Within this expanding framework it was possible to accommodate the major tensions created by technological progress.

Now this safety mechanism is being sharply inhibited; literally and figuratively, we are running out of room. At long last, we begin to feel the effects of the finite, actual size of the earth in a critical way.

Thus the crisis does not arise from accidental events or human errors. It is inherent in technology’s relation to geography on the one hand and to political organization on the other. The crisis was developing visibly in the 1940’s, and some phases can be traced back to 1914. In the years between now and 1980 the crisis will probably develop far beyond all earlier patterns. When or how it will end-or to what state of affairs it will yield-nobody can say.

Dangers—present and coming

In all its stages the industrial revolution consisted of making available more and cheaper energy, more and easier controls of human actions and reactions, and more and faster communications. Each development increased the effectiveness of the other two. All three factors increased the speed of performing large-scale operations–industrial, mercantile, political, and migratory. But throughout the development, increased speed did not so much shorten time requirements of processes as extend the areas of the earth affected by them. The reason is clear. Since most time scales are fixed by human reaction times, habits, and other physiological and psychological factors, the effect of the increased speed of technological processes was to enlarge the size of units–political, organizational, economic, and cultural—affected by technological operations. That is, instead of performing the same operations as before in less time, now larger-scale operations were performed in the same time. This important evolution has a natural limit, that of the earth’s actual size. The limit is now being reached, or at least closely approached.

Indications of this appeared early and with dramatic force in the military sphere. By 1940 even the larger countries of continental Western Europe were inadequate as military units. Only Russia could sustain a major military reverse without collapsing. Since 1945, improved aeronautics and communications alone might have sufficed to make any geographical unit, including Russia, inadequate in a future war. The advent of nuclear weapons merely climaxes the development. Now the effectiveness of offensive weapons is such as to stultify all plausible defensive time scales. As early as World War I, it was observed that the admiral commanding the battle fleet could “lose the British Empire in one afternoon.” Yet navies of that epoch were relatively stable entities, tolerably safe against technological surprises. Today there is every reason to fear that even minor inventions and feints in the field of nuclear weapons can be decisive in less time than would be required to devise specific countermeasures. Soon existing nations will be as unstable in war as a nation the size of Manhattan Island would have been in a contest fought with the weapons of 1900.

Such military instability has already found its political expression. Two superpowers, the U.S. and U.S.S.R., represent such enormous destructive potentials as to afford little chance of a purely passive equilibrium. Other countries, including possible “neutrals,” are militarily defenseless in the ordinary sense. At best they will acquire destructive capabilities of their own, as Britain is now doing. Consequently, the “concert of powers”–or its equivalent international organization–rests on a basis much more fragile than ever before. The situation is further embroiled by the newly achieved political effectiveness of non-European nationalisms.

These factors would “normally”–that is, in any recent century–have led to war. Will they lead to war before 1980? Or soon thereafter? It would be presumptuous to try to answer such a question firmly. In any case, the present and the near future are both dangerous. While the immediate problem is to cope with the actual danger, it is also essential to envisage how the problem is going to evolve in the 1955-80 period, even assuming that all will go reasonably well for the moment. This does not mean belittling immediate problems of weaponry, of U.S.-U.S.S.R. tensions, of the evolution and revolutions of Asia. These first things must come first. But we must be ready for the follow-up, lest possible immediate successes prove futile. We must think beyond the present forms of problems to those of later decades.

When reactors grow up

Technological evolution is still accelerating. Technologies are always constructive and beneficial, directly or indirectly. Yet their consequences tend to increase instability–a point that will get closer attention after we have had a look at certain aspects of continuing technological evolution.

First of all, there is a rapidly expanding supply of energy. It is generally agreed that even conventional, chemical fuel–coal or oil–will be available in increased quantity in the next two decades. Increasing demand tends to keep fuel prices high, yet improvements in methods of generation seem to bring the price of power down. There is little doubt that the most significant event affecting energy is the advent of nuclear power. Its only available controlled source today is the nuclear-fission reactor. Reactor techniques appear to be approaching a condition in which they will be competitive with conventional (chemical) power sources within the U.S.; however, because of generally higher fuel prices abroad, they could already be more than competitive in many important foreign areas. Yet reactor technology is but a decade and a half old, during most of which period effort has been directed primarily not toward power but toward plutonium production. Given a decade of really large-scale industrial effort, the economic characteristics of reactors will undoubtedly surpass those of the present by far.

Moreover, it is not a law of nature that all controlled release of nuclear energy should be tied to fission reactions as it has been thus far. It is true that nuclear energy appears to be the primary source of practically all energy now visible in nature. Furthermore, it is not surprising that the first break into the intranuclear domain occurred at the unstable “high end” of the system of nuclei (that is, by fission). Yet fission is not nature’s normal way of releasing nuclear energy. In the long run, systematic industrial exploitation of nuclear energy may shift reliance onto other and still more abundant modes. Again, reactors have been bound thus far to the traditional heat-steam-generator-electricity cycle, just as automobiles were at first constructed to look like buggies. It is likely that we shall gradually develop procedures more naturally and effectively adjust

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