An old look at what's new

The Cutting Edge
November 3, 2000

There is an obvious problem attending any attempt to "explain cutting edge technologies" to the age we inhabit. The technologies and our human interaction with them just will not stand still. A dictionary of words or ideas grows outmoded far less rapidly than an inventory of devices and systems. E-commerce, cloning, computer viruses - to take three examples of technologies covered in The Cutting Edge - are phenomena that keep evolving; and one has to wonder whether the "encyclopedia" approach is versatile enough to convey the explosive potential of so many new or even not so new inventions.

But let us start with what is good. This is a readable and coherent compilation of many of modern science's greatest hits and - perhaps just as interestingly - of those once-catchy numbers that have slipped almost unnoticed out of the top 40 in these internet-obsessed times. The range of topics includes transport, pharmaceuticals and medicine, defence, energy, reproduction, consumer goods. And the individual chapters are all uniformly and helpfully arranged into technical explanation and editorial comment.

But, oh, how one longs for some oomph in all this. Yes it is good to be brought back to factual basics, but those who read about science these days can access - and have every right to expect - rich exciting prose, powerful imageries, a shared sense of wonder alongside the textbook accuracy. In its preface, The Cutting Edge proposes to offer explanations that "the high school, college and lay researcher can understand". But this same audience can, and quite possibly does, read Wired. Even with an essentially academic purpose in mind, this worthy effort does not seem to have noticed just how dynamic contemporary writing about modern technology has become elsewhere.

We can harden the point. Let us quote from the entry on "artificial intelligence", which addresses the question of UIMs (ultra-intelligent machines). We learn that "the achievement of... the development of UIMs seems as far off today as when research began in the 1950s". Or from another entry: "Biomass will probably supply a larger share of the energy consumed by the human population in the future." Or that "the drive towards e-commerce could turn traditional commerce upside down, potentially making retail stores obsolete and threatening many jobs".

Potentially devastating technological implications are thus caught in a woolly language full of "seems" and "probably" and "could". But the reader, perhaps seeking to measure in his or her own mind the true meaning of each so-called "cutting edge", has surely to be given some sense of the topography of change, a feeling for the important contours, a guiding notion of what crucial changes are coming down the track. Throwaway conclusions of this kind positively subtract from understanding.

The Cutting Edge is composed by a mix of American and British experts. And, as a kind of extended aide-memoire for the lay reader, it is a solid enough piece of work. Doubtless its editors would argue that the book meets a deliberately limited objective - reminding us of how modern technologies got to where they are today, how they work, what they bring.

But in truth this is a good effort trapped in a terribly old-fashioned editorial concept. And given that forecasting is expressly disavowed, it is easy for a book like this to become obsolete very quickly. There are no charts and no visual sense of technological achievement or take-up. The section on smart cards, for example, ends with this: "Currently, there are more than a billion smart cards in use." But what will happen next? How will the technology interact with human need? Is it likely/possible the technology will be supplanted by another? It is surely the future perspective that gives contextual meaning to each wave of technological innovation. This is precisely what is so starkly lacking here.

For those whose business it is to study the social or commercial implications of technological change, The Cutting Edge has a definite value as a set of lists and descriptions and references. It is indeed the kind of book many of us would naturally buy. But its obsolescence makes it something of a luxury. And it does not accommodate the expectations of other readers who, by now, are used to more spirited, forward-looking writing. To be properly academic does not mean you have to be so dry.

But it is the structure that is the big problem. Putting contemporary technologies into an encyclopedic format is like trying to hold a pile of blancmange. The matter is inherently unstable. It will not sit. Other editorial approaches that could give a sense of interactions, applications and futures would actually provide a better basis for definition. What, after all, is the internet these days? In ten years' time, its history will be different. The picture changes too quickly - this is the unique excitement of our age - for static definitions to be of real use beyond the first paragraph. Understanding advanced technologies, finding the facts that matter, really locating "the cutting edge" makes powerful demands on the imagination. This book just does not start down that extra mile. A pity.

James Murphy is director of Model Reasoning and commissioning editor of Vision .

The Cutting Edge: An Encyclopedia of Advanced technologies

Editor - William Allsetter and Tami Schuyler
ISBN - 0 19 512898 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 360

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