Since 2001, Gerry Elman has been a founding member of the World Technology Network (the “WTN”). Annually since then, the WTN has produced a summit conference and awards gala, the World Technology Summit and Awards, at venues ranging from London, to San Francisco, to New York City.
On December 1, the roundtable on IMAGINED WORLDS / PLAUSIBLE FUTURES: How Sci-Fi Legends Dream for Us, featured
- Paul Levinson, Author; Former President of Science Fiction Writers of America; and Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University
- Stanley Schmidt, Author; Editor of Analog Science Fiction & Fact magazine
- David Hartwell, Three-time Winner of the Hugo Award; Administrator of the Philip K. Dick Award
It was moderated by Dr. Moira Gunn, Host of Tech Nation and BioTech Nation on National Public Radio’s 24-hour program stream. [Click here to watch a short video clip from the event] [Click here for a video on FORA.tv of the full roundtable, payment required]
Said Gerry Elman,
“I am delighted that WTN founder Jim Clark acted on my suggestion to include such a roundtable in this year’s Summit, and that Elman Technology Law has been afforded the opportunity to sponsor this event. It is exciting to acknowledge that many of the technological advances we are living with were first envisioned by authors writing in the genre of science fiction. By reading science fiction, we stretch our minds towards a vision of the future that we, as technologists, then help to engender.”
Indeed, at a previous World Technology Summit, science fiction legend Sir Arthur C. Clarke was interviewed via a satellite link from his home in Sri Lanka, fitting–in that he had first proposed satellite communications in 1945.
Gerry asserts that an unsung prophet of biotechnology is Damon Knight, who in 1953 wrote a story called Natural State in which rural agricultural biotechnologists (the “muckfeet”) are at war against city folk whose lives are based on electromechanical technology. In the story, the muckfeet communicate via genetically engineered vines with a nervous system that provides telephony, and transport themselves via genetically engineered big birds. They win the war with the urbanites by splicing genes into a microbe to get it to gobble up copper, thereby destroying the technological infrastructure by which the city people communicate.
Gerry notes that, at the same time that James Watson and Francis Crick were sussing out the double-helix structure of DNA, Damon Knight conceived for that story the concept of splicing genes to create a biological chimera. Later, Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer were to develop a tool to realize that dream, the technique of recombinant DNA, that was patented due to the watchful eye of patent attorney Bertram Rowland (whose recent passing we sadly note), working with Niels Reimers of the Stanford University technology transfer office. Gerry observes wryly that Damon Knight’s story was not among the “prior art” cited during the prosecution of the Cohen-Boyer patents.
Damon Knight went on to found an organization of authors then called Science Fiction Writers of America (“SWFA”) and now known as Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. More recently, Roundtable panelist Paul Levinson served as president of SWFA. Coincidentally many scenes of Levinson’s sci-fi novels are set in midtown Manhattan, close to the venue of the Summit conference.
Gerry observes that the war between biotechnologists and information technologists envisioned by Damon Knight in Natural State has an eerily familiar echo in the present debate over “patent reform.” Many major information technology companies have been lobbying Congress to defang U.S. patent law, while most biotechnology companies are striving to resist such a statutory change. For further information on this, subscribe to Elman’s Patent Reform News by sending Gerry an email addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit the website of American Innovators for Patent Reform.
As to the vulnerability of our technological infrastructure highlighted by Knight’s story, Gerry urges us also to heed the cautionary message in Richard Clarke’s recent book Cyber War.