/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Tue, Jan 9 2018
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  • Soonish: exciting technologies on the horizon, with excitement-preserving nuance

    Soonish: exciting technologies on the horizon, with excitement-preserving nuance

    Kelly and Zach Weinersmith's Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything is an exceptional science book: it concerns itself with ten(ish) coming technologies that hold enormous, potentially world-changing promise (and peril), and it delves into each of those subjects with admirable depth, including all the caveats and unknowns, and still keeps the excitement intact.

    The thing is that emerging technologies are messy. For example, CRISPR isn't really a "gene editing" tool (not in the way that, say, Potatoshop is an "image-editing" tool), and the things it'll let us do are weird and complicated and there's going to be some amazing twists and turns long before CRISPR is being used to do the kinds of things that are easy to describe to people who don't know much about genetics or molecular biology (like me, say).

    But at the same time, CRISPR isn't boring. It's unlikely to fizzle out into a giant nothingburger. Whatever happens to CRISPR, in twenty or thirty years, we'll probably look back and say things like "Holy moly, the world's sure changed since CRISPR came along!"

    There's a way of talking about science that goes "CRISPR IS AMAZING AND WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING TOMORROW!" and another one that goes, "Well, actually, you'll find that it's more complicated than that, ahem ahem," and is so concerned with the evils of "hype" that it turns everything it touches into a boring pile of caveats and footnotes that makes it seem like nothing much at all.

    Kelly Weinersmith is an environmental scientist and co-host of the Science...sort of podcast, and her husband, Zach Weinersmith, is the proprietor of the longrunning, beloved Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic, as well as the creator of such oddments as the single-use unlubricated monocle and the Trial of the Clone choose-your-own adventure.

    Together, they have a writing style that carves a third way that is neither breathless and sloppy nor dull and overly complicated. They cover a ton of ground: "Topics covered include cheap access to space, asteroid mining, fusion power, programmable matter (woah, yeah this is mind blowing), robotic construction, augmented reality, synthetic biology (I knew absolutely nothing in the section, I read it three times), precision medicine, bioprinting and brain-computer interfaces. Then there is a section of topics that were considered and rejected."

    In each chapter, the Weinersmiths deliver an enormous amount of detail, interviewing wide-ranging panels of experts (these technologies tend to cross lots of disciplines) and they're scrupulous about pointing out the limits of the technology and its application, but it's always a balance, and never a countersink, to the intrinsic excitement of these amazing tools and ideas that are emerging from labs today.

    It helps, of course, that they're both very funny and that the material is greatly enlivened by Zach Weinersmith's cartoons.

    The technologies the Weinersmiths give such excellent treatment to are nearly here. New applications for them show up in the news every day. Between the press-releases and the puritanical, nothing-to-see-here explainers is Soonish, an essential guide that refuses to be a killjoy or a cheerleader.

    Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything [Kelly and Zach Weinersmith/Penguin Press]

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