one of the more boring and irritating relics of the cold war
. The appallingly omnipresent notion that humanity, either a single individual, a whole nation, or even the entire race, is going to one day discover some power so profound, so uncontrollable
that we'll have no choice but to watch the world end over night. Despite some very flawed reasoning
in its premise, it has proven itself resilient against changes in society and technology, commonly regurgitate
d in the movies and literature of today.
Even in Victorian fiction (see Shelley's Frankenstein) there are overtones of this idea are present, though without the notion of advancements that are dangerous for the entirety of humanity. As far as I can tell, the meme blossomed in full form from post WWII Science Fiction, intended to be a lesson or warning about the problems inherent to the nuclear age. It resonated well with English-speaking society, fueling many of the horror movies of the fifties and early sixties, and helping popularize Speculative Fiction in a present day timeframe in the seventies. Today it pervades not only SF, but War Fiction, Thriller, Historical Fiction, and every other speculative genre. Even though the "nuclear age" is such a quaint notion that we can safely put it in quotes, the myths it has inspired are considered by many to be as relevant as ever.
Here's why they are not:
We've handled "end of the world" technology fine so far. Look around. Do you see a leveled city under the accumulated grey snow of a ten-year nuclear winter? Do you see the pustules on your arm from the day's course of anti-radiation sickness injections? No, you do not. For the past fifty years, at least two (recently quite a few more) wildly differing cultural traditions have had the ability to do this to the world at a button-press, in a heartbeat. For all that time, they have avoided it, mostly without any scary on-the-brink interaction. As a species we've proven our ability to possess great destructive knowledge without using it for our own destruction, and there's no reason as-of-yet undiscovered knowledge would change that.
Larger technology requires larger bureaucracy. A project large enough to create "end of the world" technology will necessarily (due to its expense, secrecy, and depth) be sponsored by and cushioned within a huge, slow bureaucracy. And while mobs and individuals can be impulsive or insane, a bureaucracy of thousands of people and thousands of regulations by its very nature cannot. Hence, the very large bureaucracy will provide a framework in which the very destructive ability cannot be used.
Popular Luddite sentiment is an intellectual dead end. The sciences (and, I should mention, individual scientists) thrive on advancement, on new discoveries in the field and new applications of what is already known. Popular culture, such as that propagated in motion pictures and novels, is almost always utterly ignored; even if one culture forces its views on science, the same research will eventually be done elsewhere. Like it or not, none of these dire-yet-utterly-fictional warnings are going to have any impact whatsoever on technological advancement. Besides, it's difficult not to notice that the knowledge -- of how to chip a knife, or build a gun, or chain-react plutonium -- is not a plausible basis of assessing guilt, whereas the intent of its possessor is.
Writers and thinkers of the world, I call on you
to set down those two-by-fours and give this dead horse
the rest it deserves.