In order to understand the technological significance of an invention, it is sometimes better to go back into the past, rather than trying to project into the future. Science fiction is horrible at looking what will happen in the future, with our limited imagination and limited understanding of the present, we are just no good at seeing around the conceptual corners occurring along the path of a new technology. One thing that we are fairly good in seeing, however, is the past histories of well established technologies.
It is familiar ground, and when we look back on it, especially from a new perspective of detachment which can occur when we are beginning to displace that old technology, we can note how different the new is from the old.
Let’s say a new style of paperclip is developed. In order to understand its technological significance, one should understand the difference it presents in functionality or economic productivity, One can ask why paperclips exist at all and how their introduction changed things. In order to understand their significance, for that matter, in order to understand the significance of any invention, it is important to understand what difference it makes. We understand things by comparison and contrast. However, we have an inherent difficulty in conceptualizing the changes when a new technology is introduced. We are in the middle of things, and cannot see clear of them. Going back in time allows us to get clear and see the differences in a before and after situation.
With an established technology, it is hard to understand how much it makes up our way of living. As the fish said, “what’s this ‘wet’ that I keep hearing about?” With a new kind of technology, we are caught up in the novelty and both overestimate it and under estimate it. When the child in us has a brand new hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.
How significant will cold fusion be? Well, we have never had anything like it before. It has the potential to fill the broken promises of nuclear energy, the dealbreaker for fission being the toxic fuel and especially the waste. Cold fusion also promises to be compact, for those of us who feel that there is too much centralization (and control) in our society, the possible plentitude of cold fusion plants hints at a plurality, a diversity of people managing the energy resources, not so much a centralized authority. With a diversity it would longer be ‘one size (mis)fits all.’
Solar offers that kind of diversity of sources, and so does wind and combustion, which after all is just solar turned into managable forms. The whole energy history history of the world, except for nuclear, geothermal, and to some degree, tidal, has been solar in one fashion or another. How far back do you have to go in order to not be relying on solar? (besides the deadend of fission) I think I would look to the undersea vents where life began in the first place.
Most inventions are incremental improvements on other inventions. Cold fusion, on the other hand, when/if it gets going, will not only be quite a jump technologically, but also socially. I include ‘if’ there because the flower is just starting to open, it hasn’t gone into full bloom yet. Or in other words, while we can be quite positive about the potential, we shouldn’t count our chickens just yet.