How rough a guide is this going to be?

The Rough Guide to The Future is published on Nov 1. If you’d like some idea what ended up inside, here’s the preface, in which I do my best to explain…

(comments welcome, but too late to change anything now!)

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see, Saw the vision of the world and all the wonder that would be. Alfred Tennyson, “Locksley Hall” (1842)

Of course this examination of the future is a Rough Guide. What else could it be? But even if you reckon that the future is unknowable – and I’m bound to agree – we humans spend an awful lot of time and energy thinking and talking about it.

Lately, those efforts have expanded in lots of ways. As well as the usual motley band of seers, prophets and pundits, astrologers and readers of runes, we have scenario-writers in think-tanks, horizon scan- ners in corporate planning units, foresight teams in government departments, all armed with more or less helpful methods for trying to see how where we are now influences where we can go next.

There are also more complexities and confusions in our thinking about the future now than there were in the past. On the one hand, the future has expanded – to an almost unimaginable extent for cosmologists looking into the fate of the whole universe. But even for the earthbound, our contemplation of the future over decades, centuries and millenia takes place against the background of a planet that will be around for many millions of years yet – even if we are not. And our smaller, personal futures (if we’re lucky)stretch further too. Living to be a hundred may soon be the norm, not the exception, in the developed world. In other words, if you’re in your teens, there’s a real chance you’ll get to see the twenty-second century.

On the other hand, the future seems more constrained.This is partly because more of us know more about the state of the world as it is now, and what we know gives us a sharper sense of the big problems, such as food supply, energy, climate change, environmental stress and species loss. Add in already established anxieties like nuclear war and pandemics, and – while we’re not quite sure what form they’ll take – there is a widespread sense that the rest of the century will feature some pretty bad things.

At the same time, there are some apparently well- informed people who think that we’ll not only survive these perils, but come out the other side ready to embrace our destiny as some kind of superhumans – through genetic enhancement, brain- boosting drugs or perhaps linking our “wetware” brains with ultra-intelligent computers. Then again, there are others for whom this is exactly the kind of future they fear.

If you look around the ever-expanding media- sphere (itself a fast-changing landscape that invites speculation about the future), you’ll encounter an uneasy mix of attitudes – ones we all probably share at various times. We view the future fearfully, and are often in denial. We are a bit cynical, or at least dis- believing about people who say they know what to expect – not least because of the many past “forecasts” which have disappointed. We also seem nostalgic for futures past. We’re still hoping for the jet pack and the flying car, the domed cities and undersea hotels. All pretty silly ideas, but we still want them! Finally, even if we maintain that there is nothing truly useful that can be said about the future, we still think about it, in some way, almost every day.

How many futures?

The Rough Guide to the Future looks at all of this – the history of ideas about the future, different ways of thinking about it, current attitudes to it and, of course, what the future might hold for six and a half billion human beings (and counting) over the coming decades.

One reason why a guide to the future has to be rough is the scope of the subject.The future pervades our lives. Every tool and device, every design, every advertisement, every contract, treaty or statute, every racing tip and investment analysis, and every mar- riage ceremony embodies, in its own way, a story about possible futures. On top of these everyday encounters with the future, we’re aware that more and more of the decisions we make – from protecting an endangered species to building a power station – have consequences that reach further and further down the timeline. So any single volume treatment of “the future” will inevitably omit many things that will be part of someone’s future.

Our interest in the future is part of human beings’ habit of putting themselves into a narrative – if possible, one that encloses an individual life in a larger story. So a book which is looking forward ought to see how far into the distant future we can make the story go. But the vast majority of thinking about the future relates to the medium term, and that is where there’s the most material to choose from. From that area, I have selected topics because a) they’re the issues most people are concerned about, b) they’ll have the most important effects (often, but not always, the same thing) and c) there is more to build on from knowledge of the past and the present. That means there’s a bias in the book towards basic needs like energy and food, rather than the more complex features of cultures and ideas, and the approach is global rather than focusing on the details of life in any particular place.

The plan

Whatever their attitude to the medium-term future, most people seem convinced that it’ll be eventful. So a survey of what we might imagine happening in the rest of this century, or what people have said will happen, takes up much of the book. Before that, the first four chapters examine where the future came from, in the uniquely human perception of time – and mortality – and the changing idea of the future in history. There’s also a review of some of the ways people have tried to make their thinking about the future a little more disciplined, if not necessarily more certain.

Chapters 5 and 6 address two topics that seem essential to underpin any discussion of our current prospects: science (including technology) and population. This is both because they’re important, but also because we know something about how where we are now affects where we will be in the next few decades. These are followed by chapters on the global basics – energy and climate, water, food, biodiversity, health, war and potential disasters. Though nothing is certain, there are trends that point fairly clearly in particular directions. These chapters are more or less self-contained, but their topics are interconnected in many ways.

The book then moves into the still more uncertain waters of life and culture, including a brief foray into politics, society and values. It takes a more detailed look at the possibility that technology will move mankind to a place where all that has gone before is irrelevant, as human (or perhaps post-human or “transhuman”) history enters a new era. Excitingly, there are people who believe that this will happen before the end of the century. I consider how seri- ously we can take such a view, and how the arguments supporting it square with the multiple crises that seem likely to crop up in relation to energy, water and food before such an era might exist.

Finally, the book takes a tour of the far future which, apparently paradoxically, is a less uncertain realm than the rest of this century. Only apparently paradoxically because it can only really be discussed in very general terms, informed by the sciences of geology, physics and cosmology, which aren’t too concerned with small details like the emergence – or disappearance – of human life on Earth.

A decent guidebook should steer you round the main territory, but also offer further exploration if you want it. I’ve done this by mentioning important reports, books, people and organizations in the text where relevant, giving just enough detail so you can find them easily yourself on the Internet. I’ve also ended each chapter with a small number of recom- mended books and websites for further reading on the main topics.

Facts and opinions, hopes and fears

How can this be a book of fact, when there are no facts about the future? Well, there are facts here, of several kinds: facts about the past and the present, and facts, in the journalistic sense of accurately reporting what other people have said on the subject. Much of this is, of course, opinion, speculation or simple assertion. On the whole I’ve favoured other people’s (often expert) opinions over mine, but some of my own views are also present. These belong to the elusive class of, as it were, temporary facts. That is, I meant what I said when writing them, but whether I still agree with all my ideas now is another matter. The future, after all, is a moving boundary.

To help do justice to other people’s opinions, the book also features a range of disparate current views about possible futures from fifty thoughtful futurologists, scientists and other experts. Many of those experts have offered complex overviews of their specialist topics, or of the whole picture, but I tried to get a fix on their opinions by asking them all just three simple questions.

What is your highest hope for what will happen?

What is your worst fear?

What is your best bet for what will actually occur?

In each case, they chose the topic of most interest or concern to them, considered what direction it might go in over the next fifty years, and came up with a brief reply. Their answers are spread throughout the eighteen chapters of this book.

As you will see, they tend to confirm that our collective view of the future, as we move further into the twenty-first century, is rather mixed. I tend to agree. And to give you a better idea of the overall opinions that shape this guide’s selection of future signposts, here are my own answers to those three questions:

Highest hope: that we navigate through the eye of the needle of the middle decades of the century well enough to allow the bottom billion a real chance of a humane life.

Worst fear: the environmental calamity so many informed scientists predict gathers pace faster than our efforts to forestall it.

Best bet: crises, muddling through and continuing vast inequalities are the order of the day. In spite of that, it remains, technologically and culturally, the most fascinating of times to be alive.

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2 Comments on “How rough a guide is this going to be?”

  1. jonturney Says:

    BTW, if anyone would like a copy of the book for review, let me know and I’ll pass details to the PR people at Rough Guides. Press copies should go out in a couple of weeks.

  2. […] of “fifty of the world’s leading futurologists and scientists” (blush!)  Here’s Jon’s introduction to it, and here’s my […]

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