Archive for the ‘new books’ category

Pessimism, pessimism everywhere, I tell you!

January 6, 2011

Sometimes, you just have to rise to an author’s bait. I’m just pondering a couple of books espousing optimism: Mark Stevenson’s Optimist’s Tour of the Future (of which more anon), just out, and Matt Ridley’s polemical Rational Optimist, published last year.

The latter is fascinating, and its main thesis pretty persuasive – life has generally got better and better over the last 50,000 years, even as humanity has proliferated, and this is due largely to trade, especially trade in ideas. The more exchange of ideas there is, the more innovation happens, and the more exchange of ideas follows, in a virtuous circle accelerated by ever more refined division of labour. It is a bit one-dimensional as a thesis to explain the dynamic of all human history, but a trade book like this needs a Big Idea, and this one follows through well, and is smart and well-written as all Ridley’s books are.

The reason he advances this thesis is that it justifies a belief that things will go on getting better (there is more exchange, and more innovation capacity now than ever before). This idea also has a lot going for it. But in order to identify himself as the uber-optimist – the natural successor to Julian Simon – Ridley adopts a pretty wide definition of pessimists, which is pretty much all the rest of us. Thus:

“The bookshops are groaning under ziggurats of pessimism. The airwaves are crammed with doom. In my own adult lifetime, I have listened to implacable predictions of growing poverty, coming famines, expanding deserts, imminent plagues, impending water wars, inevitable oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, mad-cow epidemics, Y2K computer bugs, killer bees, sex-change fish, global warming, ocean acidification, and even asteroid impacts that would presently bring this happy interlude to a terrible end. I cannot recall a time when one or other of these scares was not solemnly espoused by sober, distinguished and serious elites and hysterically echoed by the media…”

I think this is weak rhetorically (ooh, get those untrustworthy “elites”, and tut at the hysterical media) and the attempt to lump all these items into one categoery is unconvincing. As my lifetime overlaps with MR’s pretty well, lets see how my recollections run down here, off the top of my head:

Predictions of growing poverty – not sure who this refers to: Limits to Growth and Ehrlich’s Population Bomb would qualify I suppose, but they come up later so that might be double counting.

Coming famines – an unequivocal direct hit. There were truly dire predictions, and they were dead wrong. We also now understand the causes of famine much better.

Expanding deserts – well, I think they have expanded in some parts of the world, if not as drastically as some foresaw. Soil degradation is certainly a problem in many farming regions (but see famine).

Imminent plagues – there has been a fascination with the possibility of a new pandemic, which given the mark of past diseases on world history does not seem that surprising. Then again, there were plenty of, with hindsight, over-optimistic predictions in the decades after World War 2 of the end of infectious disease. Antibiotic resistance is real, and there are some newly-emerging and re-emerging diseases. Laurie Garrett and Richard Preston did hype up the prospect for mega-outbreaks, but there are real public health concerns about epidemic spread in a globalised world which it would be unwise to ignore.

Impending water wars – my perception of both books and media reporting on this topic is that it may lean toward alarm but is fairly balanced. When I have researched it myself, a little, I soon found as many people who argue that water shortages tend to induce co-operation as often as conflicts as those maintaining that water will be the new oil.

Inevitable oil exhaustion – well, it is inevitable (unless there really is oil in the deep hot biosphere which I am inclined to discount). When, of course, is open to discussion. And there is plenty of dispute with those who are convinced that peak oil is imminent, and plenty of reporting of the sceptics, I think.

Mineral shortages – OK, another famous case where past predictions have been proven wrong, and a fairly basic case of not understanding the economics of extraction and substitution. Shortages make it worth recovering the hard to get stuff, and looking harder for alternatives (see also peak oil). But this is hardly news. The story has been told innumerable times with exactly the moral I just summarised.

Falling sperm counts – this was not exactly a prediction of doom, in my view, more a concern founded on some quite good results which indicated that sperm counts were actually falling. Not far enough to produce infertility, but an odd finding, to be sure. It ties in with the sex-change fish, and the notion that some chemicals in wide use are endocrine disruptors. That wasn’t a crazy, or doom-mongering tale, in my reading, more an issue worth highlighting so we could do something about it if we needed to.

Thinning ozone – this was an actual problem, which is now most often (I’d say) used as an example which gives cause for optimism. When it was identified, and the evidence established to most people’s satisfaction, there was international agreement on measures to nip it in the bud. Were the people who argued that if no action was taken things would get worse silly pessimists? Not sure why that categorisation fits.

Acid rain – this is a complicated one, but the little I know makes me incline to accept Ridley’s view that the problem, and its consequences (forest destruction) were overblown.

Nuclear winters – this strikes me as a particularly daft inclusion on a list of unwarranted doom scenarios. Obviously it was not simply the product of a pessimistic temperament to fear a major nuclear war in the years from, say, 1950-1990. The wonder, if anything, is that the fear has abated to such an extent. Nuclear winter was an added ingredient, which was based on evidence and modelling which left scope for argument. But discussing the hitherto neglected short and medium-term atmospheric effects of nuclear war still seems prudent, does it not?

Mad-cow epidemics – not sure why these are plural. But there surely was a new, completely unexpected disease, whose biology was apparently unprecedented and is still imperfectly understood. Once its transfer to humans was established, there was enormous uncertainty about the incubation time before symptoms appeared. So while there were widely varying scenarios, a mass outbreak of new variant CJD was not an impossibility by any means. The fact that it did not happen may well just be dumb luck.

Y2K computer bugs – a particularly interesting case, to my mind. Probably a special case, too, as it chimed with Millennial fears. And remarkable, too, I think because it has been so little discussed since. Did we avoid IT meltdown because the problem was always exaggerated by money-grubbing software consultants, or because of all the fixes which were put in place before the date of doom?  I dunno, but the whole thing says something about our collective unease about dependence on complex systems, which is a bit more interesting than the simple “pessimism” on the Rational Optimist’s charge sheet.

killer bees – don’t recall them (assuming this doen’t mean bees dying off…)

sex-change fish – see falling sperm counts

global warming – well, the big one, and too big to start in on here, except to say that it is not just a prediction: global warming is clearly happening. And while it is not a harbinger of imminent doom, it will go on for quite a while whatever we do and could still turn out to be the one thing which makes the prediction made in the several editions of The Limits to Growth – of a major downturn in economy and ecology around the middle of this century – somewhere near correct. I don’t personally think that is likely, but the consequences in the second half of the century remain radically uncertain and fearing they will be severe does not make one a chronic pessimist, I my view.

Asteroid impacts – these got lots of attention because of our fascination with the death of the dinosaurs, which it emerged was (probably, at least partly) due to a big hit. It did then seem worth looking into how many near earth objects big enough to do real damage there are. Suggesting that they could do real damage was part of the case for getting the relevant surveys funded, and that also seems to me a good thing. Turns out there probably aren’t any posing a large risk any time soon, but that is good to know and again seems to produce an optimistic twist to the story in most current tellings.

I haven’t looked anything up to verify these recollections, and there may well be things in the detail which need correction. But this expansion of Ridley’s list does at least convince me that he has pulled together very different things under one much too simple heading – one classic technique, in other words, for building a straw man argument.





How rough a guide is this going to be?

September 14, 2010

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.

Future in the present

September 9, 2010

William Gibson is quotable, as ever, on ideas of the future in an interview with Wired jumping off from his new book.

The one-time prophet of cyberspace now writes novels set in the present. Why?

“Before I started writing science fiction, my theory was that every fictive, imagined future can only be understood historically within the moment it was written. Because nobody really writes about the future. All we really have when we pretend to write about the future is the moment in which we are writing. That’s why every imagined future obsoletes like an ice cream melting on the way back from the corner store. It’s going to almost immediately acquire a patina of quaintness; that’s just part of what imagining the future in fiction is about.”

I can see bits of that being re-used as much as the oft-cited “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”. I’m certainly planning to…

As the round of interviews goes on, there’s also this interesting US/Euro suggestion, from The Atlantic:

I’m not going all Sex Pistols, shouting No Future!—I’m suggesting that we’re becoming more like Europeans, who have always retrofitted their ruins, who’ve always known that everyone lives in someone else’s future and someone else’s past. It’s the American aspect of futurism that, as I understand it, was for a very long time to assume that there was more space over the next rise where you could go and build an entirely new future. That was America’s experience as a growing country. If things didn’t work out, you moved West. There was a seemingly infinite amount of unsettled land that we had. People supposedly moved West out of their inevitable discontent with how things were going where they happened to be living.

Whether or not that was historically true I don’t know, but we carried that idea into our vision of the future, and it acquired its capital F around the beginning of the 20th century and held onto it until maybe sometime in the ’70s. It was still very capital F in the ’60s. At some point the blush went off it a bit, and we’ve been entertaining a different sort of future since then.

Interesting, as I say, though I don’t see the evidence for this idea that Europeans have “always known” this – a very American fancy. H.G. Wells, Condorcet, Bacon all belie the suggestion…  There are frontiers beyond geographic ones, as science fiction writers have been known to point out!

Is social order a prerequisite for prediction?

September 2, 2010

Returning to a blog which has been lying fallow – as this one has for much of this year – is quite nice. Unlike a neglected house, say, there are no odd smells, no accumulation of dust. Everything is pristine, just as it was left.

Does that prompt any future thoughts? Maybe that the web is a strange space. Even things which are old, wrong or out of date can look shiny and new. No doubt design fashions will date the look of many pages, and there are probably forms of digital deterioration I don’t know about, and which are scary to contemplate. But it is oddly timeless – more so than a book, I think – even when a page is date stamped. I suppose film has that quality, too, but old movies combine a disorienting sensation of going back in time with the immediacy of the visual and audio experience. It all makes me wonder how we will regard, and curate, old web pages…

Meanwhile, this blog is going to more regular again, in the run up to publication of the Rough Guide – on Nov 1 – and beyond. So it doesn’t relate to a book in progress any more. It will be more, “things I wish I had known”, comments on bits and pieces in the book, and on others’ futurological musings.

For starters, just a note that there are some thoughts about the impossibility of prediction in that wise man Zygmunt Bauman’s new collection of essays, as summarised in a review in last week’s Times Higher Education. He, and the reviewer, ruminate on the fact that no-one foresaw the collapse of the Berlin Wall, or the banking meltdown. The reviewer, Les Gofton, goes on:

“For Bauman, the ineffability of the future may be an unavoidable feature of the human condition, and the role of experts – like England’s midfield – may always be disappointing and woefully inadequate to the task, but he is a sociologist. As Erving Goffman pointed out many years ago, we routinely predict the future with very high degrees of success when we step into the road, confident that most drivers will not accelerate towards us, or when we invite guests to dinner and they do not steal our silver. Bauman cites Gramsci, who averred that the best way to predict the future was to agree what we wanted, and then cause events to conform as closely as possible to those goals by working together.”

Thought-provoking, that, in its implication that our pondering the future is closely bound up with that foundational sociological conundrum, the problem of order. The further thought that we ought to co-operate to improve the chances of desirable futures coming into being is more commonplace, but still worth making, I’m sure.


June 1, 2010

Prevailing silence here due to diversion by another project – which is now loosening its hold somewhat, so regular posting will resume shortly, in the interests of engaging a little discussion as publication date for the Great Work approaches in November.

Meanwhile, folks at Turney Towers are quite excited that the tome will, apparently, look like this…

The book’s insides will be more subdued (B&W pics only), which seems a shame as I inspect my collection of books of retro-futurist illustrations, but this does look, well, pretty futuristic to me. That receding tube is definitely going somewhere, even if it is only into an MRI scanner. The view at Rough Guides world headquarters, I gather, was that this was one of the hardest cover designs to nail since the Rough Guide to Sex. I like it.

Near future fiction

November 19, 2009

I’ve banged on before about the supposed problem of imaging plausible (and non-horrid) futures in fiction. I had forgotten about the related debate about “mundane” SF – the ironic tag for stories about futures which only contain science which does not go beyond the bounds of what seems reasonable to imagine.

The constraints, as defined a few years ago by Geoff Ryman in the Mundane Manifesto, include no faster than light drive, no alien contact, no AI or time travel (and no singularity, needless to say). So the future occurs on this planet, and involves people solving, or failing to solve, recognisable problems with plausible means.There was a special issue of Interzone, but no anthology as far as I know – mundane SF not sounding obviously saleable!

Now however there’s a whole book somewhat in this vein. The concept is a bit different, as it is more about bringing in real science and was produced by writers invited to discuss scientific possibilities with researchers and then imagine what might come next. There’s a useful little preview here. The cast is stellar.

I’ve ordered it – here’s hoping it is as well-stuffed with ideas as the volume of microfictions collected in Futures from Nature, but the authors have been able to take advantage of a little more space. First, though, have to finish reading Richard Powers Generosity, which is definitely near future fiction, and classy with it.

Future Savvy

March 10, 2009

The title is by way of a small plug for the book of the same name by Adam Gordon, out last year but with a 2009 copyright line (future-oriented even there).

It’s a nice, user-friendly guide to forecasting, and especially to reading other people’s. The business-person-in-a-hurry style pull quotes on each page are sometimes, er, chosen a bit arbitrarily, but ignore them and read it properly and the sanity/price ratio is exceptionally high. You can read the author’s blog here to get an idea what he’s about. But read the book too,  especially for the excellent “worked example” case studies which show how to rate a forecast and evaluate what it is actually based on, if anything…

Not directly related, but to be truly future savvy, apparently, you need to keep abreast of more and  more new coinages which relate to the current economic, er situation. I imagine there is some kind of index which relates neologising to social stress, but if there isn’t there should be. This week’s words new to me are the rather exciting ECONOLYPSE, courtesy of Stowe Boyd (its a good post too) and COLLAPSITARIANS from Kevin Kelly (thanks to Peter Reiner). The latter was apparently coined by James Howard Kunstler (no surprise there). I’ve resisted the urge to google econolypse to see where it came from. But can you?