Archive for the ‘optimism’ category

hopes and fears expanded

November 29, 2010

The Rough Guide has 50 comments on best hopes and realistic expectations for the next few decades from a mixed bunch of futurists and prognosticators of various stripes. They got reformatted to fit a uniform design, and often cut down. One of the famous fifty, Richard Eskow, has just put up his original version on the IEET website – so here they are…

What is your highest hope for what will happen?

My highest hope is that in fifty years we will have eliminated most major diseases, extended the human lifespan, and improved both our physical and cognitive abilities. Even more importantly, I hope that new medical technologies will have turned us into a ‘human network’ which allows us to experience and communicate a shared worldwide reality to an even greater extent than the Internet makes possible today.

New technology is being developed which will almost certainly enable us to communicate using thoughts alone — as extraordinary as that sounds, there are already crude prototypes. This will not be ‘mind-reading,’ but more like text messaging without physical movement. In the best-case scenario, we’ll also be able to share both information and sensory experiences ‘telempathically’ (my word) with anyone anywhere in the world. (Just one example: Researchers have already been able to monitor the brain of a sleeping person and draw crude images of their dreams on a screen, in real-time.)

These technologies could personalize and deepen the informational and entertainment experiences now occurring on the Internet and even create new art forms. (The same advances will give us a great deal of mental control over mechanical and knowledge-management devices.)

Hopefully an increase in empathy and understanding, across physical and cultural distances, will result. Driving a car with your thoughts sounds like fun, but it won’t improve life as much as empathy-enhancing technologies might potentially do.
What is your worst fear?

Make that fears, please. I have three:

1) That we will fragment into two or more social groups, widely divergent, based on widening gaps in economic power resulting from different groups’ abilities to purchase added physical and mental ability. We will divide into a new ‘First World’ and ‘Third World,’ in effect – a division based on our accumulated physical and mental resources, rather than traditional economic and geopolitical divisions (although, more likely than not, these divisions will be amplifications of those we know today). Conflict and even genocide could result from these divisions.

2) That poverty, global warming, deforestation, and other forces will result in the rise of new and deadly plagues – which, in turn, could lead to widespread curtailment of civil liberties in North America, Europe, and worldwide. That regional and international travel becomes increasingly restricted due to fears of contagion.

3) And that our increasing ability to communicate at the thought/nonverbal/physical level will result in the proliferation of spam into our every waking moment – and even our dreams! (This third fear is, of course, offered a little more light-heartedly.)
What is your best bet for what will actually occur?

A moderate combination of the above hopes and fears. I think we will eliminate many major diseases and enhance certain mental and physical abilities. Access to certain mental/physical enhancement techniques may even be considered a human right. But we’ll continue to suffer the environmental consequences of our neglect, which will greatly harm global health and force us to fight rear-guard battles to protect our physiological well-being. Economic and social divisions will be exacerbated by improvements in medical technology, but the disparities will be eased (though not eliminated) by the rapidly falling costs of some new tools (e.g. drugs, external ‘enhancement’ devices, etc.)


UK survey of expectations released

November 5, 2010

The munificent overlords at Rough Guides world HQ have paid for a survey of UK public opinion about the future ‘n’stuff…   Here’s the press release which went out yesterday, for the record. There’s more to say about the comparisons with the (larger) US survey earlier this year, I think, but I’ll save that for another time.

London, 4th November 2010
Future looks rosy to UK’s youth according to new survey

Over two-thirds (67%) of young adults between 18 and 24 are optimistic about their own future and that of their family according to the results of an online YouGov survey about expectations of life in 2050. The survey was commissioned by publisher Rough Guides to mark the publication of The Rough Guide to the Future.

18 to 24-year-olds were also the age group most optimistic about the future of the UK for the next 40 years (47%) and the most optimistic about the future of the UK economy, with 43% imagining the UK economy will be stronger in 2050 than it is today. This compares with just 28% of 45-54 year olds and 30% of 55+ year olds believing the economy will be stronger.

Imagining Life in 2050

When it comes to predicting how life will be in 2050, the survey reveals a mixed vision of some technological and scientific break-throughs, combined with fears about the environment and a resignation that we’re all going to have to work a little longer.

79% of respondents believe we will have to work beyond our 70thbirthdays before retiring. But we will perhaps be helped by medical advances with 81% believing scientists will be able to replace damaged or failed organs using stem cell treatment. This contrasts starkly with just 36% believing we will find a cure for all cancers. 53% of people believe that computers will be able to converse like humans, and 45% think ordinary people will be able to travel in space.

Further breakdown of likelihood of scenarios in table below.

The end of newspapers?

Reassuringly for some, and perhaps surprisingly for others, despite the current hype around iPads, kindles, apps and firewalls, only just over half (58%) of all UK adults with internet access believe that paper editions of newspapers will not exist by 2050, with 25-34 year olds the least likely of all to believe in the demise of print newspapers (53%).

Americans more optimistic than Brits

Comparisons with a similar telephone study carried out in the US in April 2010[1] reveal that on the whole Americans are a lot more optimistic about their own futures (64%) and that of their country (62% optimistic about future of the US) than adults in the UK where only half (50%) are optimistic about their own future, and just 35% optimistic about the future of the UK.

World war more likely for Americans

In spite of the above, when envisaging life in 2050 a significantly higher percentage of those in the US believe another world war will happen by 2050, with a majority of Americans (58%) believing there will probably or definitely be another world war, compared to just 33% of those in the UK thinking another world war is likely.

Adults in the UK and US from the two studies are in agreement over the environment, with approximately the same percentages, 77% and 72% respectively, forseeing that the world will face a major energy crisis and 65% UK adults  and 66% US believing that the Earth will get warmer due to global warming.

Author of the Rough Guide to the Future, Jon Turney, commented “There is a lot of food for thought here. I’m intrigued that young people are more optimistic overall, even though they are less inclined to believe in several kinds of technological advance. Maybe the older people have seen more technological change, but don’t find it an improvement. We can only speculate.”

In the next 40 years…

Probably/Definitely will happen % Probably/Definitely won’t happen % Don’t Know %
We will find a cure for all cancers 36 54 10
Scientists will replace damaged or failed organs using stem cell treatment 81 8 10
Ordinary people will travel in space 45 47 8
We will find evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe 31 54 14
Paper editions of newspapers will no longer exist 58 34 8
Computers will be able to converse like humans 53 34 13
Earth will get warmer due to global warming 65 23 12
The world will face a major energy crisis 77 15 9
There will be another world war 33 49 17
Most Britons will have to work beyond their 70th birthday before retiring 79 14 6

Notes to Editors:

For further information please contact Viv Watton on 0207 010 3720 or Jon Turney, author of The Rough Guide to the Future is available for comment.

The survey was commissioned by Rough Guides to mark the publication of The Rough Guide to the Future, by Jon Turney, published 1st November 2010, £13.99.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2164 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 22nd – 25th October 2010.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

Further results and statistics from the survey are available on request.

1 Life in 2050, conducted by The PEW Research Center,

For further information please contact Viv Watton on 0207 010 3720 or 07801 665055 or

William Gibson (aka @GreatDismal) on the future in fiction

October 7, 2010

Fascinating discussion from William Gibson in Bristol last night, ranging over his whole career. The future naturally figured prominently. I wasn’t taking notes, but a few points that caught my attention, and didn’t quite seem to fit together… At various points, he said that science fiction is not trying to predict the future – though the culture keeps trying to insist that it is (check) – and that when you read old SF, as he did as a kid, you have to refer to the history of the times when it was written to understand the authors’ preoccupations (check again).

His wonderfully wry and self- analytic take on the early cyberpunk novels included that the style of, say, Neuromancer was largely a product of trying to learn how to write a novel by doing it – having previously written nothing over 2700 words long – but also that it was a determined attempt to depict an optimistic mid-21st century future. Optimistic in the context of the cold war, as it was a future which had avoided nuclear holocaust (there was nuclear war but it kind of fizzled out, and then the corporations took over to make sure it didn’t happen again – deeply implausible but necessary, in other words).

Consider, then, his take last night on the question which people keep asking: why don’t you write about the future any more? (The last two novels have been set in the year before they were published, so the action in Zero History takes place in 2009).

He had two answers. One was that there are so many problems now that imagining your way past them defeats him. (“In 2050, did we solve global warming? How? I don’t know…”). You can sort of see that, though it doesn’t seem to me harder in principle than “solving” the nuclear arms race, at least well enough to achieve suspension of disbelief for the time it takes to read a novel.

Then there was a longer answer. It argued, if I have it right, that when “realistic” near –future science fiction, including his own, was being written – up to the 1970s, say – the present was longer than it is now. That is, things stayed discernibly the same for years or even a decade or so at a time. This stable present – he even called it the “long now” at one point, though the sense then is different from the other promoters of that tag – offered a kind of firm foundation for extrapolating a future of some complexity which hung together, he suggested.

That’s the part I don’t quite get. Some things must be changing, or you don’t get to extrapolate at all (the modern idea of the future as different doesn’t really get going until people can see change in their own lifetime as the industrial revolution gathers pace in the 18th century). And to me it’s really hard to see that things changed more slowly in the decades after World War 2 than they have since the turn of the century. After all, Future Shock, which is as good a way of summing up what I think he was arguing as anything, was the title of a book published in 1970. I don’t buy the thesis of Toffler’s book either as it happens (watch this space), but it does seem to argue against a radical difference in rates of change then and now.

Maybe I’m missing a key quality of the contemporary present – which a keener observer like Gibson (and he’s keener than most) perceives more clearly. Or maybe perception of passage of time and rates of change is largely subjective and says more about the age and stage of the observer than tapping any larger social or historical truth. Guess which way I’m leaning here…













Polling the future

September 23, 2010

Looking back on the contents of the Rough Guide, as I now can, I find I am getting more interested in what people think about the future, as well as what might actually happen.

In that connection, just got round to reading the details of the survey of US opinion about Life in 2050, published back in June. This full-scale poll of American Citizens, done for the PEW Research Center, found a lot of people buying in to the kind of technological developments which often figure in the media, and in science fiction. So…

“Large majorities expect that computers will be able to carry on conversations (81% say this definitely or probably will happen) and that there will be a cure for cancer (71%). About two-thirds (66%) say that artificial arms and legs will outperform real limbs while 53% envision ordinary people traveling in space.”

Some of those are open to widely differing interpretations, of course – outperform on what criteria?  How many ordinary people? But there’s less ambiguity about another optimistic one: apparently 74 per cent of US respondents believe that by 2050 “most of our energy will not come from coal, oil or gas”. Ambiguity comes in here, though, when this seemingly fundamental misunderstanding of the how fast energy systems get renewed sits alongside the view, held by 72 per cent, that the world will face a major energy crisis.

Other analyses suggest differences between young and old on expectations of global warming and future environmental quality (the young are more pessimistic), and – more starkly – between republicans and democrats. The political divide in the US is so marked, perhaps it is not surprising that it extends to this aspect of the future as well.

That’s one feature of these findings which would not be replicated in a similar survey in Europe, I guess. There are plenty more questions – about general optimism and pessimism, national politics, race relations, global influence and so on. Most can be compared with responses to similar surveys in 1999.

Judging by this post at io9, none of this may tell people what they would really like to know about the future. Still, the excellent people at Rough Guides are fairly certain to stump up for a mini-survely along similar lines in the UK to accompany book launch in a month or so. I wonder which questions we should take from the US survey to offer the most interesting comparison?

Staging the future

September 6, 2010

Earthquakes in London,  now running at the National Theatre, takes a wry, and often bleak, look at current attitudes to the future. It’s a pretty impressive piece of dramatic writing, though within limits. It has had mixed responses in the press and on the web since it opened a month or so ago – haven’t linked to them as easy to google them up – partly because of the complex staging (my advice: get a regular theatre seat, but that may not be in the spirit of the thing). I’m not going to add to the theatrical commentary much, but a few future-oriented thoughts after seeing it the other week.

One disappointment was that although it is billed as roaming between 1968 and 2025, implying an intriguing effort to represent links between past and possible futures, it is nearly all firmly rooted in the present – to the extent that the female character who is a cabinet minister (environment) is part of a LibdemCon coalition. The story focusses on her family – three sisters, their partners, and their father, a Lovelockian scientist prone to apocalyptic pronouncements. The past events which really matter concern his lack of interest in being a father, and a bit of by-play about the scientist’s one-time relationship with an airline, for whom he apparently fixed the results of his early studies of climate change. The latter episode is crudely drawn (deliberately, perhaps – it is mildly amusing) but rather unconvincing. It is plain the author doesn’t have much idea about the science, or about how real science works.

He does nail some of the conflicting attitudes to the problem of global change, though. There are earnest politicians trying to make things better, desperate activists, plenty of people partying on to cloak their anxiety or despair, and a few techno-optimists defending progress and inventiveness as the most likely saviours, though they don’t get any persuasive lines so the dice feel a bit loaded. All are thrown into relief by the scientist, who – consulted by his newly pregnant daughter – follows the logic of his position to its limit and advises her not to have the child because the outlook for the world is so bleak it would be  better not to be born.

Her response is the main action of the play, and provides its dramatic climax. I won’t give that away, but I did think the confrontation with future-despair was undermined by the way she comes across as increasingly deranged, by pregnancy hormones as it might be, by earlier emotional abuse, or perhaps by some other mental instability. And when she does appear briefly in an (imaginary) future it is a deliberate fantasy, perhaps because a realistically rendered future which followed on from the present as depicted would be too much.

The overall result, despite these reservations, is intense, involving, and thought-provoking. I was left feeling, though, that although the piece has epic ambitions it still works on too small a canvas, historically and geographically. It says something about the mood of a rather restricted set of people in London, at a particular time. But it leaves unexamined how that might compare with other times and places facing great uncertainty. That is a shame as it is terribly long, and has quite a few superfluous scenes (and songs) as it stands, so could have cut them and left space to open out in other ways. It would be a hard job, and need someone supremely talented, to do better, but I hope someone is inspired to try.

Future – a Recent History (continued…)

January 29, 2010

Having started out exploring recent futures here publicly, as it were, a tad embarrassing to discover that I missed a book published in the middle of last year – Future, A Recent History, by Laurence Samuel (University of Texas Press) –  especially as Adam Gordon reviewed it thoughtfully on his blog when it came out.

If I’d known, I’d have got someone to ask me to review it as well, but too late now. It looks pretty good, being an examination of changing notions of the future in the USA in the 20th century, and what the changes mean/helped bring about.

So, job done? Not sure yet. Will have to read properly and consider. But first must finish David Gelernter’s 1939 – The Lost World of the Fair – a rather brilliant reconstruction-cum-cultural history of the New York fair of that year and the cultural milieu in which it sat. He and Samuel – who has also written at book length about a later World’s Fair – confirm the impression that they are crucial sites for investigating all this. There’s also quite a literature on them, though I doubt if much of it is as readable as our astonishing computer science guru-cum-cultural critic Gelernter. His book has what I realise is a characteristically idiosyncratic (and not, I think, ultimately persuasive) interpretation of the significance of his Fair, its era, and the impossibility of recapturing the spirit in which it was viewed at the time. I need to say more about that, too, but must find time to finish the book before commenting further – a recommended procedure for critics, I gather.

Thoughts of progress past

December 21, 2009

Now the main text of the book is complete (yay), I may do smaller posts here more often – and some larger ones, too.

For now, I just reviewed David Knight’s nice new book on 19th Century science, The Making of Modern Science (Polity) – forthcoming in Times Higher Ed – and among many other things this 1802 quote from Humphrey Davy caught my eye:

“We do not look to distant ages, or amuse ourselves with brilliant, though delusive daydreams concerning the infinite improveability of man, the annihilation of labour, disease and even death. But we reason by analogy from simple facts. We consider only a state of human progression arising out of its present condition. We look for a time that we may reasonably expect, for a bright day of which we already behold the dawn.”

It is a nice combination of the chemist’s faith in material progress, without any of the much higher register rhetoric Davy sometimes used except at the very end, with sober British caution about the ultimate prospect.

Seems to me a striking contrast with current attitudes, which sometimes seem divided between those who no longer believe in “a state of human progression arising out of the present condition” and another, smaller, lot who really do believe in abolishing labour, disease, and even death. I’m still trying to find a comfortable place to stand in the middle ground here.