Posted tagged ‘Rough Guides’

Surviving the future – with computers…

December 9, 2010

A recently aired documentary about the future from CBC is now accessible on the net (there isn’t a YouTube link to the whole thing which I can find, but someone cleverer than me has embedded it here).

Surviving the Future a fascinating document, beginning with a focus on the tension which grabbed me when I first started thinking about the Rough Guide to the Future – rather a long time ago. That is, isn’t it strange to live at a time when the two opposed discourses of apocalypse and utopia are both so prominent. Sure, they are both perennials, but in their current forms – climate catastrophe versus techno-optimism which will both solve global warming and usher in an age of abundance and, possibly, unlimited lifespan or even computer-mediated paradise – the opposition seem especially pronounced.

It is short (40-odd mins) and packs a lot in, so there’s plenty of TV-doc compression to make fun of. But to do these topics more justice you’d need something much longer, like a book (even). The first half, at any rate, does a pretty good job of laying out the futures landscape, emphasising the stark polarity of views, and with the likes of Jamais Cascio and Paul Saffo giving good soundbite – Cascio in particular on screen quite a lot.

Once it has you hooked, it even allows Saffo to say that “visions of the future are always more dramatic than reality”, which sounds hopeful in the context.

The narrative unravels a bit in the second half, I think. Having dealt rapidly with climate change, regenerative medicine, and in vitro meat (uncritically in all three cases – again no time), it turns to computers as both the harbingers of bad news and the potential saviours.

How does that work? Well, the computers, not the people who wrote the models, “began to bring us bad news” around the time of The Limits to Growth. Now, they have got more powerful, natch, so they can give us “ever more detailed models of the coming ecological catastrophe”.

We deal with “evidence gathered by the most powerful computers”, again – rather oddly – granting them agency – and this is what makes the “new futurism” all about survival.

There is a whole progamme here on the topic they canvas in brief, namely predictive simulation as an extension of the human mind. I’m sensitised to that because I’ve just been trying to write a feature piece for a UK newspaper on modelling and policy-making, and been reminded just how much of it is going on., But even without digging around in flood control, epidemic planning, climate models or even economics it is pretty clear there is a lot of computer simulationhappening in crucial areas of science and policy.

The doc then  takes a slightly odd turn, though, after a good bit on the Chevy Volt, by arguing that the change which will really matter is something called the “cognitive computer”. This will, apparently, “give us the best chance of survival”. And it will go along with sensor networks which mean “the planet itself will function as a computer interface”. That will just give us better information, surely? No doubt that is a useful adjunct to better handling of global problems, from managing ecosystems to more efficient agriculture and monitoring and perhaps charging for carbon emissions – maybe even a prerequisite, But here it ends up sounding like a straghtforward technical fix. I suspect that is because the demands of a major channel documentary in North America call for an upbeat ending rather than because there is any very persuasive logic to it.

Still, an interesting document, and well worth watching all through. I see the same outfit have just made one on geo-engineering but not sure if that is available outside Canada…


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.)

Taking care of the basics…

November 23, 2010

The first review of the Rough Guide to the Future is a short in New Scientist. The heading “Futurology that’s tied to the present” gives a good sense of the reviewer’s take. He goes on:

As the author drily points out, an accident of branding has made for an apt title: no work about the future can hope to be anything more than a rough guide. Explaining why this should be so makes for a sprightly opening account of futurology’s past and present (but not, as it happens, its future).

The momentum wanes, however, through a succession of chapters on such over-familiar issues as population, climate, energy and food security. Turney has clearly done his homework and deftly uses quotes, facts and asides to enliven the text, but the result nonetheless smacks more of present-day preoccupations than horizon-scanning prescience.

Not much here will be new to dedicated students of the future. A more creative structure might have shown the material off to better advantage, and greater licence to speculate would have helped too. For a rough guide, this is a little too polished.

This is all fair enough, I reckon. I do (not surprisingly) think it misses the point slightly, though. The whole point of a Rough Guide – the brand and the general idea beyond that – is to take care of the basics as smoothly as possible, isn’t it? If you know them all already, and are, indeed, a dedicated student of the future, you probably don’t need to read it, certainly not all the way through. It might be rather more use to other people though. I hope so!


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