Twenty-first century futures talk betrays an odd collective state of mind. Many refuse to take the future seriously, citing past predictions that failed to materialise. We passed 2000 a decade ago, dammit, so where are our jetpacks, flying cars, undersea cities and space colonies? If we can't have the toys we were promised, we won't believe any new forecasts.
A different note comes from those who take the future very seriously indeed. They don't believe in jetpacks either. They see multiple disasters ahead, in a world beset by climate change, resource wars and new epidemics, and the collapse of ecosystems and even human societies.
Less prominent are the optimists. They concede there are problems – helping 9 billion people make some kind of decent life in the next few decades without wrecking our planetary support systems will be a non-trivial task. But with some determined innovation, perhaps it can still be done.
Mark Stevenson thinks it can. But as he travelled the world meeting people with the most promising ideas, he also sought out the more radical optimists. He listened eagerly to Aubrey de Grey, who wants to abolish ageing, computer expert Ray Kurzweil, who sees us sharing our world with machine intelligences more powerful than human brains, and Eric Drexler, with his vision of molecular manufacturing reducing the production cost of all goods to more or less zero. In short, biotech, infotech and nanotech will usher in a post-capitalist and, ultimately, a post-human world.
Our tourist is not uncritical of these visionaries, though he gives them a fairly easy ride. He finds radical life extension especially appealing. He is also very taken with the schemes of several other innovators, more prosaic but more immediately vital, including printing thin films which can capture solar energy, capturing carbon dioxide from the air and using it to make new biofuels, and controlled grazing that increases carbon capture by grasslands. Climate change takes up several chapters here, as it should. His point is not that any one of these will solve the problem – establishing that would demand closer attention to numbers and timescales than he offers – but that there is a wealth of ideas and invention on offer.
How optimistic is he, then? He accepts there are potential drawbacks to most of the new tech coming our way. Stem cells and private space travel are fine and good, yet synthetic biology, for example, promises tailored organisms for agriculture and industry, but also for bio-terrorists. There will, he remarks more than once, be Chernobyls and 9/11s in our future. At times it will be a rough ride. On the other hand, he finds hope that the internet will increase cooperation and reinforce the current trend – hard to credit in the face of the constant media feed of horrors – for violence to decrease. And he is much beguiled by the notion that innovation and ideas feed on themselves and become self-reinforcing.
Here, he echoes the case outlined in Matt Ridley's recent Rational Optimist, and flirts with Kurzweil's view of a technological future which moves out of sight through what he calls the law of accelerating returns. Kurzweil holds that all technologies increase in performance exponentially – as computers have in the past 50 years. If so, then we will soon see technology and magic become more or less indistinguishable, and the future become so strange it is impossible to write about from this side of the event horizon.
Meanwhile, the less radical but more immediately realisable ideas Stevenson has sought out should help keep our spirits up. He is pretty keen on technical fixes, and there are plenty of problems his tour passes by. But he makes a good case that human inventiveness is a huge asset if we get on and deploy it energetically in tackling crises foreseen and unforeseen.
So can a call to optimism actually make us more hopeful? Perhaps it can. The current contradiction in attitudes is not the starkest there has been. The visions of instant meals, wipe-clean homes and a flying car on every driveway date from the depths of the cold war. In the newly prosperous age of "mutually assured destruction" it was easy to believe that the civilised world might end at any moment, and that the living would envy the dead. A look back at the Cuban missile crisis, still less than 50 years ago, makes it hard to see the perils we face now as quite so acute. True, the bad news about climate change is underpinned by science, but if we have confidence in the power of science to measure the damage, perhaps we should have a bit more hope in its capacity to help put things right again.
Stevenson's journey is a measured effort to take stock of the reasons for that hope, and to keep faith with the enlightenment project. You don't have to find all the people he meets persuasive, or go along with all his judgments of their projects. But he makes a good case for believing that we can have a future worth making an effort to reach.
Jon Turney's Rough Guide to the Future is published by Penguin.
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