An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, by Mark Stevenson, Profile, RRP£12.99, 256 pages
Some people are optimists by disposition. They see a glass half full and they confidently expect it to become steadily fuller. For others, optimism is a deeply held belief. They are convinced there is something fundamentally right about the way our species is conducting its affairs. This belief takes many forms but the one most characteristic of our times is that markets, technology, science, computation and communications will go on getting better and better.
Mark Stevenson is well placed to investigate. A stand-up comedian, he also co-founded ReAgency, a group that works with museums, galleries, media companies and multinational corporations to communicate complex scientific, engineering and technological ideas without oversimplifying them. In An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, he travels the world in order to explore “what’s next” in scientific and technological innovation.
Having circled the globe visiting leading technological prophets and presuming on their time, it would be almost impolite for him not to join in the evangelical chorus. But he is an optimist by disposition, not a true believer. He thinks he’s in with a sporting chance of living to 100. Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, makes that sound like a lack of ambition. Bostrom looks forward to a day when people hope to reach a millennium rather than a century.
This encounter is the first stop on Stevenson’s grand tour of charismatic technologies and their prophets. Like the old grand tour of Europe, its itinerary follows a well-trodden trail – though most tourists follow the trail online rather than by airliner. We meet robots that promise to act more like animals than machines, and people who foresee artificial intelligence surpassing the human kind; there are “transhumanists” who promise humans will surpass themselves with the aid of science and technology.
There is nanotechnology, space tourism, geoengineering to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and synthetic biology to re-engineer organisms or even build them from scratch. And, of course, there is the internet, the artificial neocortex that connects them all, which might itself still be in the early stages of evolution.
Along the way, Stevenson bags an impressive list of interviewees, including George Church, who helped pioneer genome sequencing, and Wally Broecker, the geoscientist credited with coining the phrase “global warming”. The most exotic feather in his cap is his aquatic encounter with Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldives, after the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, a publicity stunt reminding the world that the Maldives might disappear beneath the Indian Ocean if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed.
Too often, however, trivialities get in the way of the important details gathered on his tour. While it’s commendable that he gives “Internet” a capital “I”, there are too many capital “I”s littering the text. But individualism is the key to optimism in this genre. Concentrating upon technology often brings futurologists to a condition approaching ecstasy. Contemplating society is what takes the pessimists among them to the verge of despair.
Some of the best parts of Stevenson’s account are those in which he discusses practical problems, such as how to capture solar energy using flexible sheets rather than rigid panels.
In many ways his most impressive case study is one in which Australian farmland is greened, keeping carbon out of the air in the process, by nothing more sophisticated than careful management of how animals graze. Innovation does not have to be revolutionary and change does not have to be exponential. The smartest words Stevenson quotes come from journalist Andrew Billen: “Life is like a sonnet. It’s 14 lines and you know how to operate within its perimeter.”
Marek Kohn is the author of ‘Turned Out Nice: How the British Isles Will Change as the World Heats Up’ (Faber)