Tue, Sep 29, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Don’t be fatalistic about the future

It’s easy to be pessimistic at the rate at which the world is changing for the worse, but effective leadership could save us yet

By Henry Porter  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

In two years’ time, the annual growth of the Web will be equivalent to all the documents ever written in human history. A few years later, that same amount of information is likely to be added in just a matter of days. As Ian Goldin and his colleagues from the James Martin 21st Century School in Oxford rattled through the vertiginous statistics at the “World in 2050” event staged in London by Intelligence Squared last week, a couple of things became clear.

First, forget 2050: The future is here, which is to say that the pace of the technological development that we imagine lies in the future is with us now and changes our lives from year to year, sometimes from month to month. But perhaps more important is that we contemplate the problems of the future as never before: severe climate change, population explosion, the pressures on land, food, water and energy preoccupy us like no other generation in history.

Futurologists like to shock. During the “World in 2050” evening, we were shown slides of a genetically “enhanced” rabbit that glows in the dark and film of a superior mouse that can run 6km without pausing for breath or sustenance; the average mouse manages just 200m before dropping exhausted.

We heard of engineered body parts, brain implants, nanobots and drugs that will improve memory and mental powers — already academics and students are using the attention-deficit drug Ritalin to upgrade their concentration. There were graphs that demonstrated computing power and aging population, the global threat of rapidly moving infections and what current levels of carbon dioxide emissions will do to our world.

Impressive, yes, but in last week’s newspapers you will have found developments that are every bit as compelling — a partially successful AIDS vaccine; an intelligent CCTV system that claims to interpret behavior and help stamp out crime; robots that mark English examination papers; a scanner used by police to detect stolen mobile phones; elderly patients to be fitted with microchip implants that will text a carer if they forget to take their pills; and the launch of digital advertising billboards equipped with cameras that read a car’s number plate as it passes, consult with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency computer to establish the make of car and recommend the appropriate engine oil in the display.


We assumed most of these things were safely locked up in the future, but they’re very much part of the here and now. We live the future every day. It impinges on the present as only history once did and has a profound impact on the way people think of their own time and their own lives. We are enthralled by the experience but also unmoored by it, because the present — our time — is in some sense demoted to a period of mere overture before the enormous calamity of a few years’ time.

Ask 100 people how they feel about the future and I guarantee that 90 percent will reply they fear for the world and themselves. This was probably also true for past generations, because we are superstitious beings and let fear rule our reason. But the sweep of modern history seems to tell a different story. Take the 200 years since 1809. Despite the particular worries of each generation — the wars, economic collapse famine and natural disaster — there has been a vast improvement in the quality of life over the two centuries. In terms of life expectancy, education and health, the experience and fulfillment available to millions of individuals, the period shows unremitting advance and yet the narrow focus of each generation dictates a much more pessimistic assessment.

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