Some years ago, the science fiction maven Ursula K Le Guin explained why she believed that writers and futurists had nothing in common. “Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.”
Which they do very well, without the risk that anyone will ask them why the world with two moons they’d dreamed up has or hasn’t had a full-fledged space war. Futurologists have no escape: people have a long memory for unfulfilled prophecies. Fortunately, people also have an inexhaustible supply of credulity, and a clever futurologist will point to his successes – by the law of averages, he can hope to be right at least 50 % of the time.
At its best, the art of prediction is not about getting it right as much as it is about spotlighting the most interesting areas of change. Alvin Toffler, who died this June after a long career in trendspotting, and his wife and editor Heidi, got a great deal right – the possibility of cloning, the paralysing surfeit of too much choice, humanity’s comfort with the electronic frontier – and many wrong, underwater cities and paper clothing among them.
A New York Times review of the Tofflers from 1970 was sharp about the real seduction of the futurologist’s art. He (it’s a male-dominated field) was usually able to name an existing condition: “One wonders from some of his examples if he hasn’t slapped a bright new name upon a host of deeper‐seated social ills that arise out of a darker substratum of the human condition—the lurking demons in the subconscious, the lusts for power and domination, the indeterminancy principle in human affairs, the sluggish maladaptability of our institutions and so on.”
Whatever it was, it worked – the Tofflers were, for years, China’s bestselling authors, eclipsed only by sales of Deng Xiaoping’s speeches. Alvin Toffler enjoyed his celebrity, interviewing Nabokov, Ayn Rand and Sean Connery for Playboy at one point. And Heidi Toffler, who survives him, is remembered for popularizing one of the most-quoted of futurologist’s warnings: “Change is the only constant.”
Four ambitious new releases offer a range of predictions, carrying on Toffler’s legacy. Perhaps the most widely discussed is Yuval Harari’s breathtakingly wide-ranging Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harari does not hesitate to tackle everything from the Anthropocene to the Humanist revolution to the shifting relationship between human beings and data.
As with many scientists, historians or sociologists who risk entering the prediction business, Harari is an optimist, arguing persuasively that of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, war, infectious disease, famine and even poverty are far less of a threat in this century than they were for much of humanity’s history, despite doom-and-gloom headlines. His most startling, and ominous, prediction is that the present reliance on data and algorithms will increase, creating a new class of super-powerful techno-rich humans. He also argues that both liberalism and conventional religion might become obsolete.
With such a broad and sometimes casually sketched background, it is inevitable that specialists will contest Harari’s interpretations, especially his more sweeping conclusions. And yet, the subjects he covers represent the areas of human evolution and structures that will be most fiercely subjected to change.
It’s almost a relief to turn to Kevin Kelly, Wired magazine co-founder, who lays down the twelve technological forces that will shape our future in The Inevitable.
Kelly’s insights can be deceptively simple, as with this, on the rapid pace not just of technological change but of faster and faster obsolescence: “All of us – every one of us – will be endless newbies in the future simply trying to keep up.”
Sometimes he’s brilliant at pointing out common fallacies, such as the pop-science belief in a world peopled with humanoid robots: “The AI on the horizon looks more like Amazon Web Services – cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off….Now everything that we formally electrified we will cognify.” In another writer’s hands, the jargon – Becoming, Cognifying, Flowing, Screening – etc might have been Off-Putting, but Kelly’s immersion in this world, and the high quality of his insights, make The Inevitable an exhilarating read, of lasting value.
Michael Bess’s Our Grandchildren Redesigned could work as a thoughtful companion piece to Kelly’s book. “This time around, it is not our gadgets that will be transformed: it is we ourselves, our bodies, our minds,” he writes. “People will be able to sculpt their own selfhood over time, reshaping their bodies, augmenting their cognition, reconfiguring their personality.” Bess is particularly good at sorting out the morality of biological transformation, and wise when he cautions that history is jerky, and that technological advance is neither inevitable nor uniform.
In contrast, Marcus Du Sautoy’s What We Cannot Know attempts to explore the limits to present-day scientific knowledge. “The knowledge of what we are ignorant of seems to expand faster than our breakthroughs. The known unknowns outstrip the known knowns,” he writes. His book is a refreshing break from the certainty of futurologists.
Though it should be said that they don’t get credit for all of their predictions. “The consequence of [virtual reality] is the end of truth. The dark side of the information technology explosion is that it will breed a population that believes nothing and, even more dangerous, a population ready to believe only one “truth” fanatically and willing to kill for it.” It took about 30 years for political pundits across continents to start discussing the consequences of the “post-truth”, “post-fact” world; Alvin Toffler got there first, back in 1997.
(Published in the Business Standard, September 2016)