I just finished An Optimist’s Tour Of The Future, a new book by Mark Stevenson. It’s quite good and I highly recommend you read it and pick up copies for all your friends right now while the book is at its most valuable.
The book opens with an engaging rumination on the nature of life, death and the lengthening distance between the two. It treats such matters with humor, but doesn’t take them lightly. Stevenson covers the most promising technology of the next few decades: the therapies and advances that will forestall death, destabilize every truth we think we know, and on balance make us all a bit better off. He’s good at spinning statistics and research pieces into narratives of inevitability. When you read him, you believe that tomorrow morning you will wake up and live forever in a better world.
After he contemplates his own receding mortality, Stevenson works his way through biotech, robots, energy, climate, food production and a host of other subjects. Each topic gets the same treatment: wondrous technology is so close we can smell it, and despite a few potential pitfalls it smells good.
Aside from a thin philosophical gloss, Stevenson’s real subject is how the near future looks to us in the present. The book’s value is in telling you the state of things circa 2010. In that sense, it’s a bit of social history. He’s writing tomorrow’s retrofuturist riff, and instead of jet packs and green alien women, we have home-grown kidneys and organic vegetables.
I wake up every morning and call for Rosie to crack wise and mix me a breakfast martini. She never comes. I don’t even have a Mr. Fusion. I feel burned by our collective failure to live the future envisioned decades ago. This is a bit childish. I mean, I read this book after conjuring it to my phone from thin air! Yesterday’s future is pretty amazing. It just looks completely different from what people imagined a generation or two ago.
And so it is likely that, broad outlines aside, the future won’t look much like Stevenson describes. Technology has a way of veering off the intended path. This is why we don’t all commute to work in flying cars from our suburbs on the moon. Some of the advances he writes about will fail. Others will mutate and effect the world in unpredictable ways. Some will just be surpassed by trends and technology that we don’t even see right now. This unpredictability, after all, is one point of the singularity he covers in chapter 14.
But that’s ok. Even if the predictive value of the book is low, it’s very much worth the read. Knowing where things stand now and how an optimist views the future at this moment is especially valuable when pessimism rules our fast-changing world. And he’s surely right about some of those big trends. Stevenson sums up the state of play, connects disparate arts and information, and writes it all up so engagingly that I only wish he could write one of these every year.