A Sense of the Future

[ Fri. Jan. 25. 2008 ]

How do you predict the future without making a fool of yourself? You can extrapolate current trends to their logical next steps, but unless you stick to the weather -- hurricanes a-comin' next year! -- you're likely to be wrong. Human beings should have been cloned by now. Gasoline should be pumping at $5 a gallon. California, to the disappointment of many, has yet to collapse into the sea along its fault lines, metaphorical or otherwise. What, then, is the point of predicting the future at all?

On the evidence of the more nuanced forecasting in "What's Next" and "What Are You Optimistic About?," looking ahead is best undertaken not as a guessing game but as a way of glimpsing humanity's most realistic yet provocative possibilities, good or bad.

For "What's Next," Jane Buckingham, the founder of the trend-forecasting consultancy The Intelligence Group, asked big-brain scientists and pop-culture achievers to think out loud about where they see things going. What's next for pro sports, says the book's first contributor, Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander, is that future sports stars will need to be much more media friendly -- well spoken, well rounded -- and that watching games will be just one part of a larger and more immersive online fan experience. Granted, those predictions are not exactly risky, but they have more authority, and interest, coming from a current star than from an ESPN chatterbox.

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In soliciting essays for "What Are You Optimistic About?," literary agent and science writer John Brockman looked for pearls of hope from "today's leading thinkers" -- some of them, such as human-genome entrepreneur J. Craig Venter and "The God Delusion" author Richard Dawkins, drawn from Mr. Brockman's client list. More than one of the optimists here note that human violence is in steady decline. As bad as it is in Darfur, relatively few people in the world today are likely to die at the hands of others. The trend will almost certainly continue, says the book -- it just won't seem like that when you watch the news.

What does the future look like as a roll-up of both books' predictions and hopes? Bad news: The environment is going to get worse before it gets better. The process is a natural part of civilization growing up, says John Passacantando, Greenpeace's executive director. But even he thinks things are turning around, citing President Bush's 2006 State of the Union address ("America is addicted to oil") as a milestone. Both books predict that technological advances will cut greenhouse gases, replenish the ocean's overfished stock and move civilization forward in more sustainable ways. Unlike 40 years ago, there are no Paul Ehrlich-style predictions of overpopulation and mass starvation. The world-wide baby boom of the 20th century will subside, say today's thinkers, as developing nations' birth rates drop to match those of the industrialized world.

Both books are notably lacking in business forecasts, but Dov Seidman, founder of the business-ethics consultancy LRN, does offer an insight, in "What's Next," that happens to mesh nicely with his company's mission. In the future, he predicts, businesses will need to focus more and more on how their behavior is perceived by an increasingly networked and informed public. To outperform your competition, he says, you'll need to outbehave them in customer and partner relationships. The same holds true internally: Companies that treat employees well will steal workers away from companies that mistreat them -- as news of the abuse spreads more quickly and more widely than ever before.

Of course, the problem with envisioning the future is that one man's utopia is another's nightmare. Does a world of a million video channels on your iPhone sound exciting to you, or like a living hell of mindless dreck? Do you think stem-cell therapies will lead to better lives, or just prolong a painful and expensive process of aging and dying?

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Most advances in technology or civilization can be seen as dual-use. Their goodness or badness depends on whose hands they fall into. The predictions in "What's Next" and "What Are You Optimistic About?" are most entertaining when experts see the flip side of the coin. Mr. Brockman probably wouldn't ask gossip columnist Liz Smith what she's optimistic about, but her essay in Ms. Buckingham's book would probably delight him: "You could stop the taking of pictures, the intrusions into private life, the nonstop gossip and speculation only if you stopped the democratic idea. People are always looking for their betters -- people who are richer, better looking, sexier, more athletic, more famous than themselves." In other words, Ms. Smith sees TMZ.com as progress: If we must have personality cults, better Britney than Hitler.

Not surprisingly, the most detailed predictions in both books come from information technologists. Second-guessing current trends is, after all, an integral part of their work. Taken together, the optimistic visions of several of Mr. Brockman's Net-savvy essayists seem not just wonderful but plausible: The Internet, for all it has brought so far, is only the first step before a much bigger leap in information and interconnectivity between people. One contributor to "What Are You Optimistic About?" worked briefly with the editors at Encyclopedia Britannica; they honestly believed, he claims, that they had captured nearly all the cultural information anyone could reasonably want to know. By contrast, Wikipedia's millions of entries in more than 100 languages aren't as meticulously researched and edited, but the sheer volume of information they contain is awe-inspiring and dwarfs what Britannica has on offer.

Now take it one step further: The Internet has been built and used by only a fraction of the Earth's population. What happens when, like telephones and televisions, Internet-connected computers make their way into most of the world's homes and ever more gadgets become Net-ready? Not only will we better understand our neighbors on the other side of the planet, but I may also finally be able to Google my lost car keys.

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