Sunday, 13 May 2012

A Trip To The Future (To Reflect On The Present)

The other day I chanced upon a website that once I’d started reading, I found almost impossible to stop and lost several hours of my Saturday morning in the process. is exactly that, a timeline of the future, kicking off in the year 2000, taking a year by year trip through the 21st Century and then onwards into the far distant future. Rather than being a completely imagined journey, the site bases each prediction on at least one source and, with a little creative interpretation, extrapolates from there (although unfortunately in at least one instance, the source is the Daily Mail – but you have to take the rough with the smooth!).

FutureTimeline’s view of the future is in equal parts incredible, hopeful and terrifying. Being based on loose science fact, rather than entirely science fiction, theirs is not a future in which humanity is exonerated from its own responsibility, but for all the doom and gloom about the environmental impacts of our current way of life, there are equally as many optimistic predictions about our ability to manage these changes and, at least for some of us, to overcome them.

I won’t go into too much detail about the world that they predict (or the predictions that go way beyond our world) but the overall synopsis goes a little something like this: The early part of the 21st Century combines the technological advances made possible by the digital revolution, driving progress in all the major sciences, with the fading of what we could refer to as industrial times. Climate change and resource scarcity provoke conflicts across the globe, particularly in the Middle East and the ever warming Arctic. Throughout the 2030’s and 2040’s we start to break the back of renewable energy with fusion power finally becoming a reality and advances in computer sciences such as quantum computing bring about the dawn of artificial intelligences. This doesn’t help the ever worsening environmental situations in Africa and Asia, which cause food shortages, climate refugees and ever deepening political instability.

Somewhere in the 2050’s we not only land a man on Mars but start to plan our first settlements there, which many of the developed world’s citizens experience through neuroscience-enhanced virtual reality, which is rapidly changing people’s day to day lives. The 2060’s and 2070’s are ravaged by the effects of climate change but with a stable worldwide population and environmentally focused industry and energy generation, extinction rates start to peak. Advanced robotics, artificial intelligence and medical techniques lead to an increasingly blurred distinction between humans and machines and as the century draws to a close the average human will bear little resemblance to those of the end of the previous century (many of whom would still be alive).

The 22nd Century begins much like the last one ends, with environmental disaster and technological advancement completely transforming the planet. Whilst virtually all industry and energy is sustainable, the positive feedback loops triggered in the previous century feed ever greater ecological change. By this time, scientific advancement happens so rapidly that it would exceed the comprehension of 20th century minds and what we would call AI takes over as the predominant decision making force on the planet. Towards the end of the century, humanity has established itself across the local solar system and the environmental catastrophes on Earth finally start to abate. After this somewhat staggering journey, FutureTimeline understandably opts to let the predictions drift off into our science fiction future and provides only a loose narrative for what happens next.

The thing I loved about FutureTimeline, and the reason I’m recommending it, is that it seems to provide something that is missing from our early 21st Century consciousness. For most of us, our current view of the future tends to be relatively short term thinking, without too much concern given to that happening outside of the next few years. Even with the ever darkening cloud of environmental issues, which I think it would be fair to say that the majority of us feel extremely concerned about (and if you aren’t, then you’re in for a bit of a surprise), our thinking tends to be focused on the immediate or forthcoming effect, rather than that on the world of future generations. FutureTimeline, whilst being fun to read (although in a somewhat alarming way), is also a welcome and accessible change to that way of thinking, creating a story of things yet to come that leads us back to thinking about how today’s world might turn out.

When I say that that FutureTimeline provides something that’s missing, what most makes me think this is a rather fond memory of a book I owned as a child. The Usborne Book of The Future was perhaps my favourite book growing up and, much like FutureTimeline, provided a compelling narrative as to how the world might yet develop. As is almost always the case with any sort of predictions, while some of the UBoTF’s estimates weren’t too bad, I think it’s unlikely that the 2020 Olympics will be held on the Moon, space mirrors aren’t providing us night-time lighting and the prevalence of fully electric cars is about 30 years behind schedule - I’m sure many of FutureTimeline’s predictions will end up the same way. Also, amusingly with hindsight, UBoTF missed many of the things we would now take for granted (an obvious contender being no mention of the Internet) and many of its other ideas come across with almost twee Buck Rogers nostalgia, like the apparent desire for everyone to wear unitards!

To complain about the accuracy of the predictions would be to miss the whole point though. Obviously no-one really knows what the future will be like and any serious attempt at guessing can only be made with a hefty pinch of salt. The point of predicting the future is not to be correct but to inspire people to think about what could be done. Growing up, I dreamed of a future with robots and spaceships, solar energy and moonbases. Some of these things are now becoming a reality because others like myself imagined these kinds of futures and tried to think of ways to make them happen. To me, FutureTimeline drew me back into this almost nostalgic view of the future, of a world to come of both terrible and incredible events, and gave me just that little bit of inspiration to do something about it. FutureTimeline is a fun ride, a scary ride, and at the same time, a rather worthy one.

After a little digging, it seems you can download your own PDF copy of the Usborne Book of The Future here, which I heartily encourage you to do. It’s virtually impossible to find in print these days (well, for less than about £20) so should you ever chance upon a “real” copy, then snap it up (or at least let me know and I will).