Optimist's Tour of the Future: inspiring and funny look at the evidence for a bright future

Mark Stevenson's An Optimist's Tour of the Future is a hilarious and inspiring romp through some of the most promising directions in technology -- from permaculture success stories in Australia who are beating the drought and sequestering carbon to nanotechnology boosters who are showing off successful prototypes for effective energy generation, water filtration and desalination, and other cool and world-changing applications. Stevenson, a former standup comedian, writes with enormous warmth and humor, and he fast-talks his way into the presence of some hard-to-reach scientists and theorists who really represent the cutting edge of their fields, from Eric Drexler to Nick Bostrom. Stevenson does an admirable job of presenting these findings in a lay-friendly way without eliding too much important detail.

Stevenson presents his book as a curative for "pessimism." Stevenson looks at the evidence for humanity's impending doom and finds it wanting: even in the poorest places on earth, lifespans are longer, affluence is up, violence is down from most of human history. He doesn't discount all the problems that others have identified, from climate change to war to starvation, but he believes we can and will overcome them with technology. Stevenson looks at the ethical and philosophical dimensions of these technologies, signposts some of the problems they may give rise to, and brings it all off with a flourish that's sweet and upbeat, as befits his title.

If you're someone who believes that there's no possible, conceivable way to solve contemporary problems with technology, then Stevenson's argument is probably one you should be exposed to. But where I found his analysis wanting was in the presumed inevitability of technological triumph over social ills. Humanity may develop or possess the technologies to fix its problems, but capacity isn't political will. Humanity has previously possessed the knowledge and tools to address many of its problems, but failed to bring them to bear for extremely long periods (we had a 500 year interregnum as the result of one such failure, commonly known as the Dark Ages).

Those of us on the policy side of technology are often optimistic about technology's transformative potential, and pessimistic about its inevitable triumph. This isn't a counsel of despair: it doesn't mean we're doomed. Rather, it's a call to action: if technology can solve problems, then we should figure out how to midwife the right kind of technology and the right kind of society.

The di-polar world that Stevenson establishes -- "technology can't solve our problems" and "technology will solve our problems" -- doesn't admit of a third pole: "technology can solve our problems, if we fight to keep it free and open."

Which is a shame, because if there's one thing we need, it's optimists who believe that the net and the PC and their many spinoffs can improve the world, and who use their optimism to pursue a mission of free, fair and universal access to the world's systems. Optimist's Tour is fine as far as it goes, but I wish it went further. An Optimist's Tour of the Future

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  1. Funny, this is exactly the kind of thing Jim Kunstler was talking about in his column today:

    “The sad fact is we don’t want to go where history wants to take us: to a smaller human imprint on the planet, with all that implies. This is true especially of the intellectual avant-garde, who can’t imagine a world without the joys of perpetual techno-narcissistic novelty, of levitating skyscraper cities with hanging gardens and flying cars, full of girls with green nail-polish in get-ups so fantastic mere mortals could never have dreamed them up, flaunting hand-held gadgets so miraculous that life itself seems besides the point. Oh, shimmering future! Oh Ray Kurzweil and your nano-ladder to the worm-holes of forever!”

    I’m not a Kunstler-level pessimist, but I’m further towards being that than a Stevenson/Kurzweil techno-optimist.

    Also, I wonder why people who’d make fun of someone for getting their scientific opinions from a preacher would go about getting them from a standup comedian instead.

    1. I am not sure why advocating a smaller human impact on the planet makes one a pessimist, indeed I hope (optimistically) that such a reduced impact can be aided by new technologies… but only aided by them.

      To Cory, IMHO, the favouring of openness and sharing is not an attitude to technology per se, but to social organisation (‘anarchism’ to give it its proper name, which so many people find inexplicably scary); it’s just that so much of our social organisation is now bound up with technology.

  2. “Humanity may develop or possess the technologies to fix its problems, but capacity isn’t political will. Humanity has previously possessed the knowledge and tools to address many of its problems”

    Thank goodness we don’t need political will in order to accomplish these things; we only need sense enough to keep our very willful politicians out of the way so that our inventors and entrepeneurs can solve these problems. The Dark Ages was an time of iron political will, backed by violence and steeped in blood. It was also a time of inexpressible repression, poverty, and abject human suffering. The problem with “political will” is that it is, inevitably, dedicated to retained and expanding political power rather then actually solving problems for people. The less “political will” we have, the better off we’ll be.

    1. I worry more about the rentier “elite” that try to abuse IP laws to perpetuate their status then i worry about government. Right now tho, those two go hand in hand as the rentiers have the ear and wallets of the persons in government positions.

  3. “we had a 500 year interregnum as the result of one such failure, commonly known as the Dark Ages”

    During Europe’s Dark Ages, China and the Islamic world were doing quite well.

  4. Matt, feudalism was in many ways a libertarian paradise. The nobles with their little fiefdoms were in essence fully empowered property owners, kings had power only on paper, and everyone’s rights and duties were laid out in contract law, which was invented in the end of that period. It was the collapse of central authority that led to the Dark Ages, because the only thing that then mattered was the ability to hold the land, so all the power wound up in the hands of local thugs.

  5. The Dark Ages was the ruin of cities and the learning and trade they provide. For people in the countryside, though, it was still a time of some progress. With the decline of slave labor, new or neglected technologies like watermills, windmills, and better crop rotation began to flourish.

    After all, it’s not like Roman peasants were that much better off. The Dark Ages are a real collapse, but even so comparing on Germanic serfs with the Italian townsmen of Rome and the Renaissance does not give the whole picture.

    1. yes, anon #6: lets us not forget the wholly-new impulses of humanitarianism, and of the new value accorded to human kindness, which have only arisen in the past century and a half – in step with the birth and rise of medical scince itself, come to think on it.

      Let’s try not to lose or re-make ALL of our values in the bright new world we build, eh what?

      I like simple human kindness, and socio-politico humanitarianism in general: and these entirely modern values are worth holding on to, now that we have finally discovered/invented them, IMHO. ( And at what price were those new values of kindness and humanitarianism bought by our civilization? The answer to that question may be something for those who feel hopeless as to the future of humanity to reflect on and to think about, perhaps!)

    1. The Dark Ages are not the same as the Middle Ages, which are much longer than 500 years. They’re the first bit, between the collapse of Rome and Charlemagne. Most of the things you mention are from the rest.

  6. “[W]here I found his analysis wanting was in the presumed inevitability of technological triumph over social ills.” Dead on. Our technology is already powerful enough to build a world in which most people live well. The fault, dear people, is not in our technology, but in ourselves, that we are greedy, bigoted, short-sighted, and superstitious (in the main, and with apologies to Shakespeare).

  7. There is something similar at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. They have this large exhibit where they showcase emerging technologies and futurists who paint a very positive view of the future.

    Things don’t ALWAYS have to be gloom and doom…

  8. Technology: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.

    Especially that related to agriculture and fermentation.

  9. I just recently finished both Stevensons book and Albert Brooks “2030”. One is fact one is fiction. Whether that fact becomes everyday reality has yet to be determined.

    Both books were good reads, but surprisingly, I found Brooks book to be a little more of a downer (dark humor?). I made a video comparing Stevensons fact and Brooks fiction (or visa versa).

  10. I favour a little bit of techno-optimism, but I think that needs to be seen in the context of a future world that is much harsher than today (massively depleted ecosystems, climate instability, widespread distribution of toxins from present day mining and industry), which we will be tackling using maybe a quarter the amount of available energy we now have (most readily available fossil fuels exhausted, renewables available but in no way comparable).

    That is not likely to be a world where there are a billion motor vehicles, or where a quarter of the global population replaces their computer every 18 months. It’s certainly not one where we will see singularities (note that in every other situation where we’ve observed exponential growth, it has tailed off once resources became exhausted, cf. bacteria).

    Human life extension technology is likely to continue to advance. However, with fewer global resources, only an ever-shrinking elite will have access to those. For comparison, today there are plenty of life extension technologies available to the richer third to half of the human population that are far beyond reach for the rest of us.

    It’s nice to hear that he looked at permaculture, but honestly, we’re going to need a lot more of that sort of technology (the kind that can be implemented with manual labour and little concentrated energy), since that’s all that’s likely to be available to the majority of us.

    1. It seems to me from your comment that you do indeed favour a very very little bit of optimism, but sprinkled lightly on a whole heapin’ helpin’ of Malthus.

      We are doing far far better than Malthus and his ilk have been predicting, for a long time now.
      And “peak oil” is simply a re-phrase of Malthus’ vision of “peak food”.

      We are entering a new golden age of mankind: and life is far far better now, for many hundreds of million of people more, than it has ever been before.

      Such gloomy people! And history clearly shows that a civilization can be lost, simply by its people ceasing to believe in it: that is, through simple cynicism and sometimes-afffected, sometimes-lazy, and always learned-from-others hopelessness and boredom.

      Snap out of it, kids! It’s as bright and shiny a world as it ever was. And you won’t be young forever!

      1. And “peak oil” is simply a re-phrase of Malthus’ vision of “peak food”.

        Except that food is renewable fairly quickly, and oil is not unless you are all but immortal. People have exhausted specific resources before.

      2. It seems to me from your comment that you do indeed favour a very very little bit of optimism, but sprinkled lightly on a whole heapin’ helpin’ of Malthus.

        Of course, we now have a working solution to Malthus. Over the past half a century or so, human fertility rates have plummeted to approximately replacement levels in much of the world and are headed that way in the rest. Estimates are that we are at peak children right now; in a decade, we’ll be at peak teenagers and by mid-century we’ll be at peak population.

        As far as anyone can figure out, this is a combination of modern contraception and the empowerment of women — that is, a technology and a social change — in synergy.

  11. Of course human intervention is a pressing concern, and can even get in the way of tech advancement, but it seems like this book only addresses the problem of CAN it be done, which, yes, it can.

  12. Kunstler tends to write about the world as he fears it to be, rather than the world as it is. It is almost as if he is upset that modernity has not destroyed itself already.

    If you look at it objectively though, there was no other point in history at which the present was as not-so-terrible and the future was not as promising as it is today.

    1. You know what? I think you’ve nailed it there. For so many people who have the power to change things, life has never been so easy, so why would they bother? Yet, collectively, the outlook is potentially bleaker than it has ever been – unless those comfortable people realise their shared interests with the disposessed and marginalised.

      The problem is that there is so little sense of what are collective interests these days. Even the free / open tech idea seems premised on, or at least to speak the same language as, a profoundly invidividualistic libertarianism, which seems to be assumed will reach collective goals – rather than neo-liberalism, it is often almost a hyper-liberalism. Actually, I remember Erik Davis writing about this in Techgnosis, ages back.

      The further problem is, how does one even address the idea of collectivity and shared interests when the mainstream economic norms and the strongest emerging opposition is basically singing from the same individualist hymnsheet.

  13. Down, Optimism! Down while I spread doom and gloom and tear down any sign of hope! Back into you’re cage where you belong, knave!

  14. Hi, I’m Mark, who wrote the book – and thanks to Cory for his kind words. Just to clarify I’m not a techno-optimist, more a techno-possibilist. My position is pretty simple (and not too controversial I hope) – that we should have an optimism of ambition about the future and then use our best critical and creative thinking skills to get there (just the sort of skills Cory and the Boing Boing crowd exhibit in abundance). I don’t believe you can take responsibility for making a better world (as Cory does with his policy work) without imagining it’s at least possible. So the book is saying, unashamedly ‘look what is possible’. But it is very true that what is possible isn’t always implemented. I regularly paraphrase one of my interviewees (TED’s Chris Anderson) and say “I’m NOT saying the future WILL be better, I’m saying it could be and everyone of good conscience needs to be in that game” (and a lot of my day job is helping organisations embrace institutional change in a positive direction). Part of making that happen means having more people informed about the technologies coming down the line so we have can have a more reasoned and nuanced debate about human evolution through science and technology. So, one of my intentions for the book was to find an accessible way to explore the scientific horizon (hence the humour and the travelogue format). It’s really a popular science book that tries to reach people who don’t read popular science books. My intention is not to advocate for these technologies – simply to raise in peoples’ minds that they *are* coming and we need to guide them in positive directions. Cory is right – all technology is socio-technical (something I covered in my chapter talking to John Seely Brown).

    When the book was first pitched it was simply “A World Tour of the Future” but my agent suggested putting in a reference to optimism. The good news is that it catches people’s eye (because it seem counter-intuitive given many of the problems we face). However, as soon as you associate yourself with the words “optimist” or “optimism” many people will instantly dismiss you as some kind of wishful thinker who really hasn’t understood the grand challenges we face and how difficult some of the hills we have to climb are going to be. I’m more than cognizant of some of the issues raised in this comment stream, for instance, the ‘energy crisis’ (really an energy conversion crisis). I also cover Malthus and why he is both right and wrong.

    Anyway, thanks once again to Cory for the review – and the comments after.

  15. Technology has been able to save us for a long time. Has it? No, because the fundamental organizing principle of our planet is the money system. This is the logic by which our planet is governed. This is the logic that says rapidly depleting resources must be shipped to China, assembled by semi-slave labor, and then shipped across the globe to Western consumer markets who already have more junk than they need, with all the fossil-fuel and resource waste that entails. This is the logic that has transformed agriculture into mechanized large-scale monoculture plantations that deplete topsoil and require massive inputs of fertilizer and fossil fuels not because they produce the greatest amounts of food, or the healthiest food, but for no other reason than they produce the maximum yield for the least amount of labor, i.e. the most profit. This is why farmers around the world are driven into overcrowded urban slums without adequate sanitation to seek nonexistent wage work. This is why we continue to pump animals in overcrowded conditions full of antibiotics, even though we know for a fact that we are creating antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that are destined to kill us. This is why we have people working themselves to death and extensive automation in midst face of persistently high unemployment. Even with all our labor-saving inventions, we work more hours than medieval serfs. Why? Car companies already know how to produce vehicles that are far more efficient than what we have now. They do not, because it would cost more money to do so and eat into profits. We can already produce electricity from wind and sunlight, but rather we use fossil fuels because they are “cheaper,” even though they are running out and pollution is causing the planet’s climate to destabilize. Even though fossil fuel companies and world governments are well aware of climate change and peak oil, do they take steps to fix it? No, rather oil companies spend millions on funding “alternative” research, media promotion to create doubt, and purchasing politicians through campaign donations. I could go on, but I think you get the point. None of these problems are being caused by a lack of technical knowledge or a lack of more sustainable alternative methods. Yet they persist and worsen with every passing year. So how can we say technology will save us?

    I read a study in Scientific American in 2009 that argued that the entire planet could be powered with renewable, non-polluting energy by 2030. Even if we never invented another technology (and we certainly will, of course), we could provide for our current lifestyle sustainably from a physics point of view right now. Yet has this plan been implemented? Of course not. If technology could save us, it would have done so already. I think the author has the same shortfall as all techo-utopianists (e.g. Buckminster Fuller): they fail to take into account human greed, arrogance, folly, irrationality, tribalism, etc.

    See, like the author, I used to get enthusiastic about every new good idea that would save the planet and fix all our problems. Then I noticed that almost none of them were being implemented, at least on any kind of scale that would make a difference. This troubled me greatly, and I spent time looking for the root cause. Why were these destructive practices continued, and better alternatives not implemented, I wondered? Here is what I found: because it was not economical to do so. That is, the logic of the money system says that we must continue these destructive practices because it provides the maximum returns to capital. This problem has grown steadily worse with the rise of Neo-liberalism, which demands the weakening or dismantling of governments worldwide. See, governments can theoretically act in the best interest of citizens, without concerns for profit. But since the money system has taken over control of governments, especially here in the US, these problems have worsened considerably. I’m not for all-powerful governments, and markets are powerful tools, but abandoning all governance to the whims of the financial system has become a suicide pact. I see no change for this on the horizon.

    As a side note, since the financial system is built on servicing debt and maximum returns to capital, it must continually grow, and grow exponentially, or it will collapse. Since the economy requires exponential growth, and the real world can only grow geometrically, we have an economy whose fundamental basis is a logical impossibility. That’s why the financial system is inherently unstable. Think of it: our living standards in the developed world are declining precipitously in the last few years (libraries and schools closed, governments bankrupt, roads being de-paved, social programs eliminated, etc.), even though there is more money and more technology around than ever before in human history. How can this be? Check out Eric Zencey’s writings for more on this.

    Cultural factors play a role here too. The best example is human reproduction. We already have the means to control human fertility to ensure that we can keep our population low enough to provide a high standard of living to every member of the human race sustainably. Yet overpopulation persists. Why? A whole host of factors – cultural bias for large families, irrational religious beliefs, unavailability of birth control due to poverty, lack of education, suppression of women – all add up to the fact that this “technical” solution that would solve almost all of our problems (since overpopulation is at the heart of most of them) is not implemented. The result? Starvation, rioting, political destabilization, environmental degradation, all of which are getting worse in many areas. Diseases we have known how to cure for a century still kill millions around the world every year. Cleary that is not a technical problem. Let’s also not forget that technology often causes more problems than it solves, most of which are unforeseen. The automobile is a prime example of this.

    The conclusion I came to is this: if you want to save the planet, you had better take a look at the social-political-economic factors and reform those. Where we really desperately need innovation is in our institutions and our social organization. If we don’t take a long, hard look at those factors, our greatest inventions will not matter a whit. Technical innovation is easy. Overcoming entrenched interests, irrational beliefs, cultural inertia and sclerotic institutions is hard. Yet that is the challenge that must be confronted if we are to have any hope of saving ourselves.

    1. We already have the means to control human fertility to ensure that we can keep our population low enough to provide a high standard of living to every member of the human race sustainably. Yet overpopulation persists. Why?

      Because you haven’t been paying attention recently? Hint: fertility rates are now below replacement level not only in Western Europe but also in places like Tunisia, Iran and Cuba.

      1. Perhaps you have not seen this:

        http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/04/world/04population.html?_r=1

        I should note I posted my comments before I read the notes from the author. I’m glad to see he understands the underlying issues and is not merely proclaiming a simplistic triumphant techno-optimism (I’m looking at you Matt Ridley). It was probably the “technology will save us” headline that threw me off, and it sounds like that’s not really the way the book is at all. My point is still valid, however. Technology without fundamental reform our socio-economic systems will prevent us from what we are capable of. I hope some of the brilliant minds at work on solving global problems will take heed.

        1. Hi,

          “Technology without fundamental reform our socio-economic systems will prevent us from what we are capable of. I hope some of the brilliant minds at work on solving global problems will take heed.”

          Absolutely! Of course, as many here argue, a lot of those socio-economic systems can be remade (in part) with, er, technology. And, yes, some brilliant minds are working on this – and I’ll be talking to a lot of them in my next book. And pretty much all my day job now is about encouraging, advocating for and helping to implement institutional change. I lose 9 out 10, but 1 is enough – and then you go back again and lose 8 out of 9… and so on. If you let the original 9 loses put you off then you’d be impotent. Cynicism is the biggest institution of the mind we need to root out – although we’ve all been bred to be cynical (me included) so it’s easier said than done.

          My question to CHilke is to ask ‘what are you doing about it, beyond posting on this blog?’ Be the change and all that. (That’s not an attack that’s an enquiry because lots of people will want to help you with whatever it is. It’d be odd if you were this passionate about institutional change and weren’t involved)

          Mark
          P.S. And 10 billion up from 9.5 billion as the UN’s median variant estimate on population (by 2100) is hardly a showstopper. We can (all caveats noted) feed that many.

          1. Hey Mark, thanks for responding!

            I work in the architectural design field and I see brilliant ideas all the time that are derailed by lack of funds or political will (of course, the two are related). Look no further than the Inhabitat blog to see what I mean. How many of those ideas will see the light of day on a large scale? As I described, when I look into why we continue destructive practices in the face of better alternatives, 9 times out of 10 it has to do with the way we have structured our economy, e.g. maximizing profit, minimizing labor. Thus, I conclude that without fundamental economic reform, our best efforts will not succeed. This is frustrating – it almost seems fruitless to come up with good ideas, since they will not go further than the developmental stage before they are bankrupted by the big boys because the status quo is more profitable. Democratic governments, which theoretically could be partners in this effort, are utterly dependent upon finance, and thus are compromised. Sadly, economics has turned into a sort of fundamentalist religion wielded by those in power to confer legitimacy on what should be transparently destructive to society. See Bernard Lietaer’s work for how we have structured our money and financial system to contain specific biases that encourage short-term thinking. Douglas Rushkoff also covered these ideas in Life Inc.. For example, In Colin Tudge’s book Feeding People Is Easy, he talks about how we can feed the world if we would only change our systems from maximizing profit to feeding people.

            It is a matter of debate – some see the actions of solitary individuals inadequate to change the directions of entire societies, and thus collapse is “baked in.” This explains the popularity of books about societal collapse, from Jared Diamond to Jospeh Tainter . Many believe the problems are too interconnected and too overwhelming. Others believe we can change course without major disruptions. I may be a bit more on the pessimistic side, but I do agree that passivism and defeatism are not acceptable options. I fear that those in power, however, will use any means at their disposal to prevent any threats to the status quo. We’re currently seeing the results of this in Syria, Yemen, Greece, Spain, China, etc. Is collapse necessary for change to occur? In the long run I’m optimistic. But you know what Keynes said about in the long run…

            Your next topic sounds like a great idea – covering promising social innovations. There are a lot out there – worker cooperatives, instant runoff voting, work-sharing, Basic Income Guarantees, participatory economics, the DIY movement, time banking, Waldorf schools, demurrage currencies, and so on. I think the open-source movement proves we can cooperate to improve technology without the coercion or monetary reward. You’re living the dream. I personally would love to write professionally on these topics. How did you come to do this, and what advice would you have?

            As for what I am doing, well, I have my Permaculture Design Certification course in August, and I try to practice and promote alternative construction, alternative energy and urbanism. I advocate for a steady state economy based upon needs rather than overconsumption. It’s not much, but it’s a start. Looking forward to checking out the book.

            P.S. I mispoke earlier. I meant to contrast a geometric progression versus an arithmetic progression. Basically, exponential growth of debt leads to catastrophic boom and bust cycles.

    2. “Since the economy requires exponential growth, and the real world can only grow geometrically, we have an economy whose fundamental basis is a logical impossibility.”

      The first clause is true, but why is the second true? It seems to overlook the fact that wealth can be non-physical, or contain only a very low physical component. If I buy some music (I know, I know), very little physical stuff is required, but a significant amount of wealth can be generated. Ditto for software. So what is the limit here?
      Looking back over the last few decades, I see a smaller and smaller proportion of my wealth being spent on physical things. I don’t feel poorer.

        1. Well, it depends on whether you value the virtual goods. If the goods are a baseless promise of riches to come, then I can see the Ponzi argument, though even there one could argue that the feel good factor of thinking you’re rich has some value, at least for a while. But what about the other virtual goods that genuinely provide pleasure?
          Anyway, all I was trying to point out is that you have more work to do to show your assertion that the “world can only grow geometrically” is actually true.

          1. I was not the one making the “geometric growth” statement.

            And there is already research showing that once basic food, clothing and shelter needs are met, who you spend your time with have more to say about your enjoyment of life then the goods, virtual or real, that you collect around you.

    3. In essence, humanity sucks at planning beyond tomorrow. Hell, it is claimed that death worry us more if we think about the moments right after death then 100 years after the same.

      Consider Y2k, or the transition to IP6. In both cases we know what the problem is, that it will happen, but not until we are counting the teeth of the predator do we accept that the issue is real. And those are low key problems compared to climate/warming, peak oil and all the rest.

    4. Um, exponential functions have geometric growth. What exactly do you mean by those terms?

  16. The present sucks. People, too many, are suffering from lack of resources and lack of distribution. The future is bleak. The only point in history that we’ve had it worse than right now is every other point in history.

    God damn, people. Buck the fuck up. We’ve eliminated so much disease that people fear dying from chance mutations more than anything. The environment’s so clean that people worry about it warming up a few degrees over the course of centuries. The economy’s so good and the world is so stable that we get all hot and bothered over what politics are like on the other side of the god damned globe.

    We’ve never had it so good.

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