The Future: A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer M. Gidley (OUP, 2017)
BOOK REVIEW by David Lorimer, Editor of the Network Review: Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network (2017) No. 123, Issue 1: 54-55.
In this brilliant and concise overview – part of the OUP Very Short Introduction series – [Jennifer Gidley] gives readers multiple insights into the field and ways of thinking about the future… This book not only raises the issues in a highly readable manner, but also raises awareness, and as such I can recommend it unreservedly.
Jennifer Gidley is President of the World Futures Studies Federation, and is also an educator and psychologist. In this brilliant and concise overview – part of the OUP Very Short Introduction series – she gives readers multiple insights into the field and ways of thinking about the future. She defines futures studies as ‘the art and science of taking responsibility for the long- term consequences of our decisions and our actions today.’ She is careful to emphasise that the future is not just something that happens, nor is it inevitable, but we co-create it through our thoughts and actions within both a cultural and global or planetary context.
The notion of the future is closely tied to the way we think about time. The French word means what is to come (a-venir) while the English word first appears in the 14th century. Gidley traces the origins of linear time to the emergence of philosophy in Greece, while prior societies lived in a more embedded, cyclical sense of time. Taming time is equated with measurement and control and is represented by the emergence of calendars and clocks as well as predictions. Early predictions were prophetic or oracular as we sought to grapple with uncertainty with a measure of both hope and fear. Coming up to date, we find that the US Department of Defence coined a new term in the 1990s: VUCA, which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – terms we can certainly recognise today, and which are also reflected in scientific developments. The author looks at the thinking of Roger and Francis Bacon and the emergence of a mechanistic and engineering metaphor, which still dominates science today and which is associated with control and precision. However, both Newton and Francis Bacon embodied the tension between modern and hermetic science, and the author correctly notes that Bacon was both the father of empiricism and leader of the Rosicrucian movement in England.
More scientific predictions emerged with HG Wells and JBS Haldane about a hundred years ago, then with Aldous Huxley’s dystopic A Brave New World. Forecasting becomes more scientific, but there is a danger of simply extrapolating current trends and discounting the unexpected. The German physicist, economist and sociologist Rolf Kreibich warns us about a singular future approach based on ‘the scientific- technological-industrial expansion of all aspects of life’, which he sees as a tunnel vision and which Gidley contrasts with a more participatory and integral approach. She considers the implications of the development of robotics, which is partly being driven by the military and aims to bridge the human-machine divide.
This brings her onto transhumanism, which is ‘inextricably linked with technological advancement or extension of human capacities through technology.’ (p. 92) It is a systematic attempt to overcome some of our biological limits, but it is important to realise that it is based on an ideology of technological determinism and a mechanistic view of consciousness and the human being. These people envisage a new, hybrid species and the creation of a technotopia through techno-fixes. However, as Lewis Mumford was already writing in the 1940s, there is a danger of dehumanisation in this post-human vision that many of its proponents regard as an inevitable development. Cleverness has to be balanced by emotional intelligence and the expression of moral and aesthetic values.
Chapter 5 is in my view the key of the book, focusing as it does on technotopian or human-centred futures as diverging streams already identified by the futurist Willis Harman in the 1980s.
He saw two broad possibilities: evolutionary transformational or technological extrapolationist – the latter, as I already mentioned, is based on a mechanistic, behaviourist model of the human being, while the ethos within the Network favours a more human-centred model also promoted by holistic medicine, organic agriculture and publications like Resurgence. Gidley explains the varieties of transhumanism, including Teilhard de Chardin, Sir Julian Huxley, Nietzsche, Bergson and Steiner, all with different visions. She then looks at conscious human-centred futures as a counterpoint and based on the evolution of consciousness in a transpersonal direction.
Here again, she is exceptionally well informed and points out that we have a choice of either continuing to invest heavily in ‘technotopian dreams of creating machines that can operate better than humans. Or we can invest more of our consciousness and resources on educating and consciously evolving human futures with all the wisdom that would entail.’ (p. 115)
The final chapter reflects on grand global futures challenges, especially urbanisation, education and climate. Her tables on pp. 119-20 summarise both the challenges and alternative possible responses under various headings such as governance, economic, health, energy, leadership, technology and conflict. As Al Gore notes, many of these challenges are the consequences of short-term economic thinking and the reckless use of our planet’s resources. However, we can contribute to co- creating an ecological and regenerative future rather than continuing extraction and exploitation. The French philosopher Edgar Morin, like Gregory Bateson, put his finger on the educational challenge: ‘one of the greatest problems we face today is how to adjust our way of thinking to meet the challenge of an increasingly complex, rapidly changing, unpredictable world. We must rethink our way of organising knowledge.’ (p. 131) In this sense, it becomes very clear that our ‘old fragmented, mechanistic, and materialistic ways of thinking are not capable of dealing with the growing complexity of global environmental, economic and societal change.’ The situation is not helped by the dominance of linear analysis in our universities, so that young people are coming into the world with inadequate ways of thinking.
However, as the author points out in her conclusion, ‘we all have the capacity to create our desired features, for more than most of us realise’ and we can work collaboratively for positive change and towards the future we prefer.
It seems to me that there needs to be much more public discussion and reflection about the nature of the future that we are creating together in a technological, economic, ecological, cultural and personal sense – and especially of the tensions between the technotopic and human-centred visions. This book not only raises the issues in a highly readable manner, but also raises awareness, and as such I can recommend it unreservedly.