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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Future” by Richard Slaughter in ‘Foresight’
The Future: A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer M. Gidley (OUP, 2017)
BOOK REVIEW by Richard Slaughter, Founder: Foresight International, Brisbane
In the journal Foresight, 20(4): 443-446.
“[A] thoroughly researched and beautifully expressed invitation to look deeper at this fascinating field of enquiry…
Chapter [two] – futures multiplied – draws on a variety of sources to show how during the 1960s futures enquiry moved steadily away from empirical and extrapolative concerns toward more pluralistic approaches consistent with developments in the social sciences. This provides far greater meaning and explanatory power to notions of alternatives in general and alternative futures in particular. Futures enquiry became more democratic and global.
Chapter three on the ‘evolving scholarship of futures studies’ covers a lot of ground without sacrificing a certain necessary degree of depth. The main device employed is to show the evolution of the field from ‘critical -‘ to ‘cultural -‘ to ‘participatory -‘ and then finally to ‘integral futures.’ This is entirely appropriate as it both reflects more recent developments to futures per se as well as some of the ‘layers’ or approaches within futures work…
[Chapter four] turns to what is ironically termed ‘crystal balls, flying cars and robots.’ Such ‘pop futures’ icons are firmly put in their place and a refreshingly brief but effective critique advanced of the ‘transhumanist’ fallacy – i.e., that humans could one day merge with their machines…
The next theme is the conflict or tension between ‘technotopian’ and ‘human-centred futures’ … it clearly draws on the author’s own philosophical commitments and her impressive body of work…
[Chapter six] summarises both the great global challenges of our time and the equally broad range of global future alternatives that represent a collective ‘tool kit’ of possible responses.
It is well researched, concise and lucidly written. This excellent book also contains a useful guide to further reading and websites as well as a handy index.”
TO READ THE FULL BOOK REVIEW GO TO FORESIGHT INTERNATIONAL.
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‘The Possible Human’ Review of ‘The Future: A VSI’ in the ‘Network Review’
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.
Posthumanism: A New Superman from Google and Facebook?
[This short blog is an entrée to Chapter 4: “Crystal Balls, Flying Cars and Robots” in my new Oxford book The Future: A Very Short Introduction.]
The tale of the future is the dreamtime of industrial society. It reaches down to the mythic roots within human experience to find sources of supreme power, means of transcending all limitations, opportunities for achieving absolute perfection. (I.F. Clarke, 1979, p. 51)
Posthumanism is an emerging topic in the high-tech end of futures discourse. Oxford Professor Nick Bostrom says a posthuman person is one with at least one posthuman capacity, by which he mean a “general central capacity greatly exceeding the maximum attainable by any current human being without recourse to new technological means.” Bostom includes three domains of human life: “healthspan… cognition… emotion.”
Because posthumanism, a la Bostrom and others, requires technological intervention, posthumans are essentially a new, or hybrid, species. Related concepts include cyborg and android. The term cyborg is a shortened form of ‘cybernetic organism’ and arose out of cybernetics in the 1960s. The movie character Terminator is a cyborg. However, the concept of a human/machine hybrid has been used in science fiction for almost 200 years, originating with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster. The concept of android is a robot in the form of a human being and is connected with the high-tech ambition to create so-called machine super-intelligence.
Although the ethical dilemmas of creating posthumans are far from resolved, significant resources are being dedicated to developing ‘posthuman entities’. These include: Deep Mind (UK), now owned by Google; Vicarious, funded to the tune of $40 million by Elon Musk (Tesla Cars), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook); and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) supported by Peter Thiel (PayPal). Because of the growing controversy over AI, when Google bought Deep Mind, they agreed to establish an Ethics Board to oversee its efforts to create conscious machines. Ironically, the posthuman that transhumanists imagine, not unlike the Superman of the 1930s comic series, is still fictional.
Fig. 1: Superman 1938: pre-WWII Fig. 2: Superman 1944: War-Hero
The Posthuman concept is promoted, like Superman was in the 1930s, to make people, mostly men, aspire to be bigger, stronger and tougher, to overcome their fears of the unknown future. The superman fantasy is arguably driven by the psychological fears of young men who are afraid they are not powerful enough. Is it possible that the young Silicon Valley billionaire-digital-natives are fearful of the hi-tech future they are creating but cannot control? Are they able to adequately discern the distinction between physical and virtual reality or are they living in a self-perpetuating echo-chamber—a virtual Matrix?
The all-American Superman began as a generalised “good guy” (Fig. 1) who solved everyday American problems using his superhuman powers—something of a posthuman policeman. As World War II unfolded, Superman became more politicised, as he consorted with the US Defence Forces. After the US joined the war, following the bombing of the American fleet in Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Superman took on the Nazi war machine (Fig. 2).
I raise these Posthuman-Superman analogies for two reasons. Firstly, we need to be clear on the sci-fi roots of posthumanism. Like transhumanism, and the singularity, the posthuman-superman imaginary has emerged from a century of techno-utopianism and science fiction. In spite of all the hype around AI and ASI, we need to be clear that Posthumanism is still a science fiction concept at this point in human history. MIRI’s website states that even “human-equivalent general intelligence is still largely relegated to the science fiction shelf.” Regardless of who writes about posthumanism, and whether they are Oxford philosophers, MIT scientists, or Google engineers, we do not yet have the scientific and technological means to create such beings. It’s a long way off.
Secondly, no matter how pure the motives of those who want to invent posthumans today, there are no guarantees as to how such entities would be deployed in future, were they to ever be invented. There is a naivety in the claims of some transhumanists about AI solving humanity’s biggest challenges, without due consideration of the contrasting scenario of transhuman treachery. The espoused mission of Singularity University is to use accelerating technologies to address ‘humanity’s hardest problems’. A clue to their extreme technotopianism is that they see humans as a multi-planetary species and aim to colonize other planets (like Mars) offering humans a ‘kind of species survival insurance policy against extinction-level events’. Kurzweil views the singularity as an inevitable trend but his mission reads like a science fiction screenplay. It is hard to overlook the striking resemblance between the Singularity University logo (Fig. 3 ) and the Superman logo (Fig. 4).
Fig. 3: Singularity University Logo Fig. 4: Superman Logo in Brass
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