<i>Book review: Future Files: A History of the Next 50 Years </i>

01:43, Jan 31 2009

What will our lives be like in 50 years? Will we enjoy a high-tech utopia packed with hover-boards and robo-servants; will we dig for Twinkies in a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Futurists generally fall into two camps: those prepared to make "big calls", and those who prefer to play it safe. In 1992, historian Francis Fukuyama produced an audacious book called The End of History and the Last Man, in which he predicted nothing less than "the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government". If you're going to be wrong, you may as well go nuts.

The second type of futurist ensures their longevity by making predictions so vague that they can't possibly be held to account later. In Future Files: A History of the Next 50 Years, Richard Watson shares his sure-fire formula for predicting the future: "To do it one must first observe what is already happening and then make educated guesses as to where some of what is happening may lead." He uses this deep insight to predict a world where our species has fractured into two halves: the natural and the enhanced. In the future, consumption will be "time-shifted" and "space-shifted". We'll indulge in "fly-by-breakfasts", and "life-caching". Hyphenation will be huge. We'll suffer from "time-famine" and "space-anxiety", and we'll cope with the avalanche of change by escaping into nostalgic pursuits. As people and products become more perfect we'll seek out imperfect things that will remind us of our past. "Patina will be big in the future." You heard it here.

We will have the fully-wired smart-homes we've been promised, but many of us will reject them for the model we're familiar with. Watson quotes David Bowie: "I spend all day in a recording studio surrounded by technology. When I get home all I want to do is have a cup of tea and touch some wood." We will become, Watson thinks, "socially and emotionally inept" with relationships started, consummated and finished digitally. We will have digital divorces and commit virtual adultery. We'll become, if Watson is right, a society of lonely wood-touchers.

Most of his predictions seem to rely on a simplistic extension of current trends. Secrecy will be history in the future, thinks Watson, thanks to social networking databases and sophisticated monitoring. To cope, we'll invent "ethical bankruptcy" by which our soiled reputations can be laundered clean.

Watson shows an awareness of new media, if not a deep understanding. His claim that the majority of content on sites such as MySpace and Facebook is "produced by teenagers proving to themselves and others that they exist" is a lazy way to marginalise an important media phenomenon. His failure to even mention quantum technology (a field that could have a greater impact on our species than any other) is bizarre. Watson is a speculative futurist who doesn't get carried away with research, or statistics. His book doesn't have an index, and his sources for almost everything in the book come from "my trend reports". What this means is that Watson's book is stuck in a strange place not focused enough to be informative and not creative enough to be entertaining. The dizzying onslaught of stealth-taxes, smart-mirrors, space-ladders, quiet paint, and robogoats gives us a work of science fiction that doesn't quite satisfy our imaginations, and a work of non-fiction that doesn't quite satisfy our curiosity.


Sunday Star Times