Tag Archives: Futurism

My Review of After Shock

After Shock: The World’s Foremost Futurists Reflect on 50 Years of Future Shock—and Look Ahead to the Next 50 by John Schroeter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good book, but somewhat mixed by its nature. As the subhead says, it is a collection of essays by futurists, and they are both looking back on the Tofflers’ Future Shock, and looking ahead to the future. As such, the quality of each essay can vary. Some of them will be excellent, others might leave you wondering how this person got a reputation for insight, but on average they will make you think. There was only one essay that I started and abandoned two pages in. The other point that should be clear is that this is an optimistic book. The editor who put this together is the Executive Director of the Abundant World Institute. I am an optimist despite Covid-19, Trump, and all of the other evils of our time. The future is so bright I gotta wear shades.

That said, this is a thick volume, and not one that you would just sit down and read through like a novel. I would advise that you should dip into it for an essay or two at a time. Since I read on my Kindle, I tend to have several books I am reading at any time, which makes this easy.

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My Review of Homo Deus

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Harari is an historian, which is the lens he uses here to think about the future. What he attempts to do is to use the trajectory of human development in the past as a guide to how the future will go. For example, how people have related to animals in the past is taken as a forecast of how future “super-humans” will relate to us. On this point he is fairly comfortable that we have nothing to worry about. This is a book that is great at stimulating thought and throwing out questions, but not in providing answers. Whether that is a good or a bad thing you would have to decide, but in the course of reading I often stopped to just think about what he said, and about related ideas that came to mind because of what he said.

In the last chapter he goes in a direction somewhat similar to Kevin Kelly in What Technology Wants when Harari discusses what he calls “The Data Religion”, and this quote can give you an idea of what he is thinking here:

“1. Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing.
2. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
3. Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.”

This is definitely thought-provoking stuff, but I found this last chapter the least convincing part of the book.

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My Review of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think it is important to consider how the things we do today will create the future we will inhabit. Kurzweil’s book is very important. You might think that the things he talks about cannot possibly happen. But then think about Moore’s Law, and what that has done in one small area. That is the premise Kurzweil starts with, and he makes an attractive case for it. Still, I am skeptical because the brain is so much more complex than he seems to realize. I doubt the things he predicts will happen on his schedule. Still, this is a book that is thought-provoking.

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The Science Fiction Community and Penguicon

There is a venerable saying with much truth to it that the golden age of science fiction is 14. And it was certainly golden for me at that age. I could imagine myself as Kimball Kinnison, fighting the Boskonian menace and making the universe safe for Civilization. And I certainly inherited the Baslim Reflex. People like Smith, Heinlein and Asimov helped to make me the man I am today, and I like that. I imbibed some good values that way.

But one of the things that Science Fiction does to an impressionable youth is give the idea that the future may be different. Heinlein in particular focused a lot on social change and how mores would shift over time. Reading about line marriages in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, or about the polyamorous nest in Stranger in a Strange Land had me question exactly what values I had about that, and even more so, why I had them. And I remember the idea in Space Cadet that you need to doubt received wisdom. So I questioned and doubted as I looked for the values I would stand for, all the while remembering that they might not be the values that the current society promoted.

Does that mean I rejected all of the current values? Not at all. I am very happily and monogamously married to a woman I adore, and and have adored for 39 years. I don’t think that is going to change. But I know some other people have different ideas in this community of Science Fiction, and as long as they don’t try to hurt me it comes under the heading of “none of my damn business” (a very Heinlein-esque value; he always derided the “Mrs. Grundy” types.) I am also firmly heterosexual, something else that is not likely to change, but I don’t get upset with people who have different preferences, again just so long as they don’t try to hurt me. Something I never gave much thought to in my younger days was transgendered people, but then I ended up knowing some, and that tends to alter your view a bit. And then there is Samuel R. Delany, a one-man wrecking crew for your inbuilt prejudices.

So to me Science Fiction was always about social change as much as about technological change. I think Science Fiction fans live in the future, and when I am at a Science fiction convention I always feel like I am with “my people”, the ones who also try to live in the future. Unfortunately, living in the future is not universally liked by all Science Fiction fans. I think some of them are like Francis Fukuyama, who famously wrote about the End of History. They think that a variety of questions have been answered for all time. Among these are:

1. Free Market Capitalism is the only possible economic system that can work.
2. Nationalism is the only way for people to experience freedom.
3. Equality of the sexes violates natural law. And by the way, there are only two sexes, and that is determined by chromosomes.

I suspect a certain amount of this comes from Social Darwinism in their thinking. And that is bad Darwinian thinking, as any good biologist can tell you. In biology, you cannot legitimately claim that there is a ladder of progress to evolution, such that each change in the organism makes it “better” in any sense. All you can say is that some organisms fit their environment well. And similarly, Nationalism and Capitalism are not better than other arrangements, just things that seemed suited to particular circumstances. A true Science Fiction fan should subject all of this to questioning, to Heinlein’s “doubt”. And the same thing goes for sexual identity and sexual practices, and indeed for any social arrangements. Science Fiction is about raising alternatives and seeing how they might work (or not; both cases are worthy of study).

So when someone says Science Fiction has to go back to some golden age in the past, I think that would be a betrayal of everything Science Fiction is. The only golden age is 14, and if you cannot find that 14-year-old sense of wonder any longer, I feel sorry for you. The Science Fiction community will, I hope, continue to live in the future. Anything else is betraying who we are.

Review of The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind

The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind by Michio Kaku
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book, but then I like Michio Kaku in general so I was not surprised. He takes a look at the research on how the brain functions, and at the medical studies involved in tapping into the brain to do things like mentally control machines. The implications for assistance technology are pretty mind-blowing. From there he goes into whether it may be possible to upload a complete neuronal map into a computer, and what that might entail. Then he looks at beaming such a map via lasers to another star system as a form of interstellar travel. It is all very “science fiction”, but grounded in solid science. The BRAIN initiative from the Obama administration could make all of this come true sooner than you expect. I recommend highly.

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Review of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a book that I gave 3-stars to because parts of it are 5-star and parts are 1-star, so this is how it averages out. If you are reading to the right stuff, it is invaluable, but if you read it uncritically you would be making a big mistake.

First, the good stuff. Ridley does a great job of puncturing the “doom-and-gloom” view that everything is going wrong and the world is on a downhill slide. He points out that people having been saying this for a very long time, and events tend to prove them wrong. I’m reminded of the quote that was making the rounds in my youth about “kids these days…” and it turned out to have been written in ancient Greece over 2,000 years ago. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. A lot of that dim view comes from thinking unclearly. For instance, an example he notes is the famous Club of Rome report published in 1972 called The Limits to Growth. This book showed how we would be clean out of every resource you could name by the late 80s to mid-90s. How many of you remember when we had no oil, no steel, no copper, etc.? I don’t remember it either, because it never happened. And Ridley is very clear on just why this is so, and he gets it right. The reason is that when a non-renewable resource starts to get into short supply the price rises, and this rising price causes conservation on the demand side, a search for substitutes, and the increased exploration for new supplies. And this is exactly what happened in the 1970s and 1980s when oil seemed to be in short supply. This is not a new observation, Hotelling wrote about this in the early 20th century, but it is a good idea to keep basic economics in mind when addressing resource issues.

Where he goes wrong, in my view, is taking this basic insight into an extreme of Panglossian optimism that says all problems we might think exist are simply figments of our over-active imaginations, and that if we would just relax and let free markets take over everything would be wonderful. In the end he seems to say that you should ignore scientists on issues such as global warming because what do they know really? He has a view that unrestricted capitalism and markets will solve all problems, which probably plays well in Libertarian circles, but is more extreme than even most economists would go.

So, if you read it for a useful guide to the many things that do go right in the world, that is good. And reminding us of the very definite benefits of markets, specialization, and exchange is always useful. But on this topic Adam Smith did it better and with more nuance in the 18th century.

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Review of I Live In The Future & Here’s How It Works

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think this book would be a good one for your older relative who doesn’t understand everything going on in the online world. It covers how old businesses are going over the cliff, and new business models will need to be created. If you are like me, and have been parked in front of a computer screen with an internet connection every day for the last 15 years, you probably won’t find a whole lot here you didn’t already know. So it is not a bad book, but nothing terribly revolutionary here. Yes, we will soon be reading most things on screens instead of print on paper. Yes, the advertising support is moving away from print to online. You know, this book is a couple of years old, and maybe it is just that in that time we have all gotten used to the changes.

I read this in the Nook e-book edition.

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Review of Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think

Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this as a Nook eBook.

The global climate is changing and the ice caps are melting. Civil liberties are eroding. Romney is rising in the polls.

There are a lot of reasons to be pessimistic about the state of the world. If you are inclined that way, this book is a useful corrective.

I can’t say that a whole lot of this book was new to me, since I follow many of these topics already. He brings in the exponential growth curves that Ray Kurzweil has popularized (think Moore’s Law, but applied to a lot more than just transistors on silicon). And a key concept he brings in is that energy is very close to being abundant, cheap, and clean. We are within just a few years of solar voltaic electricity being cheaper than what you are buying right now from your utility. As Dana Blankenhorn likes to say “There is no energy shortage. The sun shines, the wind blows, the tides roll, we live on a molten rock.” This one factor alone is going to make for radical change soon.

Another factor he points to is what he calls “the rising billions”. People themselves are a resource, and we are creating the technology to empower them without even intending to do so. Even the poor now have access to the Internet through cell phones. So the future is going to be radically different.

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