Futurology has a reputation right up there with fortune-telling as a discipline. Flying cars, anyone? But that hasn’t stopped “trend analyst” Richard Watson trying with his new book Future Files, which attempts an omnibus analysis of where the world’s going over the next 50 years.
Obviously, attempting such a broad look at future history is a hugely ambitious undertaking, as Watson himself acknowledges. As such, the book is more Watson’s attempt to provoke thought as to what might happen over the next five decades. But even given all that, and to give credit to Watson for making the attempt, this is an incredibly flawed book. It is bedevilled by a lack of technical expertise, historical context, and an extraordinary level of credulity towards hype merchants of all kinds.
Perhaps the key thing that makes the future different from today is the development of science and technology; from that, predictions of
its social consequences flow. But Watson shows his profound ignorance of the fundamentals of science in one amazing paragraph:
For instance, “Other possible upheavals would be a collapse in consensus about one of the major ideas of nineteeth and
twentieth-century science. There are lots of contenders to be debunked, but surely the most high-profile must be the theories of Darwin, Einstein, and Freud. Again, I will probably be labelled as nut for even suggesting that a theory such as natural selection could ever be overturned, but this merely demonstrated the strength and power of conventional wisdom and the sheer force required to displace such ideas.
It’s hard to know where to begin with this. The idea that Freud’s work represents part of any scientific consensus shows a complete ignorance of modern psychology. Modern evolutionary theory, while still based on Darwin’s key observations, has progressed enormously in the past century and a half as new information (notably, genetics) has come in. And, finally, Watson seems to think a physical “Theory of Everything”, uniting quantum theory and relativity, would in some way “debunk” Einstein’s work. Such a discovery would no more debunk Einstein than Einstein debunked Newtonian mechanics. Special and general relativity provided a model of things that were not explainable in terms of classical mechanics – but the first of these to be detected was a minute deviationin the orbit of Mercury, and this anomaly was not even quantified until a century after his death. Newton’s laws were, and are, more than accurate enough to describe a huge variety of physical phenomena, including everything the civil and mechanical engineers have ever tackled! As the Wikipedia puts it:
No physical theory to date is believed to be precisely accurate. Instead, physics has proceeded by a series of “successive
approximations” allowing more and more accurate predictions over a wider and wider range of phenomena.
A new physical theory – perhaps the long-sought Theory of Everything – would be more of the same.
It doesn’t get any better in his breathless treatment of technology. It’s a regurgitation of Kurzweil’s knowledge-free fantasies in “The Age of Spiritual Machines” (though, thankfully, we don’t get inflicted with the rapture-of-the-nerds theorizing of “The Singularity…”). And then there’s global warming and the energy shortage. There is voluminous good material as close as your friendly local internet on this topic, and Watson spends bugger-all time on any of it. His one major point is that he regards the problem as overrated, waving the problem away on the basis of humanity’s ability to innovate in a crisis. There’s actually some merit to this, I think, but such a cursory treatment is unworthy of such a serious topic squarely within the remit of the work.
My expertise in cultural, economic, and business trends is considerably more limited, but even here there were any number of things that I’d like to dispute, or at least dispute the significance Watson assigns to them. For instance, the book makes a big deal over the move of large retailers into, well, retail banking. But retailers have always played a significant part in the credit market – anybody remember Myercard? Heck, Geoffrey Blainey’s book Black Kettle and Full Moon goes into some detail of the pivotal role that storekeepers played as credit providers in pre-Federation Australia. More profoundly, Watson completely ignores the power of economic growth to help tackle many of the issues – such as how to care for our aging population – facing us.Perhaps it’s his view that economic growth is coming to a screeching halt. How Watson squares this with his belief in what represents fairly radical (and unrealistically optimistic) technological development I do not grasp.
While not every trend analysed in Future Files is as poorly done as these, the bulldust level is so high as to make it entirely unsatisfactory even as a discussion starter on the future. Far more interesting is the meta-question its failure raises – is there significant value in attempting such a project – a synoptic, broad-brush, overview of future history?
For what it’s worth, I don’t think there is. If you’ve got an original idea about a single future trend – much as I can’t stand it, perhaps Kurzweil’s “The Singularity” is such an idea – and explore it in depth in book-length form, that’s entirely different. But thought experiments involving the construction of future societies is an exercise much more successfully tackled by science fiction writers.
If, after this review, you’re still interested in Watson’s ideas, he was interviewed on LNL a few days ago.