Histories of the Future

Histories of the Future

2003-06-22
Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years
Bruce Sterling
New York: Random House, 2002.

Steve Shaviro reviews Tomorrow Now by Bruce Sterling, a book that (for an eminent cyberpunk novelist) is perhaps too sane and sensible.

Bruce Sterling’s new nonfiction book, Tomorrow Now, is a genial work of futurological speculation. As an eminent science fiction writer, Sterling knows as well as anyone that it is utter folly to try to predict what the world will actually be like fifty years from now. What he does, instead, is to extrapolate from current trends in our technologically-driven culture, in order to sketch out the direction in which we are heading – leaving open the question of whether we will actually get there, as opposed to veering off on some unexpected tangent.

What we get in Tomorrow Now is a surprisingly sane and sensible view of politics, economics, culture, and technology in the 21st century. Sterling starts the book by rejecting the prophetic roles of Dr. Pangloss and Cassandra alike. He doesn’t think that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, but neither does he prophesy apocalyptic disaster. He prefers instead to draw from Shakespeare: Jacques’ “Seven Ages of Man” speech, from As You Like It, provides a framework for the book. As You Like It is “a great play for futurists,” Sterling suggests, because “it smoothly combines contradictions… The status quo is changing quickly and violently, because the central authority figure, Duke Frederick, is a paranoid lunatic” (xx). In such a situation – which is also very much ours – an image of life cycles and temporal continuity, such as the melancholy Jacques propounds, is the best way to set off the differences that the future is bound to bring.

Sterling is aware of the dangers of environmental destruction, and of the sort of New World Disorder we’ve gotten tastes of, recently, in places like Bosnia and Chechnya; but mostly he writes about what it will be like for us to muddle through the next fifty years, despite the rather extraordinary technological changes we are experiencing. Sterling rejects both the idea that there is nothing new under the sun, and that the changes we are going through are so radical as to mark an absolute break with the past.

Sterling’s discussion includes a lot of useful demystification. Twenty-first-century biotechnology will probably mean a lot of genetic redesign, as well as the engineering of bacteria to keep us in good health, and to produce all sorts of useful substances; but it won’t involve cloning and interspecies hybridization on a grand scale. Even the currently much-touted idea of parents genetically engineering their own offspring, to make them into superhumans, is extremely unlikely. For as Sterling cleverly points out, any parents who give their offspring a fixed genetic upgrade at birth will quickly find the technology outdated. What could be worse than having Windows 95 children, in an XP world? Genetic enhancements, if they become available, will more likely be applied on a piecemeal, ad hoc basis.

To take another example, Sterling agrees that our lived environment will probably become even more filled with pervasive computing devices than it is now. But he argues that to think that we will eventually download our minds into silicon devices, or that future-generation artificial intelligences will leave humanity in the dust, is to misunderstand the basic nature of computing. Computers perform specific functions, which will allow them to become parts of us, and thereby to extend our abilities in various directions; but the very fact that they are so useful to us means that it is silly to think they will replace us. Or to put this another way: Even if computers were to replace us, how would we ever notice? They can only replace us to the extent that they become us, or we become them. Perhaps this has happened already; in any case, apocalyptic scenarios are irrelevant.

Most importantly, Sterling reminds us (if we can be reminded of the future) that, even if a Singularity, or radical discontinuity in the human condition, were somehow to occur, we are mistaken to project our own apocalyptic fantasies onto it. For “the posthuman condition is banal. It is astounding, and eschatological, and ontological, but only by human standards…. By the new, post-Singularity standards, posthumans are just as bored and frustrated as humans ever were” (297).

The book is a useful antidote, therefore, to the excesses on both sides of discussions about the effects of new technologies. Sterling refutes the messianic proclamations of artificial intelligence visionaries like Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil, or for that matter of “DNA is everything” fanatics like James Watson. But he equally discredits the alarmism of the likes of Bill McKibben, who worries in a recent book that high technology is leading us to disaster.

Politically, Tomorrow Now is a bit more mainstream-liberal, or middle of the road, than I would wish. Sterling may well be right that there is no viable alternative, currently, to rampant global capitalism; but I wish he had more of a place for the hope for change, even if this hope is improbable. Sterling is certainly aware of the downside of the global capitalist system, in a way that “New Economy” boosters like Kevin Kelly (whom he warmly praises, but with a grain of salt) are not. But Sterling is too American-pragmatic to have anything like a vision of the structural violence of the world system, in the way that not only Marxists do, but non-Marxist social thinkers such as Manuel Castells as well.

Otherwise my only disappointment with this book is that in certain ways Sterling is too sane and sensible. What’s missing is the satirical thrust and the wild yet still plausible inventiveness of his science fiction novels. Sterling is right to deflate fantasies of transcendence, while at the same time reminding us that things will change, in ways that have enormous ramifications, and that we cannot imagine in advance. But I wish – because this is one of the things that I look to good science fiction writers, like Sterling, for – that he had extrapolated a bit further, taken more of a risk of making a fool of himself. Human existence is endlessly weird, as Sterling himself says explicitly. And it has been weird as long as we have been around; this weirdness isn’t just an invention of new digital technologies. But there isn’t as much of this weirdness in Tomorrow Now itself as I would wish. I guess that’s the peril of writing as intelligently as Sterling does, about something (the future) to which intelligence cannot reliably be applied, since it is unknowable in any case.