Library shelves, both physical and digital, are well-stocked with works of futurists. I don’t mean science fiction, though more than a few futurists are also science fiction writers. I mean non-fiction efforts to forecast the future in light of evolving technologies; it’s a genre that cropped up in modern form about a century ago. Some authors are dystopian and lament the world we already have lost. Some are utopian to a degree that would shame Pollyanna. Most, though, are a curious mix of both. Examples: Alvin Toffler discusses the social upheavals associated with accelerating technological change in Future Shock (1970); Erik Drexler extols the promise of nanotechnology in Engines of Creation (1986); Vernor Vinge while in non-scifi mode wrote the influential The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era in 1993 about the era when artificial intelligence outstrips human intelligence; Michio Kaku has written more than a dozen such books so far, including Physics of the Future: How Science will Shape Human Destiny and our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 (2011). Possibly the most influential was the early entry The World, the Flesh & the Devil (1929) by British molecular biologist J.D. Bernal. I finally got around to opening it last week.
Bernal chose this title precisely because of the phrase’s baggage, though he himself was atheist and Marxist. The subtitle helps illuminate his subject: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul. By “world” he means the physical environment including the cosmos beyond earth which we engineer to suit ourselves. Bernal discusses methods of propulsion to escape earth’s gravity and to move beyond it; he predicts the eventual construction of permanent habitats in space and describes them in some detail. In the chapter on “flesh” he addresses biology and anticipates genetic engineering: “It is quite conceivable that the mechanism of evolution, as we know it up to the present, may well be superseded at this point.” He also discusses mechanical biological hybrids (cyborgs) and group minds intermediated by machines (think the Borg of Star Trek). By “devil” he means the dark side of human nature and our animal heritage which so readily turn technologies deadly. “The devil,” he writes, “is the most difficult of all to deal with: he is inside ourselves.” It was a natural thought just 11 years after WW1. Bernal is not entirely sure how well our attempts to transcend ourselves in this regard will turn out.
What is striking about The World, the Flesh & the Devil is how contemporary it seems. Current books by current futurists still raise many of the same points and make many of the same predictions, even though we now are brushing the edges of technologies that were merely a distant notion in 1929. Bernal’s vision holds up pretty well. So do his reservations about how things will turn out given what he calls our mammalian natures.
Why do we enjoy writing and reading about a future we personally will not live to see? Perhaps it is just a way to divert ourselves from a present we find unsatisfactory; futurism thus can be the flip side to nostalgia. Perhaps, also, it is a way of including ourselves in that future – “a way of cheating death,” to quote Bernal in his “flesh” chapter. Does this work? Maybe a little. Bernal died in 1971, but I met him last week after a fashion. I’m sure he would have preferred to meet me (or anyone) in person though. Woody Allen: “I don’t want to live on in my work. I want to live on in my apartment.”
The Offspring – The Future is Now