Monday, 6 January 2014

New Year, new books (on top of the piles of unread ones I already had) and new feature...

I'm opening the blog to guest posters this year, as and when people feel inspired to send me their thoughts (I have some lined up, if you want to contribute send me a message and i'll add you to the list). First up is Dave Gullen, the author of the wonderful Shopocalypse amongst other things - there's a link to his blog on the side there under "my mate Dave". Many thanks for his thought provoking piece...

Without further ado - What's next? by David Gullen

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What’s next?

 

Way back when (1978) the science historian and writer James Burke presented a TV programme called Connections.  The series fascinated me and many others, in fact I have a couple of quotes from Burke in my SF novel, Shopocalypse.

 

This time of year we like to look ahead in our own lives and the wider world. Futureologists predict the future, so they say. To me futurology is simply the extrapolation of trends, looking at what’s under the radar and what’s pushing on hard: if we go down this road for five years where are we going to be in five years’ time? Useful and interesting, absolutely, and not actually very simple, but it doesn’t, it inherently cannot, go beyond that into any other future.  We’re all still waiting for our flying cars.

 

So, I write SF, I thought I’d give it a go. I also thought I’d go back to Burke and when I did it all got interesting-

 

One of Burke’s conclusions was that the rate of change is dependent on the ease of information exchange. As he was writing, he could say Western technology enjoyed three great bursts of innovation:  the Medieval period, when communication was re-established between European communities after the wars of the 10th century; the 17th century, when the scientific community used printing to exchange ideas; and the 19th century development of telecommunications.

 

Since then of course we’ve had a revolution in cheap powerful computing, the internet, and so on. You could argue that this is just more telecom, the important thing here is the digitisation of information. Within limits we can now get access to pretty much all knowledge instantly. The ease of exchange has gone up, and with it, the rate of change. It’s another revolution.

 

One discovery makes space for another. Automatic looms using punched cards allowed for error-free complex weaving – the cards allow or prevent pins to drop and control the loom threads: yes or no, on or off, O and 1. The idea was used by engineers for riveting, the ship-building revolution drove American immigration; the 1890 USA census used a modified punch card system devised by engineer Herman Hollerith; Hollerith formed the Tabulating Machine Company, which later merged with other businesses to ultimately form IBM.  Binary code, discovered in the 18th century by French weavers, now drives the modern world.

 

Fundamentally, you cannot predict what’s going to happen tomorrow based on what happened yesterday (yes, the sun always rises, yadda yadda , but one day, pal, one day.) We can only work with what we know – the future can only ever be conjecture.

 

So what’s the next big thing? Extrapolating from what’s going on now, all still mostly under the radar, it has to be synthetic biology. Where did that come from? I doubt at the time many people thought a 19th century German monk would become the founder of modern genetics.  Synthetic biology is absolutely in its infancy but the technology is garage level. Kids can do it. Kids are doing it. When the toolbox is complete, when making new life is little more than a process of selecting the right bricks out of the Lego box, the world will change again, and again in ways we cannot imagine - in the same way the first men and women of the Iron Age could not imagine the Industrial Revolution.

 

This coming century we can extrapolate a great deal about planet earth, human society, the big mix where those two things collide. It’s pretty easy to see we’re heading towards a perfect storm (ha!) of climate change, resource limits, and population growth. Layer that with geopolitical and economic changes, the fact that we’re already at the fringes of vast social change as populations come to terms with the overt and covert intrusions of the governments that claim to govern on their behalf, the governments next door, and the commercial entities that collude with them. It’s going to be a fascinating ride through more than interesting times.

 

Under it all I think Burke was right - what is more important than the next big thing is how we process information and how we share it around. Now that we have all our information, now every piece of data and knowledge is at our fingertips, what can we do with it? How can we aggregate and synthesise it, fit it all together into new ways? How do we ‘nexialise’ it? How do we make sure that what we read and what people tell us is actually true? Maybe, if and when they turn up, the true AIs will be able to do that for us.

 

As a corollary to this, something I think we urgently need and don’t see we are going to get, is better forms of government. Tribes and villages are one thing, mega-cities and nations of tens and hundreds of millions are another. Humanity is rapidly forming into clusters of super-organisms. As individuals we need to be more engaged, as societies we need less amateurism, less tribalism, and more expertise in our politics. What are the chances?

 

And we’re going into space. Yay! Finally, it seems we really are! The moon, planets, asteroids. At long last space exploration is being commercialised. Yes it’s not perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than orbital bombs and a cold war military arms race.  After decades of stagnation it now feels like a hugely optimistic time for space exploration.

 

In fact, despite all the obvious, severe and significant problems we do have we should be optimistic about the future. Hundreds of millions of people are leaving poverty, there is less warfare, problems are being solved, knowledge is being gained.  

 

We are in THE most exciting times.  Human society across the planet is dynamic, vibrant and developing. We’re learning and we’re changing. Now is the time to be alive. For a writer of speculative fiction the world is an amazing place, it always was. If we want them to be, our stories can be mirrors of the world today and gateways to guessable futures.  Real change?  Synthetic biology – that’s where it’s at.  Trust me. One day we won’t need street lights.

 

Where are we going after that?  As Mr Burke knew decades ago, the future is conjecture. To put it another way – haven’t  got a clue.

Brilliant, isn’t it?

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