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Future reads
The view from 20 and 40 years out

01/06/11



While you’re making all those resolutions for the future, you’re naturally wondering what kind of future it will be. Even if you’re all about living in the moment, you know that moment affects the next one. Two recent books dive headlong into looking at the future:

In 2030: Technology that will Change the World, by Rutger Van Santen, Djan Khoe, and Bram Vermeer, (2010, Oxford University Press, 295 pages), three scientists in the Netherlands look at today’s technology and tell us where it’s headed in four broad areas: “Earth,” “Tools,” “Humans” and “Communities.” Open the book at random to read about advances in medical imaging, energy production, computer networking, robotics, financial markets…. It gives the reader a nice sense of what the people working in these fields have on their minds. This is a book of big pictures, broad ideas, and lots of analogies — cities are like animals, industry is like an ecosystem.

The title’s a bit of a misnomer; it’s more like “here’s what we need to do, if only we could get off our butts and do it” and “here’s the direction the solution probably lies in.” But though it’s vague, it’s practical. No flying cars or smell-o-vision; this is about solving problems like hunger and pollution and disease and illiteracy and the effects of climate change.

And climate change is at the center of The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future, by Laurence C. Smith (2010, Dutton Books, 322 pages). By 2050 we’ll all be moving north to live with the pizzly bears. A couple years ago a polar bear mated with a grizzly, for the first time ever as far as we know. And then the offspring mated. If you doubt climate change, tell it to the pizzly.

Laurence Smith, a UCLA earth scientist, gazes into his crystal ball (and at the pizzly) and sees four forces pushing us northward: demographic trends, natural resource demand, climate change (“we are taking the atmosphere to a place the Earth has not seen for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years”) and globalization (“We will all be potential rivals, but also all potential friends.”). Technological advances are “enablers or brake pads” on these forces. And these forces are pushing us north. If 2030 is a university tech department colloquium attended by a bunch of engineers with their sleeves rolled up, The World in 2050 is a helicopter ride over Arctic shipping lanes. There’s talk of political alliances, business dynamics, oil supplies, international dealings of many kinds, and although the specifics can’t be pinned down, of course, the whole “Northward ho!” thing is one Smith is willing to bank on. He ends the book on an optimistic note, saying that we’re limited only by our choices rather than our abilities.

Want some more future-thinking? There are two books scheduled for March 15 release: Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, by Michio Kaku (Doubleday) and Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth, by Curt Stager (Thomas Dunne Books).
Or you can wait two more days, and read Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better, by Dan Gardner (March 17, Dutton).






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