A future where we see ourselves

A Brief History of Tomorrow
August 31, 2001

Most books about the future are written either by futurologists who do nothing else or by people with a product or idea to promote. In recent years, most of the latter group has focused on technology and its potential to remake our world. Jonathan Margolis's A Brief History of Tomorrow is different. He approaches the subject as a journalist and tries to look at today's futurology in the light of the failed (and occasionally successful) predictions of the past. "I think the most wonderful thing I've learned about the future," he says early on, "is that there is so much of it, that there is always space for another original idea about it."

That is certainly true, but this is not particularly a book of original ideas. The good side of that is that Margolis sidesteps most of the idiocies common to the flood of hype-the-future technology books of the recent past. (The classic example is Nicholas Negroponte's insistence in his 1995 book, Being Digital , and elsewhere that by the end of the 1990s 1 billion people would be online; as of November 2000 the number was 407 million.) In addition, Margolis's survey of the growing interest in the future, since the 1732 publication of the first known futurology book, Samuel Madden's almost immediately withdrawn Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, Volume I , is useful stuff for anyone interested in the history of ideas and popular culture. What Margolis shows is what you would expect: that our views of the future say more about our present obsessions than about the future itself.

The book refers frequently to Arthur C. Clarke, beginning with his comment that: "The future isn't what it used to be." Clarke is, of course, famous for making a few, rare, accurate predictions, notably that the earth would one day be surrounded by communications satellites. Clarke stands out because so many of the common beliefs of 50 years ago about 2001 have not panned out: the working week has not shrunk to a few hours a day, and we are not awash in work-saving robots (instead we are awash in work-creating computers).

There is plenty to disagree with as Margolis takes up in turn topics such as the environment, medicine, consciousness, the way we will live, politics and society, and travel, wrapped in several chapters about the past, present and future of futurology itself. The most notable is that Margolis seems to lack perspective in terms of time. Noting that all we know about the sex lives of people 1,000 years ago relies on a single paragraph of an ancient document, he figures that 1,000 years hence historians will have to dig through 36 trunks of documents about President Clinton alone. But on what does he base his assumption that today's culture and media will survive such an immensely long time? The fourth millennium's historians may have to rely on a few half-digested verses of a Britney Spears song badly transmitted through generations of oral tradition.

You can also argue details, such as Margolis's belief that Victorians would be most astonished about the changed status of women in our era, but unsurprised by air travel, because they had balloons. Yet the Victorians had a powerful and long-lived queen ruling over them, and, according to Tom Standage in his book The Victorian Internet , they held as a certainty that heavier-than-air flight was impossible.

Similarly, you can question the many suggestions that what we think of today as questionable paranormal claims or pseudoscience may come to be accepted by science. This is not surprising, given that one of Margolis's earlier books is a biography of metal-bender Uri Geller that sceptics tend to consider credulous.

The most interesting parts of his book are those that deal with past views of the future and with the way the future looks to those outside the western world. It is fascinating to note that India thinks about the future more in terms of long-term spiritual development rather than technology - especially given that Indian software programming is booming. Where Margolis is surprising is in the areas where he seems most likely to be wrong. He thinks, for example, that house-cleaning robots would be too creepy for people to accept. Yet the research scientist who casually suggested in 1960 or so that he was well on the way to designing a vacuuming robot still gets letters asking when it will be ready.

Margolis believes that privacy will be important to people in the future - but talks of guarding it by turning off the communications devices and buying a typewriter. The massive problems that are brewing now over medical data, transaction logging, ubiquitous closed-circuit TV cameras and other growing means of electronic surveillance are not mentioned. Ah, but there, you see? I am doing what everyone considering the future does: evaluating Margolis's ideas in terms of my own obsessions.

Wendy M. Grossman is author of From Anarchy to Power: The Net Comes of Age , and joint editor, The Skeptic .

A Brief History of Tomorrow: The Future, Past and Present

Author - Jonathan Margolis
ISBN - 0 7475 5087 5 and 5335 1
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £14.99 and £8.99
Pages - 6

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