Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Meaning of the 21st Century

James MartinJames Martin does not think small. The Meaning of the 21st Century (Eden Project Books, 2007) is a grand sweep through the incredible challenges and opportunities facing humanity over the next 100 years. It contrasts total nuclear and biological destruction, catastrophic climate change and destitute nations with artificial intellects millions of times faster than our own, the end of ageing and a global high civilisation that recalls the best of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. Martin believes that if global society can learn to deal with these challenges, it will be rewarded with limitless opportunities after 2100. He is however greatly exercised that rapidly developing technologies and growing global inequality could set our civilisation back hundreds of years.

The Meaning of the 21st Century is a breathtaking tour of the nascent technologies and trends that make today's young people the "transition generation" who must manage this most difficult confluence of circumstances. Much futurology is full of whacky and highly improbable predictions, but Martin simply projects forward well-established trends such as the doubling of computing power every 18 months, rapid population growth and the fast-increasing understanding of genetics and nanotechnology. He interviewed an outstanding collection of scientists, politicians and economists as background, including Lord Patten, Martin Rees, John McCain, Freeman Dyson, J. Craig Ventner, Hernando de Soto and Gordon Moore.

The book is (understandably) lacking detail in some of the areas it considers. For those with the time, I would recommend Collapse by Jared Diamond for a better guide to the success or failure of societies, and The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs on ridding the world of extreme poverty. I also disagreed with some of Martin's recommendations, particularly that future counter-terrorism will require total surveillance with privacy protected only by electronic locks:

Category A people are security-cleared and have automatic identification. A wireless beam can interrogate their identity card (which may be in the form of a ring, racelet or necklace). They can walk through immigration checkpoints or go into the Four Seasons restaurant in New York unaware of the computers that are tracking and validating them. Category B people are essentially good people who choose not to have the automatic identification; they will often be stopped unless they avoid secured places. Category C people will lack full security clearance and will often be subjected to close examination. Category D people will be automatically blocked. (p.355)

This is one of the worse examples of the book's sometime combination of technological enthusiasm with naivety concerning social context. I would prefer we put our energies into building a society where terrorism remains a containable threat rather than a justification for total surveillance and rampant social sorting, which "electronic locks" will not hold back for long.

Nonetheless, the book is a clarion call to politicians, businesses and above all today's school and university students. They all must urgently take action if humanity is to make it unscathed through to the 22nd century.

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