The Next Fifty Years - Edited by John Brockman
(Weidenfeld and Nicholson 2002)
This book is packed with intelligent thought, largely well articulated and free from jargon, so that it is accessible to the layman as well as to the peers of the individual authors. The essays are each complete yet together form a matrix with stimulating cross-fertilisation of ideas and sufficient disagreement to challenge the reader. The time-scale of fifty years is well judged, putting pressure on authors to escape from pure extrapolation of current research and to ask the fundamental questions which drive that research.
The editing of the book is largely invisible, which is sensible in view of the vast intelligence and experience offered by the authors of the essays. It is perhaps disappointing that no synthesis has been attempted of the multiple lines of speculation raised by the authors. Such a synthesis would have been an immense challenge to the editor, or scientific sage invited to attempt it, but would have produced order out of chaos. It was perhaps the intention of the editor to stir up an intellectual hornets' nest and leave readers to make their own escape!
The scope of the book includes 'hot' topics, such as stem cell research, cloning, genome sequencing, artificial intelligence, astro-biology and quantum computing. It also features basic disciplines such as mathematics, chemistry and physics, and has an emphasis on medical research, not least into the brain and the changing role of psychology. The influence of Freud is seen to disappear as psychology and medical research into the nature of the brain integrate.
There is considerable speculation about the impact of scientific progress on the human race. We are shown to be 'hard wired' for a different world, of survival rather than massive change, so that our physical and intellectual limits will become increasingly apparent. How will humans survive the rigours of years in a space craft to distant planets? How will we cope with machines with greater thinking powers than ourselves? The book touches on the resultant angst in some detail.
In the next fifty years we are likely to make more progress scientifically than we can digest. We shall live longer, be much richer (or some of us) but the growth in psychiatric disorders will accelerate alarmingly. Many of our discoveries, eg the human genome sequencing, will give us greater knowledge than we have ever possessed; whether we have the understanding and wisdom to use this knowledge is uncertain. Many of the essays see increased knowledge as the cause of greater fear. Knowledge and happiness remain irreconcilable, as in the past.
A key theme of the book is education. There emerges a consensus that education through teaching is inappropriate for a world in flux. In a stable world it may be reasonable to look for answers to questions which remain relevant. In the world of chaotic and accelerating change which we shall probably experience in the next fifty years, skill in framing penetrating questions will be the cutting edge of education. The next fifty years seems likely to see greater emphasis on 'learning by doing' and through accumulating experience. The implications of these changes are devastating for our current model of education. It is likely that the slavery of schooling will be replaced by more personal and adaptive learning experiences. One writer even suggests that by 2050, 95% of universities will have been abolished, leaving a residue of prestigious establishments which will spearhead research and innovations in learning.
This book is 'the attempt to make the latest scientific research understandable within science itself as well as to a wide audience'. It is a difficult book, and written in different languages, but the effort of reading and digesting it is well worthwhile. Many of the authors seem to be uncomfortable in speculating about the future and their focus is almost entirely on projecting developments in their specialism. Few attempt to explore different scenarios for the future (most of these are models!) and the impact of feed back on the development of specialisms is not assessed in most cases. The division of the book into two dimensions - the future in theory and in practice - is very revealing. Lay readers may be more comfortable in the second section but the first section is essential in order to benefit fully from the second. The essays show the immensity of the challenge the human race faces in the next fifty years as we realise how puny we are (and possibly find we are not unique) and we develop tools which are becoming more powerful than us. As John Brockman says: "What we have lacked until recently is an intellectual culture able to transform its own premises as fast as our technologies are transforming us". This book is a major contribution to this culture and forces us to face our inadequecies as a first step to deeper and faster learning. The process of reading this book is rather like a helter skelter at Alton Towers but the experience is equally cathartic!
Adrian Davies - 7 April 2004