Mark Stevenson's An Optimist's Tour of the Future is a hilarious and inspiring romp through some of the most promising directions in technology -- from permaculture success stories in Australia who are beating the drought and sequestering carbon to nanotechnology boosters who are showing off successful prototypes for effective energy generation, water filtration and desalination, and other cool and world-changing applications. Stevenson, a former standup comedian, writes with enormous warmth and humor, and he fast-talks his way into the presence of some hard-to-reach scientists and theorists who really represent the cutting edge of their fields, from Eric Drexler to Nick Bostrom. Stevenson does an admirable job of presenting these findings in a lay-friendly way without eliding too much important detail.
Stevenson presents his book as a curative for "pessimism." Stevenson looks at the evidence for humanity's impending doom and finds it wanting: even in the poorest places on earth, lifespans are longer, affluence is up, violence is down from most of human history. He doesn't discount all the problems that others have identified, from climate change to war to starvation, but he believes we can and will overcome them with technology. Stevenson looks at the ethical and philosophical dimensions of these technologies, signposts some of the problems they may give rise to, and brings it all off with a flourish that's sweet and upbeat, as befits his title.
If you're someone who believes that there's no possible, conceivable way to solve contemporary problems with technology, then Stevenson's argument is probably one you should be exposed to. But where I found his analysis wanting was in the presumed inevitability of technological triumph over social ills. Humanity may develop or possess the technologies to fix its problems, but capacity isn't political will. Humanity has previously possessed the knowledge and tools to address many of its problems, but failed to bring them to bear for extremely long periods (we had a 500 year interregnum as the result of one such failure, commonly known as the Dark Ages).
Those of us on the policy side of technology are often optimistic about technology's transformative potential, and pessimistic about its inevitable triumph. This isn't a counsel of despair: it doesn't mean we're doomed. Rather, it's a call to action: if technology can solve problems, then we should figure out how to midwife the right kind of technology and the right kind of society.
The di-polar world that Stevenson establishes -- "technology can't solve our problems" and "technology will solve our problems" -- doesn't admit of a third pole: "technology can solve our problems, if we fight to keep it free and open."
Which is a shame, because if there's one thing we need, it's optimists who believe that the net and the PC and their many spinoffs can improve the world, and who use their optimism to pursue a mission of free, fair and universal access to the world's systems. Optimist's Tour is fine as far as it goes, but I wish it went further. An Optimist's Tour of the Future