Saturday 20 August 2011

An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?”

Anyone who knows me or has been following my blog for a while will know that I self-identify with the label “Skeptic”.

I’ve written before about some of the unfortunate conations of the term skeptic, especially when people misuse the term to express their personal disbelief in a pre-designated concept, often as a result of indoctrination into a belief rather than as the result of following a rigours methodology.

I view scepticism rather like the scientific method itself, as a tool. I try not to simply sort ideas into either bollocks or bona fide and then seek validation for my arbitrary taxonomy. I like to think I use the critical and fair methods of scepticism to logically determine whether or not I should throw yet another belief into the bollocks bucket or not. Although to be fair, I do seem to have ended up with a rather bumper bucket of bollocks brimming with bullshit.

Another unfortunate connotation of the term skeptic is some of the words it is associated with. Here’s a screen grab from for the word “Skeptic”.

I’d be proud for most of these synonyms to be emblazoned on my T Shirts. I particularly like “Freethinker”, “Heathen”, “Profaner” and “Rationalist”. But there are two words in this list that I do not identify with:

Cynic and Pessimist

The Notes on the screen grab give a half reasonable differentiation between cynics and skeptics, although I would have preferred some usage of the word “evidence” to be included in close proximity to the word “skeptic.”

As for the term “Pessimist”, that really isn’t me at all. I am the complete opposite of a pessimist. When posed with the perennial glass half empty/full chestnut, I don’t merely see the glass as half full, I invariably suspect there’s actually probably a little bit more than half left in it and anyway I was just going to the bar so I’ll get another one if I really need to.

In short, I’m an optimist who likes to critically evaluate ideas.

How fortuitous then that a few months ago, despite no pending book orders, the book shaped package that appeared on my doorstep contained a copy of Mark Stevenson’s splendid book: An Optimists Tour of the Future.

Mark actually contacted me on Facebook just over two years ago now and sent me some very kind comments about my blog. He mentioned his devotion to critical thinking and the scientific method and he told me he was going to write a book. I told Mark how envious I was of his opportunity and wished him all the best.

I didn’t hear from Mark for a long time, presumably he was off somewhere on his exciting adventure, researching his book or whatever it is that authors do with their advances.

I have of course now read Mark’s book, and I’ve found out exactly what he’d been up to, but I’d never once imagined what a fascinating, inspirational, enlightening and heartening adventure he had been having.

In a bravely ambitious quest to find credible scientific answers to the burning question of what the future holds, Mark compiled a remarkable visiting list of pioneering scientists, entrepreneurs, world leaders and environmentalists. All of which are capable of thinking so far outside of the box you are left wondering why you ever considered the box a viable method of packaging in the first place.

Mark deftly circumnavigates the very sharpest cutting edges of science without suffering a single prick.

The first port of call regards the limitations of the human body, after all I guess it's good to know how far the future will personally concern us before we set off on our journey.

Marks delves into the bold claims of the transhumanists and emerges with a just credible vision of human longevity before exploring the advances in gene sequencing that provide clear and unarguable predictions of a revolution in a more personalised healthcare system that really does just seem to be around the corner.

Moving from man to machine Mark probes the current advances in robotics and artificial intelligence with some fascinating visits that would translate beautifully into a more visual media if Mark gets the opportunity. Mark’s impressive visiting schedule in this part of the journey includes interviews with noted pioneers Vint Cerf and Ray Kurzweil.

However perhaps the most important area where a bit of optimism is required is around the pressing concerns of climate change, environmental issues and renewable energy. Of course this is where blind optimism would in fact be more of a hindrance than a help with mere wishful thinking providing false hope and curbing more credible research into some of the planets current key issues. But surely if there were well-founded and scientifically feasible suggestions that could have a serious impact on some of these questions we would have heard about them by now? Well if you haven’t, that is exactly why you simply must read this book.

But finally, many thanks to Mark for so eloquently pointing out that my beloved scepticism does not go hand in hand with pessimism.

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