Mark Stevenson is not afraid to ask questions, regardless of what the answer might be.
In his book, AN OPTIMIST’S TOUR OF THE FUTURE: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?”, Stevenson seeks—and gets—answers to the question “what next?” from the geniuses who are taking us there: among them, George Church, the Harvard professor who launched the human genome project, K. Eric Drexler, the “inventor” of nanotechnology, and Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Maldives, who is setting an example for the world by reducing his country’s carbon footprint.
Stevenson is uniquely suited to the task of making his tour of the future not only extremely informative but accessible and entertaining.
Co-director of Flow, Britain’s most respected cultural learning consultancy, and Re-Agency, a leading organization that promotes science communication, as well as a musician and stand-up comedian, Stevenson holds an honors degree in technology.
In AN OPTIMIST’S TOUR, he acts as an everyman, asking the questions we would ask, reflecting on the responses, synthesizing the information, and connecting the dots on everything from gene therapy to the merging of humans and machines to accessible space travel.
Mark shared his thoughts on both the genesis of the book and what he learned while researching it.
The short answer is I wanted to understand the world a bit better and I thought writing a book would be a good way to find out the answers to a lot of the questions that were buzzing around my head about where we’re all going.
The long answer is that after years as a wannabee musician, supplementing my income by consulting in cryptography I’d got sensible, set up an IT marketing agency and realized I hated it.
I remember talking to a guy at Microsoft about his presentation and saying, ‘you know what, I don’t understand a word of this.’
He turned to me and said ‘that’s the problem, neither do I. But we all speak like that!’
‘Have you tried making it, you know, understandable?’ I asked.
‘Are you mad?!’ he said. ‘I’d get fired.’
This would all be very funny if it wasn’t true. His presentation was actually about something that was simple to understand and explain when you got down to it.
It seems that ensuring that people around you don’t understand stuff, downright not communicating, is now, in some places, a corporate value.
I knew something was very wrong with my life. So I sat down and asked myself, ‘what do I really care about?’ and came to two conclusions, both of which led me to write An Optimist’s Tour of the Future:
That I cared about what I perceived as a lack of engagement with new and important knowledge that I was worried about the collective story of our future that is currently being told, and its incredibly down-beat tone.
There is this pervading cynicism and fatalism in public debate and our media – a belief that the future, rather than a possible renaissance is, at best, a damage limitation exercise.
To me, adopting that assumption about our future is pretty terrifying. It could be come a fait accompli.
I decided I wanted to do the exact opposite of what that bloke at Microsoft was doing and resolved to try and take important and sometimes complex things and make them understandable to everyone.
Not just specialists and experts, not just readers of Scientific American, but people like my mum too, to go beyond ideology and just say ‘here’s some stuff I think you need to know about, because it’s actually going to change how you live’.
I’d set up interviews with some top thinkers and do-ers around the world and when they told me what they were doing I was truly heartened. Some of the stuff I saw was frankly incredible. Big-smile-on-your-face stuff. And this is why I’m essentially optimistic, although I am very even-handed in this book.
The end of the world pops up a lot!
How did you go about doing research for this book?
I went on a journey. I dove in at the deep end and then followed my nose. I started off by going to ‘The Future of Humanity Institute’ at Oxford to discuss ‘transhumanism’ – the idea that through technology we humans can transcend our ‘biological limitations’ and enhance our bodies and live for thousands of years. I did this because the debate around transhumanism is a car-crash of science, technology, ethics and social policy. I wanted to deliberately disorientate myself so I would be forced into untangling everything, therefore learning the most.
And that untangling led me on to arrange meetings with the leading thinkers and researchers in genetics, synthetic biology, robotic, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and networks, which took me to some of the planet’s research powerhouses, including Harvard, MIT and Cornell. All their work happens in the context of the environment though, and so I also spent time investigating climate change and what we can do about it (or, if you don’t believe in man-made global warming how we can switch to cleaner and more sustainable technologies) talking to everyone from climatologists, farmers in the Australia Outback and the president of one of the world’s lowest lying nations.
Somewhere in the middle I took a detour to investigate the new commercial spaceflight industry and invented a cocktail.
What blew your mind/ what was one of the most interesting things you came across during your research?
What blew my mind was not so much one particular thing but the combination and interplay of it all. I saw just how powerful the tools that we are creating can be. There are some extraordinary benefits available, if we get things right, not least in terms of medicine, energy production, biodiversity, dealing with climate change and the opportunity for a huge peace dividend.
You do stand-up comedy. How did comedy and science first intersect in your life?
I think that these topics seem inaccessible to the man in the street. I realised if I cared about all this I had to find a way to reach anyone, because this stuff will affect everyone, and I think as many people as possible should be informed so we might get more of our choices right. I thought the best way to learn communicating to all-comers was stand-up.
My first gig was an audience of thirty hard-drinking East Londoners. I did jokes about Einstein. The good news was everyone laughed.
Stand-up is just one part of what I do. The book is another. And the two companies I’ve set up since I decided what to do with my life (Flow Associates and ReAgency) also have learning and communication at their core.
With smart phones, text messaging, twitter, social networking, Wi-Fi and other ways to constantly stay connected, isn’t it too much? What do you say to people that say we need stop watering things down (e.g. using 140 characters to express emotion online) and never turning off?
Technology is a dumb tool, it’s how you use it that matters. So sure, some people are tweeting inanities but at the other end you find communities of inquiry having conversations about the latest research and ideas in a way that is inclusive and can allow people across the globe to interact and share thoughts and resources (via embedded web links) very quickly. In my business life I know that my colleague Bridget finds twitter incredibly useful for accessing the latest thoughts of those in her professional community and of sharing her own (and getting a reaction).
Nobody is forcing anyone else to tweet, just as no-one forces you to watch TV. It’s another mode of conversation that suits some people and not others, just as e-mail, theatre and singing in a choir do. If you’re finding it too much, turn it off. It’ll be there tomorrow if you need it.
I find people tend to worry that new technologies will usurp our values and destroy long-held and familiar ways of interacting. First, only you can let go of your values and second, last time I checked, the printing press, radio and The Daily Show are all still with us. Socrates worried that the invention of writing would ruin our intellect and memories, and I’ve only found that momentarily true after reading certain political memoirs.
You’re connected when you want to be connected and you water things down only if you want to water them down. Interconnectedness, on balance (and taking into account all its annoyances), is a good thing.
Technology does a great job of “making things easier” with things like smart refrigerators that tell us what groceries we need. But doesn’t technology also increase our distractions? How can we be efficient with all of the extraneous information swirling around?
There’s always been extraneous information floating around. Certainly with so much now being made available it is important to find ways of channelling it and aggregating it in a way that makes sense and is useful. Wikipedia is perhaps one of the best examples of how we are beginning to do that. Another is the work of Hans Rosling who is revealing the true state of the world’s health and development – allowing us to make more informed decisions about tackling poverty and child mortality. He can do this because the ability to collect, analyse, and present data is now more powerful than it has ever been – but you need the skills to do it right.
I would argue that I’m much more efficient with technology than I am without it. Equating more information with a lack of efficiency makes no sense to me. The ability to capture and process data is one of the great achievements of our age – and allows us to do incredible things – from predict healthcare needs to building satnavs. Sure there are examples of people getting lost in their data, but that’s in no way a general trend. In fact, our technology is now, for perhaps the first time, giving us more free time, if we want to take it – something Clay Shirky calls ‘cognitive surplus’.
We’ve been in a relationship with one system of organisation – the industrial capitalist hierarchical model – for a long time. It’s like we’re married. But we’re in the slow process of realising we’re not getting along like we used to. We’re scared to break up with it. We’ve been together so long. But eventually, once we’re through the divorce, we’ll fully engage with this new relationship – and like all relationships it’ll have it’s ups and downs, but hopefully we’ll have learnt a bit from the last one to make the next one an improvement.
The internet encourages niche data, and our world, smaller than ever yet more divided than ever, make it difficult to wade through the noise. How do we get well-rounded, accurate information using today’s and tomorrow’s technology?
In the information age you need to develop the skills to deal with information. We should be teaching ourselves and our kids enquiring research skills – those skills that allow us to make judgements about the information we receive. If you can’t tell the difference between well researched, unbiased and peer-reviewed information and the National Enquirer you’re going to find it increasingly hard to function in the coming age. The ability to ask a question, be curious and find answers is the 21st Century’s most important skill – what one of my interviewees calls ‘The Questing Disposition’.
The question isn’t so much “How do we get well-rounded, accurate information using today’s and tomorrow’s technology” but “How do I train myself to get well-rounded, accurate information – with the help of today’s and tomorrow’s technology.” If you can’t answer that question you’re going to drown in ignorance. The essential skills for the coming world are curiosity, critical thinking and the ability to see your worth not as a function of what you own, but what you create that other people can use.
What do you see in the future with regard to the environment? What is out there to help us save the planet with us seemingly on the razor’s edge? Have we gone past the tipping point?
The first thing we have to realize is that as humans we are now in charge of the planet. Now we are coming to the idea we are, by default, its stewards. That means using all our faculties to engage with our new responsibility – and we’re beginning to do that. But the solutions to a more sustainable energy economy and well managed environment will come not from governments but from the network.
One of the things that struck me in writing this book is how when we consider change we tend to consider what would happen if one thing changes and how that would affect the world. You see this in a lot of science fiction. They have laser weapons and spacecraft but medicine looks the same, as does the economy. Faster than light travel is common, nanotechnology isn’t. I mention this because a lot of change trends are going to combine to help us deal with and accept our stewardship of the planet, whilst raising living standards. We’re not doing to have one change, we’re going to have many colliding and interacting.
Just one example is how solar power and synthetic biology can combine to take carbon dioxide out of the sky and then turn it into gasoline. That’s not science fiction, the technology exists today – although it’ll take a couple of technology generations to iron out the proposition and make it cheaper than fossil fuels – but that will come. It’s no co-incidence that the savvier oil companies are funding synthetic fuel projects coming out of Harvard, to quote one example – or investing in organic (carbon rather than silicon) thin film solar technologies etc etc.
You’re just a wishful thinking idiot aren’t you?
Wishful thinkers get a bashing in my book. They’re even less use to us than cynics because they mix denial and hope in a dangerous cocktail called apathy. Cynics at least present a challenge, and they can reframed as ‘critical friends’. This book isn’t about wishful thinking. Nothing in it is made up, or hoped for, it’s stuff that’s happening right now. And I make it clear that there are downsides to nearly everything I encounter – and I’m very clear about what those are. There are going to be accidents with our new tools. We’ll have a biotech Three Mile Island and a nanotech 9/11 I don’t doubt. People are going to die. But it’s very likely many, many more will be saved.
The question is, how do you take the good, and minimise the bad?
That’s one of the questions I hope I answer.