An Optimist's Tour of the Future

Next month I'm appearing with Mark Stevenson at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, and I just finished his book An Optimist's Tour of the Future. This is great fun, a conversational guide to some key areas of technological innovation, with the conversationalist a stand-up comedian (although – sorry, Mark – some of the one liners are truly groan-worthy).

One of the things I really like about the book is that it covers several strands of technology – life sciences, robotics, energy and climate change, as well as computers. In my talks, one of the standard slides is headed 'It's more than just computers' – people who dismiss the social and economic impacts of technology always focus only on ICTs, or even just the internet, and claim that it's only making people waste their time playing Angry Birds. There are even some omitted from this book: mobiles and advanced materials come to mind. The tech revolution has many facets.

My favourite chapters were the one on private sector space exploration – it had never crossed my mind that getting into space could be done cheaply – and on agriculture in Australia. The latter has the fascinating revelation that improved management of grazing alone can keep the land fertile during long droughts and trap CO2 in the soil in vast quantities. There's also a discussion near the end of the book with John Seely Brown about the interaction between social structures and the adoption and impact of technologies. I'm a long-time fan of JSB's writings, particularly The Social Life of Information.

All in all, this is an entertaining tour of radical technical change. I don't know if it will convert pessimists to optimists, though. Maybe we'll find out in Bristol on 20th May.

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