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Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years Hardcover – December 17, 2002
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Learn more
From Publishers Weekly
Sterling is best known for writing social satires disguised as science fiction, but over a decade ago, The Hacker Crackdown demonstrated his ability to apply his firm grasp on the cultural forces shaping today's world to nonfiction as well. Now those analytical skills take on the future; although he can't tell readers what will happen when, he does share good ideas about how to deal with it when it does. After a primer on the various forms of futurism, Sterling offers a seven-part consideration of the 21st century, with a conceptual structure inspired by the "seven ages of man" speech from Shakespeare's As You Like It. Taking the infant, the student, the lover, the soldier, the justice, the pantaloon and "mere oblivion" each in turn, this sweeping vision encompasses everything from genetic engineering and ubiquitous computing to the real threats to world peace. (Sterling says we shouldn't be as worried about ideological terrorists like Osama bin Laden, who create momentary disruptions, as about opportunistic thugs, such as Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev, who, according to Sterling, will gladly exploit chaos for profit.) There are constant reminders that progress is rarely, if ever, orderly and efficient, because "in the real world, technology ducks, dodges, and limps" its way forward. But steady, reliable technocratic societies, if they approach the future with "flexibility and patience," should be able to weather even the most radical technological and cultural changes. Sterling's breezy tone and insightful speculations reposition this "cyberpunk" hero as a fun hybrid of Robert Kaplan and Faith Popcorn, ready to join the punditocracy and reach out to a broader readership.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Science fiction writer Sterling offers his unique nonfiction assessment of the future. Borrowing the seven stages of humanity cited by Shakespeare in As You Like It, he addresses the probable future of human beings as infants, students, lovers, soldiers, politicians, businessmen, and geriatrics. Issues discussed include genetics and reproduction, information networks, postindustrial design, the new world order, media and politics, information economics, and our ongoing struggle with mortality. Rather than predicting awesome and unheard-of wonders, Sterling believes that futurism consists of "recognizing and describing a small apparent oddity that is destined to become a great commonplace." Using that definition as a springboard, he provides a variety of potential possibilities grounded in both common sense and present reality. Often surprising, always humorous, Sterling's individual slant on what may evolve serves as a visionary overview of the twenty-first century. Margaret Flanagan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Two things struck me about this book. The first is that it is not nearly as focused on the next fifty years as the title purports. There is a fair deal of what the future may hold, but there is also a great deal of the present thrown in (especially in the soldier section), and some futurism that is more than 50 years out. Surprisingly this didn't bother me at all because his analysis of the present, especially an exposition on three different terrorists warlords, was fascinating, absolutely fascinating. This book ranges far and wide, and colors outside the lines of the 50 years stated, but I was glad it did as I read.
The second thing that struck me was that this is one of the most amazingly well-written books I've ever read. I am not sure I have ever read something as engaging, fascinating, informative and so easy to read at the same time. I have always enjoyed Sterling's fiction work but, frankly, the quality of this non-fiction book trumps his fictional stories. His writing style is very chatty, more or less as if you are sitting across the table from him, and at first this threw me. It's not something you expect in a science book. Yet once I adjusted I realized that this may be one of the clearest pieces of writing I have ever had the pleasure to read. When I say "pleasure to read" I actually mean it. That is a phrase far too over-used, but in choosing it I mean it literally: reading the words was a pleasure regardless of what he was talking about. His sentence construction and word choices were simply pleasurable to read in and of themself, and I have never seen adjectives used so well to create shades and nuances of meaning before.
Much of the speculation for the future involves biotechnology, changes in workplace dynamics, and what we actually produce, the change of market dynamics, consumerism to end-user, medical advances, and the rift between the New World Order (the first world) and the New World Disorder (the third world). If I had one reservation about this book it is that Sterling promised to show why the Islamic terrorism today will be irrelevant in the future. I don't think he ever really did that; he set the stage for it, and provided the backstory necessary to see the writing on the wall, but he never came out and posited why. I agree with him that the terrorism is not a long-term problem but it would have been nice to see him forcefully make that conclusion. That one quibble aside, this is a book that anyone who cares about current events, the future, or science will find compelling, interesting, and incredibly easy to understand and follow. This is a first class work and I highly recommend it.
I have read recently, Pierre Baldi's The Shattered Self: The End of Natural Evolution (2001); Howard Bloom's Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century (2000); The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century (2002), a collection of essays edited by John Brockman; Francis Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2002); Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (1999), and others; and I can tell you this is as impressive (in its own way of course) as any of those very impressive books, and has the considerable virtue of being beautifully and compellingly written in a style that is polished, lively and sparkles with deft turns of phrase and a cornucopia of bon mots and apt neologisms. Furthermore, Sterling really is a visionary of the present in that he sees connections and developments that most of us miss. Here are some examples:
"The sense of wonder has a short shelf life." (p. xvii)
Speaking of SUVs and cross-training shoes: "Modern devices are overstuffed with functionality..." (p. 81)
"The right wing wants to leave the market alone but to regulate sex. The left...[tolerates] domestic license but wants to regulate private industry." (p. 160)
"...[F]oreign investors are entirely indifferent to...[the] phony-baloney national mythology" of any given country. "They may feel very ardent about their own country, but they won't tolerate any pretension from" someone else's country. (p. 162)
"Garage sales became Ebay." (p. 224)
Speaking of the abundance of "giant armadillos, sloths as big as hippos, three kinds of elephants," etc., and other fauna in North America before humans arrived: "A natural Texas would look like the Serengeti on steroids." (p. 270)
On what is causing the glaciers to melt: we are "digging up fossils...and setting fire to them." (p. 279)
"The actual likelihood of people...getting atomically bombed is much higher today than it was during the cold war." (p. 260)
On the human-caused "extinctions, and the sheer air-borne filth that comes from burning fossils": "It will...[transform] the whole Earth into something like a grim mining town in East Germany, only without frogs." (p. 281)
Sterling sees the first "superbaby" as a very sad creature indeed because it will be superceded almost immediately by a superior version, and then by a super-superbaby, and will be superior only to its "moronic parents." (p. 30)
"Blobjects...are computer-modeled objects manufactured out of blown goo." They "tend to be fleshy, pseudo-alive, and seductive..." Some examples: "the Gillette Mach 3 razor. The Oral-B toothbrush... The Handspring Visor PDA. Gelatinous wrist rests. The curvy, slithery Microsoft Explorer mouse..." (p. 75)
In addition to "blobjects" there are also "gizmos" which are "small, faddish, buzzy machine[s] with a brief life span." A computer is a gizmo. There are also "blobject gizmos." (p. 89)
And on and on. What Sterling is really writing here is social criticism. He is revealing us to ourselves by highlighting our technology, our consumerism, and the way the various economic and political players--governments, corportions, terrorists, NGOs, etc.--are all out to manipulate us to their advantage. His take on what he calls the dichotomy between the New World Order (the technological haves who are able to effectively manage information) and the New World Disorder (blighted areas of the planet taken over by terrorists, drug dealers and other high risk takers) is especially interesting. He sees the weapons of the unconventional warfare that is now, and will continue to be, the norm in a revealing way. He notes, for example, that terrorist-induced plagues, sometimes called "the poor man's bomb," will only lead to the "poor man's doom" because "Areas with organized governments and public health systems will be the last to collapse from germs and viruses, not the first." (p. 262)
Sterling's vision is of the postmodern world giving way to the posthuman. He sees the disadvantage of our becoming part machine and part biologically-enhanced beings: we will "still have some kind of everyday treadmill" to negotiate, and we may even acquire a renewed respect for death. (pp. 299-300)
In the final chapter he touches on the notion of a "Vingean Singularity" (from Vernor Vinge) which is a place in the future "impossible to describe, simply because" we as human beings "cannot comprehend" such a posthuman environment. In other words, like the event horizon of a black hole, the singularity allows no communication between us and that future world, and that it why it is called a singularity. (pp. 295-296)
Bottom line: be not dissuaded by the nay-sayers about this book, who may not like the unnecessary use of the extended metaphor from Shakespeare's As You Like It, which Sterling uses to frame the text ("All the world's a stage..."), or who are put off by Sterling's sometimes paternal and self-centered expression. This is a terrific read. I enjoyed it from first page to last and found myself nodding in agreement and surprise with much of what he writes.