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Future without utopia?

On the Future – Prospects for Humanity
Forfatter: Martin Rees
Forlag: Princeton University Press (USA)
Rees strives as much as the rest of us to separate science from science fiction. He declares himself a technological optimist and political pessimist, but the role of technology becomes difficult to understand without a credible vision of a better world.


English astronomer Martin Rees, baron Rees of Ludlow, former president of The Royal Society, has an impressive scientific career behind him, and he has also distinguished himself as a popular science writer and futurist. In 2003 he wrote a book with the disturbing title Our Final Century. His latest book is in many ways a rewrite of this one. He again takes up the future of humanity and holds our unique opportunities to face imminent dangers. Rees exhorts us that this is the century when everything is at stake, where human cosmic destiny will be sealed.

Rees emerges with an aura of cosmic wisdom, as if he were part of the wise counsel on Superman's home planet Krypton and warned of incomprehensible dangers, or as if he were a wise technocrat from Isaac Asimov's science-fiction books, planning with titusenårsperspektiver. Despite all his distinguished science and English closeness, Rees proclaims an attraction to the speculative and wonderful, and as a reader you are not surprised to hear that the cartoon Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future [in Norwegian edition: Dan Jerv, ed. was his favorite literature in his childhood in the 50s. At that time, he says, it was quite natural for today's "Royal Astronomers" to reject space travel as "pure nonsense" and an impossibility. As an adult, he himself was given the title of "royal astronomer" and has followed the technological acceleration of the lunar landing – decade by decade – from a privileged viewpoint in the midst of international research environments mixed with a speculative perspective from the star's point of view.

A strikingly well-known future

As a reader, one dares to hope for a balanced look at the techno-scientific situation: not only on artificial intelligence, automated systems, robots, aerospace and genre editing, but also on the more general problems, such as the greenhouse effect and global resource crises. What would make such a book intriguing would be a highlighting of something over something else, a trivialization of what most people consider important – or a highlight of something most people consider to be unimportant. Still, Rees's future prospects are strikingly unsurprising. With few exceptions, he goes through known material and comes with warnings we've heard before: fleeing to Mars is no solution, the danger of terror with manipulated viruses and nuclear weapons on the fly is something we must learn to live with – and artificial intelligence combined with biotechnology is changing the outlook in ways we can hardly predict. For many readers, he will, first and foremost, help extend the list of unknown and disturbing future factors.

Rees reminds us that we are also responsible for the technology we do not develop.

That does not mean that wisdom is a story only in the constant shock of our future. Rees' cosmic perspective and overwhelming timelines invite a well-considered distance to the moment – along with an acute awareness of how much is at stake. We know this cosmic thought of the blue planet from astronomer Carl Sagan, who, like Rees, was inspired by the idea of ​​extraterrestrial life humanity's possible expansion into other planets. Rees also draws inspiration from science-fiction pioneer HG Wells, who, in poetic terms, invites us to think that "all that is and has been, is only the beginning of the beginning, the dawn before dawn [...], that all the human spirit has achieved, is just a dream before awakening ”.

Technological optimism and political pessimism

HG Wells was also a socialist and a political thinker, and he used the futures of the future to problematize the present. Rees, in turn, declares that he is technologically optimistic, but politically pessimistic. He summarizes this view by referring to an EU politician who stated during the financial crisis: "We know what to do, but not how to be re-elected when we have done so." Thank you and goodbye to the idea of ​​a planetary council that is mindfully planning the future of the planet, that is. The short electoral cycle of politics becomes a picture of the general narrowness of man: we concentrate on what is near in space and time, and immediate concerns always take precedence.

Rees exhorts us that this is the century when everything is at stake, where human cosmic destiny will be sealed.

The discrepancy between what we ought to do and what we actually do, appears in Rees's own argument. He points out that since the nuclear bomb the "precautionary principle" has been important in research. Measures to limit the use of biological weapons, fully automatic killing robots and cyber infiltrations are becoming increasingly important, but whatever agreements and treaties we sign, there will be a danger that terrorists or "robber states" will use them. In doing so, we will secretly develop them to defend ourselves, says Rees. Does not such logic also underlie the failing ability to do something about the greenhouse effect? The countries holding back the emissions are causing themselves a financial disadvantage, and thus the wisdom of wisdom is trumped by the raw imperatives of self-interest. Rees reminds us that we are also responsible for the technology we use not develops. Of course, he hopes that innovation in the field of energy and targeted ecological management can solve the problem, but for his own part, guesses that progress in climate policy will be minimal over the next 20 years.

Moral progress?

Without a realistic hope for political progress, it is difficult to see how Rees can be so optimistic on technology's behalf. He draws a great deal of attention to the danger of high-tech terrorism and to the possibility of fatal mistakes in scientific experiments, runaway laboratory-produced viruses or black holes that devour the earth. At the same time, Rees is trying to assess short-term concerns against future prospects for millions of years, where he envisions that human heirs will become machines with almost eternal life who will explore and conquer the galaxy. This seems totally unrealistic, if not for reasons other than machines breaking too easily and being too flexible to repair themselves. Rees emphasizes that it is harder than ever to distinguish between science fiction and reality, and has no clear criteria itself.

Rees's book is full of interesting discussions, but lacks HG Wells' utopian-political approach to the future. The task of a book on the future of mankind should contain a notion of an admirable and wise global civilization, though the sketch is never so vague. In conclusion, he does touch on the crucial point, which should have been at the heart of the book's project: The challenge of men is not primarily to calculate and understand, but to raise oneself morally. In this work, both engineers and futuristic technocrats fall short.

Also read: Internet must be removed!

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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