Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Review of Bruce Sterling, Tomorrow Now

My review of Bruce Sterling's latest book, Tomorrow Now, is in today's Los Angeles Times Book Review. My first foray into reviewing books on futures. Long story short: some parts really great, some not so great.

Update, 9 December 2011: Here's the review.

It'll be a Bug's Life

Any good futurist will tell you that the future can't be predicted. Not many professions declare the impossibility of what they're paid to do, but Delphic oracles, fortune-tellers, and Miss Cleo have set the bar pretty low. Besides, the most successful futurists avoid highly specific predictions in favor of "scenarios," sweeping landscapes of a world that is strange and alien, yet plausible. Scenarios are supposed to challenge convention, and encourage readers to question their everyday assumptions. For futurists, then, being wrong isn't a liability; it's a little beside the point.

Bruce Sterling's quest in Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years is to describe the "basic attitudes and deep convictions" (xviii) that will order life fifty years from now: the mentalites, as Annales School founder Fernand Braudel would put it. As one of the founders of cyberpunk, Sterling is disposed to look for "the oddity that is destined to become a great commonplace," (xvii) the anomaly that will overturn the dominant paradigm. He focuses in particular on biotechnology, education, industrial design, security, media and politics, economics, and mortality (seven sections, inspired by the seven ages of man—the infant, student, lover, soldier, judge, pantaloon, and senility—described in Shakespeare's As You Like It). The result is a book "full of wise saws and modern instances," as the Bard put it, but also frustrating.

Not surprisingly, Sterling's best moments are those closest to science fiction. He envisions a world that is "neobiological," in which technologies behave organically and biotechnology replaces electronics and IT as the driver of economic growth and high tech. But this is not a future of genetically engineered superbabies.

Instead, the real action will be at the bacterial level. Genetically modified foods are already controversial, and altering humans would be immensely more so. Bacteria, on the other hand, are easier to manipulate, can be manufactured by the tank car, and don't inspire warm, fuzzy feelings among activists. Harnessing bacteria will also change our sense of ourselves, and our notion of health and cleanliness. "In a biotech world," Sterling argues, "sterility is a confession of ignorance. It's a tactic of desperation." (9)

Biological metaphors will also dominate design. We've already seen the emergence of "blobjects," creations like the curvy cell phones, Palm Pilots, and just about everything sold in the housewares department at Target. They're intimate objects, designed to be kept close at hand, or even worn on the body. Often their function is defined not by their shape, but by the electronics they contain.

Some products become blobjects just to be fashionable, but the most interesting ones are advance scouts of a brave new world in which devices to communicate and work together, share information and energy, and form a buzzing ecology of technologies.

But when Tomorrow Now turns from technical to social and political matters, it loses its assurance and focus.

The main problem is that these chapters spend too little time in the future. The books' method draws on fellow science-fiction writer William Gibson's declaration that the future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed. To see what the future will be like (to see "tomorrow now"), you just have to find the right Silicon Valley startup, Seoul PC baang (Internet café), or networked protest movement.

Sterling certainly has a good eye for the interesting story, but too often Tomorrow Now gets bogged down in the present, and only hurriedly draws out lessons for the future.

The book's organization also emphasizes the trees and obscures the forest, making it difficult to see how the separate trends Sterling charts overlap or intersect.

Finally, Sterling is too often overly modest in laying out his vision of the future, or explaining what big forces will shape it. His strength as a stylist almost undercuts his insights.

Asking if Tomorrow Now is right is pointless: we won't know for fifty years. Judged on its own terms, though, it is a mixed bag: at its best it is highly original, but other parts—rather like the future—are hazy and unformed.

 

1 Comment

  1. That’s great!
    Have you seen this Popular Mechanics article published 50 years ago? What’s interesting is that it makes all kinds of predictions concerning improvements in food, architecture, household appliances and so on — but the article is entirely innocent of even the slightest suspicion that there might be some changes/improvements coming in gender roles…

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