By Leopold P. Mureithi
When Sir Thomas More’s wrote his book – Utopia –in 1516, he described an imaginary land where life was perfect.[i]Other authors have depicted a dystopian imagery of society. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,[ii] written in 1931 describes a dictator’s pharmacological people control and manipulative tool named Soma. George Orwell’s book 1984[iii] (published in 1949) depicts a Big Brother “seeing” everyone anywhere all the time;no privacy these two are examples of scenarios depicting the use of technology to control and manipulate people.
Another nightmarish scenario is where technology (machines) is portrayed as a dangerous competitor by Samuel Butler’s book Erewhon; or, Over the Range (1872).[iv]In this fictitious country, the machines are sequestered by the Luddite Erewhonians for fear that they might organically evolve “independent of ourselves”, multiply,“control our lives” and take over the world where “there is no security” and “man must suffer terribly on ceasing to benefit the machines”[v] –a “dishonorable a future.” Talk of a preventive strike!
While technology may never bring about utopia, there are reasons to believe that robots are unlikely to attack humans through their innate volition. They are human-made; would always require human-developed and human-programed algorithms; and cannot, in the very long foreseeable future, “think” in the conventional sense. In any case, even if some people or some country want to do harm to humans, the rest of humankind would step in to counter this kind of actioncontra mundum.
Be this as it may, there is a whole range of choice between the idealist utopian future and the Godforsaken dystopian future; thus implying many futures. The future envisioned by the book under review is in the title: A Very Human Future. It takes an optimistic stance, in spite of warning us of a possible “a financial Armageddon scenario”[vi]and “concern about the weaponization of technology and the protection of personal privacy.[vii]The editor, Rohit Talwar, and his co-author of the anthology — Steve Wells, Alexandra Whittington and Helena Calle – are very clear that digitization will enrich humanity. Their time horizon is generally twenty to fifty years, although it is up to 2030 for housing.
Their outfit, Fast Future, specializes in “research,and consulting on the emerging future and the impacts of change” [on]individuals, societies, businesses, and governments….ensuring these advances are harnessed to unleash individual potential and enable a very human future.”[viii]This world view is the content of the book and is covered in six major parts,namely technological bursts of possibility and disruption; society and social policy; human-centered cities; people, jobs, capability; business, work, and the workplace; and industry transformation and disruption; with a preceding introduction and a concluding part.
The introduction is a litany of what is happening in advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), leading to transforming of industries, convergence of a range of several fields including machine learning, robotics, autonomous vehicles and drones, big data, cloud computing,the Internet of Things (IOT), 5G networks, hyper-connectivity, quantum computing, 3D/4D printing, smart materials, synthetic biology, human augmentation, and space exploration. This has taken away many conventional jobs, creating an unemployment problem. The chapter is also a clarion call for people to devise coping mechanisms, be proactive and benefit from their participation in the new industrial revolution.
Part One of the book covers more of the same, while Part Two deals with what societal changes may be needed: inclusivity and mechanisms for guaranteed basic incomes. The issues of conducive human settlements are covered in Part Three. It includes option for urban farming. Parts Four, Five and Six bring up matters of work and business:How to AI-proof people’s work needs by, for example, digital literacy, soft skills, and upgrading education provision. Part Seven “presents a mobilization call to individuals, businesses,civil society, and governments, highlighting critical priorities to ensure we start acting today to ensure a very human future.”[ix]
That call for action is necessary for humans to be at the centre of development, both as benefactors and participants. In the digitized world, many things, including jobs, will be disrupted. But much more,largely different, types of work will be availed. What is needed is preparation for that future so that it does not come by surprise in the endeavour to “create the trillion-dollar sectors of the future.”[x]
The book is a raft of what to expect and should be done to realize this human future. This task it does well. It is not a how-to-manual;and little by way of futures methodology is covered. Despite mention of words like uncertainty and vulnerability, the scenarios utilized are surprise-free. They are basically trend extrapolations, without critical uncertainties, wild cards and stakeholder analysis. If a classification were necessary, say for a course unit in futures studies and research, this book would fall in the applied category due to the many examples given; rather than a foundational treatise.
Can the future be only predictively blissful? No, though preferred. There is, therefore, room to explore other alternatives and strategize accordingly. It is only fair to assume that the authors had done so as a background to their championing the path they took. Which takes us to where this book review started. The word “Utopia”has its etymological roots in Greek “ou” (“not”) and”topos” (“place”). It literally means “no place”. Erewhon is an anagram for “nowhere”. Both books are in the genre realm of fiction, but are not functionless. In the field of futures studies, fiction has inspired metaphors, imagery, and story lines for envisioning the preferred futures and the futures that should be avoided. The real world is likely to be quite different, just like the book A Very Human Future: Enriching Humanity in a Digitized World illustrates.It is an interesting survey of things as they are likely to turn out in the next 50 years. Worth reading as it gives clues of where next opportunities might arise from.
Leopold P. Mureithi is a Professor of Economics at the University of Nairobi. He can be contacted at Lpmureithi@hotmail.com.
[i]More, Thomas (2002). George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams (eds.), ed. Utopia. Raymond Geuss and Quentin Skinner (series eds.) (Revised ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
[ii]Huxley, Aldous (1932). Brave New World. New York: Harper & Brothers.
[iii]Orwell, George (1977). 1984. Erich Fromm (Foreword) (reissue ed.). Signet Classics.
[iv]Butler, Samuel (1872). Erewhon. Trubner and Ballantyne. (Revised ed. 2002). New York: Dover Publications.
[v] Ibid, p.235. See also some elaboration by Bruce Mazlish, “The Fourth Discontinuity” in Melvin Kranzberg (Ed.) (1975). Technology and Culture: An Anthology. New York: Signet Classics, pp. 223-227.
[vi]A Very Human Future: Enriching Humanity in a Digitized World, p. 197.
[vii] Ibid, p. 208.
[viii]Ibid, p. iv.
[ix] Ibid, p.8.
[x] Ibid, p. iv.