Beyond the Conventional View of the Human Future: Science-Fiction Author Bruce Sterling Challenges Conventional Thinking of Man's Future Relationships with Commerce, Technology, and Nature in Tomorrow Now. (Book Review)

Article excerpt

Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years

By Burce Sterling. Random House 2002. 320 page. #24.95. Available from the Futurist Bookshelf, www.wfs.org/bkshelf.htm.

First the bad news: Tomorrow Now, the new book of speculative essays by award-winning science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling, does not fulfill the promise of its subtitle by providing concrete visions of life in the next 50 years. But there's good news, too: Sterling's comments on developments under way or likely in such areas as genetic engineering, lifelong learning, human-machine relationships, and the conquest of death are well worth serious attention, whatever future humans actually face in the decades ahead.

Adopting a framework based loosely on the "Ages of Man" speech from Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It, Sterling focuses on human concerns related to seven successive stages of life: infant, student, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon (i.e., retiree consumer), and "mere oblivion." But instead of following one typical individual through life, or addressing the issues you might expect (such as babyhood, education, romance, war, law, commerce, and elder care), the author follows a more winding path, swinging through broader issues that shape politics and economics on a global scale, as well as personal priorities.

With each topic he considers, Sterling quickly challenges conventional wisdom. For example, his essay on genetic engineering argues that modern norms of cleanliness--sterile operating rooms in hospitals, frequent bathing, and the use of sprays and shots to kill germs everywhere--will disappear once humans learn to control the world of microbes. Rather than killing germs, we will instead cultivate and develop new strains that help wounds heal, keep us from smelling bad, and fight or prevent diseases everywhere in the environment. In Sterling's view, the current battle raging over clones completely misses the real potential of biotechnology. Cloning human babies or even higher mammals is merely a crude publicity stunt compared with designing, raising, and employing one-celled creatures by the billions for business, agriculture, medicine, and engineering.

Sterling's take on the so-called "learning society" is similarly offbeat. He interprets lifelong learning as another way of saying that there are no more "safe places"--no line of work where one can master a body of knowledge or develop skill at using proven tools and expect to use these to earn a comfortable living throughout one's career. Machines and knowledge both grow obsolete, and no longer can preparation relieve us of the need to learn and relearn our trade on the job. Even for those who do not work, there are no "safe" investments any longer, no sure way to protect existing wealth or make money with confidence over time. About the best we can do, Sterling suggests, is to stay patient and flexible--be willing at short notice to change our plans and expectations as changing circumstances bring new opportunities and established certainties disappear.

A recurring theme throughout Tomorrow Now is "ubiquitous computing," or "ubicomp"--smart chips embedded everywhere in buildings, appliances, vehicles, clothing, and even surgically implanted in human beings. These built-in, portable, wearable, capability-extending prosthetic devices offer endless possibilities for creating new products, services, and problem-solving mechanisms. To take just one example, the same tiny chip that might enable a clothing manufacturer to pinpoint the location of one particular coat at every stage of shipment, from production line to department store, would also allow the final purchaser to find the garment quickly in a closet, on a dry cleaner's rack, or inside a piece of lost or stolen luggage. …