Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Future Imperfect

By Ben Winters

MARCH 28, 2000: 

Predictions: Thirty Great Minds On the Future edited by Sian Griffiths (Oxford University Press), $16.95, 328 pages

It's surprising how many of the thirty predictions in "Predictions" begin with a caveat along the lines of this one, from sci-fi demigod Arthur C. Clarke: "Despite all claims to the contrary, no one can predict the future." "I must say," writes the philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco apologetically, "I try not to make these predictions." Prolific naturalist Stephen J. Gould is downright grouchy in his refusal to gaze into any crystal balls: "... human futures are unpredictable and it is futile to think that past trends will forecast coming patterns."

But amongst all this hemming and hawing, the various intellectuals included -- ranging from Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe to contentious evolutionist Richard Dawkins to feminists Elaine Showalter and Andrea Dworkin -- all manage to see something they envision just over the horizon. The result is a delightful collection of imaginings (and hopes, and fears and demands) from some truly imaginative souls.

Many of the divining is socio-political, rather than technical. "I want women to conquer the fear of male violence," says Dworkin in her trademark voice, strident and unapologetic. "If that means the use of strategic violence, so be it." Daniel Goleman, "Emotional Intelligence" author and champion of the warm fuzzies, hopes that soon "empathy will hold as valued a place in the curriculum as algebra."

Along with several of the writers included, British cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick -- who once implanted a silicon chip in his arm that caused doors to open for him and buildings to say "Hello, Kevin" as he walked by -- calls for an increasing merger of machines and men: "In the future we could have memories of events that we have not witnessed... communication can take place between people carrying implants, by means of thought processes alone." Oh, goody.

The main problem with "Predictions" is that the essays are scant, no more than two or three pages each, but this flaw is really a blessing in disguise. The bulk of the book is taken up by introductory essays on each participant, culled from the pages of the London Times Higher Education Supplement, that are tremendously well-written pieces of profile journalism.

Since the range of intellectuals included is so wide, their interests and personalities so diverse, it is these essays -- and not the predictions themselves, as fascinating as many of them are -- that make "Predictions" worth (ahem) looking forward to.

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