Thursday 29 October 2015

A Brief History of the Future - Jacques Attali (2006)

I bought this book on a whim a year ago, having spied it on the shelves of one of my favourite bookstores, Diabolik. I thought I’d better read it before the future arrived, not realizing that it had been published in 2006! I’ve long been a sucker for any kind of media that attempted to forecast what the future may be like. We do seem to be on the cusp of massive changes on this planet, but just what will they be? Will it is be dystopia or utopia for humanity? Typically the future will probably be somewhere in-between these two extremes. When you pick up a book entitled A Brief History of the Future the expectation is that it will have at least some feasible answers. After all, according to the blurb on the back of the book Attali had previously predicted the financial rise of Asia, the advent of what he refers to as ‘nomadic technologies’ and the GFC. I approached this book with great enthusiasm, but unfortunately left it feeling underwhelmed and entertaining the thought that I would make a better futurist than the likes of Attali.

Attali notes in his forward that the shape of our future is being set by events and choices that we are making in the present; therefore logically past events have always set the future in motion. With this in mind he then proceeds with a potted history of the past, including when life itself emerged from the oceans and that momentous time when our ancestors first began to walk upright. This chapter reads like a highly generalized and accelerated version of prehistory, which unfortunately doesn’t give the reader much confidence in what will follow. There are also some glaring flaws, although they may well be caused by a fault in translation (Attali is French). Attali refers to the likes of Homo ergaster and Homo heidelbergensis (and others) as primates, when I’m certain the correct term is hominids. Also some assertions are already dated, with Attali claiming that “All these primates - neighbors but not of kin - coexist without interbreeding.” In recent years a great deal of evidence has emerged that interbreeding between some hominids was occurring. These criticisms are perhaps unfair, however much more glaring is the total lack of referencing throughout this and the following chapter. Attali makes claim after claim regarding the lives and practices of early humans without citing any kind of reliable sources. Is it really “doubtless” that cannibalism began 300,000 years ago? And that around 160,000 years ago slavery began? What discoveries or research led to these notions? Are we just meant to take his word for it? (like I ask you to take mine?).

The long chapter entitled ‘A Brief History of Capitalism’ is far more coherent and persuasive, despite its lack of citations. Attali details the history of what he refers to as the mercantile order and suggests that as the mercantile order evolved over the centuries it fostered more and more individual freedoms and therefore became an engine of democracy. Attali’s principal argument focuses on the nine ‘cores’ of the mercantile order that have been at the forefront of capitalism over the centuries - Bruges, Venice, Genoa, Antwerp, Amsterdam, London, Boston, New York and currently Los Angeles. This long chapter leads to, almost inevitably, a chapter entitled ‘The End of the American Empire’. Logically the evolution of capitalism over the centuries points to an inevitable decline in the dominant core, something that has happened again and again; mostly caused by internal dysfunctions, mainly financial, and challenges from the outside. Attali’s arguments are persuasive simply because it is all too easy to see past trends emerge again. He argues that as soon as post 2030 the “ninth form will have lived its day” and that America could become a Scandinavian style social democracy or a dictatorship. Well, we’ll see!

As to what comes next Attali points to three possible ‘waves of the future’ for this century: planetary empire, planetary war and planetary democracy. While it is too complex to adequately sum up how and why each wave could be possible there are a number of key points for each worth noting. Planetary empire involves a possible decoupling of the mercantile order from a central city core, becoming a roaming entity mostly via the borderless world wide web. Planetary war all too ominously involves multiple scenarios ranging from endless minor conflicts to all out war involving what he calls ‘pirate’ entities taking it up to the major powers. ISIS is certainly shaping up to be such an entity. Planetary democracy is, rather optimistically, the inevitable endgame for the century. While some of his arguments for this third wave are sound, some are also are also dubious. Attali cites the emergence of  ‘vanguard players’, or ‘trans-humans’; altruistic citizens that will “ relational enterprises in which profit will be no more than a hindrance, not a final goal.” The cynic in me can’t help but consider that this viewpoint is naively Utopian and that humanity will not be able to curb its self destructive impulses.

A Brief History of the Future is a moderately interesting book with some compelling ideas. Ultimately, however, the book is flawed, particularly the chapters that deal with the future, which simply make too many assumptions. It’s a tough business this futurism, but in a strange way Attali makes it appear that anyone with some understanding of history and capitalism could give it a go. I’m certainly ready and willing. I have a reasonable knowledge of emergent technologies and have a pretty good understanding of history and current events. Hey - I’m a futurist! Personally I believe that certain emergent technologies could completely alter society and what it is to be human, even more so than current computer technology coupled with the internet. If genuine AI technology is developed, possibly coupled with quantum computing, then that would be a huge game changer. If longevity drugs, now entering an exciting research and development phase, come to fruition, then society and the economy will be challenged with significant changes that have never been seen before. These three technologies (five actually - but don’t get me started on robotics and 3D printing) were touched on only briefly by Attali, leaving me to think that his vision of the future is only part of the possible story at best.

Tuesday 20 October 2015

The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing (1962)

I must admit that I was ignorant of Doris Lessing until only a few years ago when she was name dropped by Robert Fripp in an interview for Mojo Magazine. In the interview he recalled how one night on tour in the US with King Crimson he brushed off a waiting groupie after the gig and instead went back to his hotel room to read his Doris Lessing novel! He didn’t mention which one, but I wonder if it was The Golden Notebook? (no doubt it was one of her science fiction novels...). My ignorance about Lessing is reasonably shameful because she is a significant writer and a cultural figure of some renown. Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007 and was listed in fifth place on The Times list of the fifty greatest British writers since 1945. Lessing was also outspoken about feminism, culture and politics and was for a time in the 1950s a member of the British Communist Party, which resulted in her being spied on by the MI5 for twenty years. She even collaborated with composer Philip Glass, writing lyrics for two operas based on her work.

The Golden Notebook is one of Lessing’s most recognized novels and as I was soon to discover also one of her most challenging. The principle protagonist is Anna Wulf, a writer suffering from writers block and also a particular kind of mental anguish that comes with living in the 1950s; confused gender roles, the cold war, nuclear weapons and a stifling conservatism that is already beginning to crumble. The narrative is highly structured; divided into sections according to notebooks - black, red, yellow and blue, finishing with the golden notebook that unites them all. At regular intervals there are sections ironically titled ‘Free Women’ (or “ironical” - a word that Wulf uses incessantly throughout the novel), which feature Wulf, her friend Molly, their children and a host of male characters, most of whom are reprehensible. Like Lessing herself in the 1950s, Wulf is a member of the Communist Party and the red notebook reveals a deep disillusionment with the Soviet Union as the revelations about Stalin’s reign become too hard to ignore. The black notebook explores Wulf’s writing life, with all its inherent frustrations. Wulf is psychologically unable to accept her life as a writer and resents its bittersweet rewards and suffocating writers block. The yellow notebook records her emotional life and the blue her every day life. Both are fraught with the pressures of life and reveal a woman very much on the edge of a nervous breakdown, a theme that Lessing notes in her preface from 1971 as being more significant than the political and feminist themes.

Within the notebook sections there is further experimentation with form, with Wulf creating fiction that explores what is actually happening in her life. There are significant motifs that are repeated throughout: Wulf endlessly wants to leave the Communist Party and she is constantly drawn to married men, or they are drawn to her. Lessing explores changing gender roles in post war Britain, in which female identity is in flux. The irony inherent in the Free Women sections is that whilst the female characters live independently of men, they continually define themselves by their relationships with them. The male characters are generally dissatisfied and are prone to misogynist behavior that is unfortunately all too believable. Some hard ‘truths’ are explored throughout The Golden Notebook and Lessing is rightly admired for having been so bold in both her themes and her execution. However the novel is also flawed, containing a great deal of stilted dialogue. Many of the scenes are designed to put ideas across and then to repeatedly hammer them home. At times the novel is turgid, filled with endless character ruminations about their own situation or the plight of society as a whole. Also it doesn’t help there is absolutely no humour in the novel whatsoever. A mere one hundred pages into the novel it occurred to me that it was the most neurotic writing I’d ever read and Wulf was the most neurotic character I’d ever encountered. The narrative is painfully self aware and is intensely psychological in an uncomfortably way; it just never lets up and is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It took me two hundred pages to finally become absorbed by the narrative. The middle third, although unrelentingly demanding, was almost enjoyable, yet by the last third I once again felt like I was wading through narrative quicksand.

This uncompromising book is certainly a challenge, but is it a challenge that is worthwhile? To answer that question requires writing endless pages of rumination in several notebooks, followed by periods of angst and the obsessive cutting out of articles from newspapers to stick onto the walls. Actually, whoops, that’s the book! Curiously, however, reading The Golden Notebook was a rewarding experience, although exactly why is hard to pin down. The novel is certainly significant culturally both for its impact on the feminist movement and its brave experiments with form; but the novel has dated significantly, being very much a product of its times and in that context it can perhaps be viewed as an anthropological document of one woman’s struggle to make sense of her life against the backdrop of history.