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.

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