Interview with James Burke

To what extent will the future be ‘futuristic’ and to what extent will it start to increasingly resemble the past?

‘Futuristic’ is a word firmly rooted in its contemporary context. Thus the views of the future described by Jules Verne, or HG Wells or the world of Buck Rogers were all very different. I suppose my guess would be that in fifty years’ time the future will be (as is the present) a recognizable environment containing detail we would not understand. As would have been the case of people fifty years ago regarding our modern world: people dressed and following daily routines much as before, but (with smartphones) talking into little boxes, or apparently running films of their friends on the same little boxes. Or sometimes just talking to themselves. Over the next fifty years, I can’t see any return to the past.

However, beyond fifty years the impact of nanotechnology and semi-intelligent computing will, I think, begin to bring really major change, perhaps as big as any since we left the caves. I’m thinking primarily of the nano-fabricator, sitting in everybody’s home somewhere and using dirt, air and water to make anything desired, from the atomic level up, for nothing. Adding to this: the development of computers a million times more powerful than today’s and each the size of a dust mote, and embedded ubiquitously (including on or in people). The internet of trillions of ‘motes’ would manage society second by second, using predictive analytics and Big Data to ascertain what society wanted and make it happen.

The social ramifications of this will, I think, so radically alter society as to make it virtually unrecognizable to us today. No money, no jobs, no government, 3D hologram communication, a diaspora out of the cities into small entirely-autonomous communities. I would imagine people will appear much the same in clothing and personal behaviour.

What has a lifetime of looking at technological development and its cost/benefits left you thinking?

Over time the accelerating pace of technological and scientific advance has increasingly placed our institutions under stress. Change is already happening too fast to be managed by such entities as education or government. These institutions were created in the past to solve problems of the past with the technology of the past, and most of them have managed at most to haul themselves into the late nineteenth century. We urgently need to use information and communications technology now to start to educate and inform both institutions of education and government, if we are to handle the period of extreme social turbulence ahead as we transition from the old ‘physical’ world to the new ‘digital’ world.

What qualities does one need to more accurately guess the future?

‘Qualities’ is a difficult word, so I’ll take it out of your question. First, you need as wide a range as possible of information about every aspect of present society which is in the process of change. In many cases change can follow trends, so for much of the time, it represents the same but more efficient, faster, more individual, more of the same types of choices. But the most impactful changes are the unexpected ones, and all you can do, to foresee these, is to try to think out of the box. In the main, though, such changes are due to events/inputs of which we are, or could not, be aware.

Example: James Watt’s steam engine succeeded thanks to work being done with whiskey distilling. Electricity was discovered thanks to problems with navigation at sea. In response to this kind of future, the best that can be done is remain as flexible as possible, so part of a successful preparation for change is to make sure that the social institutions have, inbuilt, ‘emergency’ procedures to at least cope with transitional turbulence as we adapt to the new future.

Do you think traditional stories have lessons we should heed in the 21st century?

Not sure what you mean by ‘traditional stories’. There is a grain of truth in the saying “Those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” This, in the sense of my previous answer. In this limited sense, I suppose one example might be the introduction of print, which brought major shocks that may hold pointers for the way we deal today with the effects of social media and associated technologies.

What developments in science most interest you now?

Nanotech. I believe that many, if not all of our present problems with pollution, starvation, potable water supply, health, education, government, environmental degradation, climate change, resource depletion and energy supplies will all be solved or improved by nanotechnology in the next twenty or thirty years. Then comes the nano-fabricator I have already mentioned.

What has surprised you most about the planet’s development in the last 50 years?

The sheer speed with which things have changed, particularly in terms of the rapidity with which technology has outstripped the social institutions and their capacity to deal with the changes we have seen. As I have said, we have had the means with which to manage technological advance for the common good, but our institutions (and particularly in government) have failed adequately to keep abreast of change, so that we are still tackling the 21st century social consequences of change with tools more adapted to the 19th century. This above all in the field of government. Parliamentary democracy was a fix for the lack of communications several hundred years ago so that only representatives could manage the task of serving the people’s will. Today, with ubiquitous telecommunications, we urgently need to develop a system -this, perhaps the single most important step we could take to build a better future- that would marry advances in communications technology with new teaching programs that might manage to drag our educational institutions out of the mix of eighteenth-century irrelevance and the race to the bottom, from which they suffer at present.

Learn more about Burke’s latest project called Knowledge Web, here.

Lin original: https://idriesshahfoundation.org/interview-with-james-burke/

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