The future is written
The pages of the New Scientist are no place for speculation, which is why it's launching a new magazine that combines science-fiction and futurology. Enjoli Liston finds out more
Thursday 22 March 2012
When it comes to forecasting the future, science- fiction has not been the most precise medium. Arthur C Clarke may have successfully predicted our network of geostationary communications satellites, H G Wells foresaw world wars and George Orwell imagined Big Brother's monitoring. But if we lived in Geoffrey Hoyle's vision of today, as predicted in his 1972 children's book, 2010: Living in the Future, then we would all be wearing jumpsuits and have new cars delivered in tubes of liquid.
As climate change, rising fuel prices and the 2008 crash have shown, it is important to imagine what lies ahead. Science-fiction doesn't seem up to the job. But Arc, a new digital magazine from the makers of the New Scientist, which aims to "explore the future" through "cutting-edge science-fiction and forward-looking essays", claims that it is.
"Fiction gives us the chance to explore and be eccentric," says Simon Ings, a novelist, science writer and editor of Arc. He argues that science-fiction is intrinsically linked to futurology – the practice of attempting to forecast the future. "If one thing is for sure, the future is not going to be agreed by committee. The future is going to be eccentric. And the best way of predicting the future is to make it up."
According to Ings, Arc came about because the makers of the New Scientist realised that their readers are "interested in speculating on where things are going", but they did not feel able to serve that interest in speculation within the pages of magazine dedicated to science, a field which is defined by facts. Arc is therefore half science and half science-fiction.
"Figures and statements and policies... are extremely important, but what [the future] comes down to is the shape and tenor of individuals' lives," says Ings.
Humans are believed to be the only animals capable of imagining and planning for what tomorrow might bring, and Ings thinks this ability has now reached a new level.
"We've reached a kind of maturity about the way we think about planning for the future," he says. "People are now thinking speculatively about the future in a way that wasn't necessarily frowned on before, but didn't exactly relate to ordinary life and business. Now, people are much more receptive to science-fiction because they deal speculatively with their own work and own lives."
Ings believes this is because we are "profoundly steeped in technology that changes the way we behave and relate" to each other. He says that there are plenty of publications that examine this technology, such as Wired, TechCrunch and Boing Boing, but nothing that examines its impact on our lives. "Rather than just looking at all the pretty devices, it's time we actually look from a human point of view about what world we're actually creating for ourselves," he says. Paul Raven, a science-fiction critic, writer and research assistant for the All-In-One project, which examines the future of our water, gas and electricity infrastructure – the systems which "hold civilisation together", as Raven puts it – believes the question of what the future will bring is more relevant to ordinary people than ever before. "At a cultural level, people are a lot more engaged with the notion of the future as something that we can shape," says Raven. He says climate change issues and our dependence on oil has shown us that "we are the engineers of our own misfortune" and that we must plan ahead.
It is not only science-fiction fans who are expected to read Arc, but investors and corporations which need to spot coming trends for their business interests.
"Science-fiction is increasingly being used as a form of consultancy by big companies who want to know what the future is going to look like and how to respond to the various possibilities," says Ings. "If you're making a product which takes 10 years to develop, it's useful to have a clue about what the world will look like when you try and put that product out on the market."
Just as corporations began to invest in "logistics" departments in the 1950s (previously a solely military term), companies including Deloitte (which runs the Center for the Edge) and Intel (which runs The Tomorrow Project), have now turned to a brand of futurology known as "forecasting" to help expect the unexpected.
Mark Stevenson, author of An Optimist's Tour of the Future, is a futurologist who works with investors, corporations and even schools on how to approach the challenges of the future. He says he does not make predictions, but identifies and advises on "megatrends" (primarily in the "three pillars" – information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology) which he believes will prove to be "game-changers" in the way we live our lives.
"We have these incredible technologies coming to the fore at a rapid pace, but they're clashing up against an industrial revolution mindset that is still embedded in legislation or the way corporations work, where change occurs very slowly," says Stevenson.
He argues that this clash can be seen in the music industry, in journalism (hence Arc's digital format, Ings says) and even in the Arab Spring.
"There is this sense now that, for the first time in a long while, technology is giving [people] the power to change things," says Stevenson. He says that institutions which don't adapt to withstand the pace of change are "no longer fit for purpose".
However, Ings, Stevenson and Raven all say that futurology and science-fiction should come with a health warning. Stevenson may advise billionaires on where to allocate their assets, but he says "it's very wise not to take futurology seriously" because "there are no real qualifications to become a futurologist and a lot of what [futurologists] say about the future is, by necessity, speculation".
Omni, a now-defunct magazine which displayed a similar mix of futures and fiction to the one Arc now presents, is credited with having "discovered" William Gibson, the speculative fiction author who coined the term "cyberspace" in his 1982 short story Burning Chrome. "We very much want to be the Omni of today," says Ings. However, he credits Omni's downfall to its tendency to take its stories – many of which centred around UFOs – too seriously.
"Science-fiction starts to get a bad reputation when it stops being a source of play and starts to take itself seriously as a force in the real world," says Ings.
"If you don't take it seriously then it can be useful, because you're freeing up your imagination and churning through ideas of what the future might be like. The moment you start taking it seriously is the moment you stop having ideas."
Arc is a quarterly digital magazine available from newscientist.com/arc
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