Futurology: futile but fun

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The Independent Online
We have developed, according to Mark Lawson in A Brief History of the Future (Radio 4, Saturday), a range of techniques for dealing with permanent uncertainty - among them, sermons on the resurrection, life insurance and Mystic Meg. Leaving aside the question of whether Mystic Meg counts as a technique - more a desperate piece of improvisation, really - you notice that he doesn't mention pension plans, surely the most insidious reassurance technique we possess.

A degree of shakiness about the future is integral to the whole notion of insurance: you may fall off a cliff, warns the salesman - shouldn't you invest in a mattress, just to be safe? It plays on our insecurities. The pension plan, on the other hand, waves insecurity aside. True, you are told to bear in mind that stocks can go down, as well as up - that the size and fluffiness of this financial cushion may vary - but it assumes that things will carry on roughly as they are today. Perhaps this is a sensible working assumption, but it leaves me uneasy. I have always wanted to ask a pension salesman, but have never dared, what happens in the event of the collapse of Western civilisation. What's needed is a policy - the Branch Davidian PEP, say - that will convert your accumulated funds into, say, basic agricultural equipment, medical supplies, small arms plus a few animal traps and geiger counters.

This is, I realise, an unfashionable view. The theme of A Brief History of the Future is the way that our visions of tomorrow have altered. The first agrarian societies thought of the future as pretty much more or the same; the Greeks thought it was a process of slow decline from a Golden Age (with some hope of either recurrence, or renewal following conflagration); Enlightenment man, under Newton's spell, thought the future was rationally calculable.

This first programme (three more to come) barely had the time to skim over these fundamental changes; it didn't even touch on the extraordinary see-saw of ideas about the future that has characterised our own century. Just in the last decade and a half, for instance, Graham Swift's marvellous novel Waterland, published in 1983, has become faintly embarrassing to read, with its passages of paranoia about impending nuclear apocalypse and history approaching its end. After 1989, by contrast, it was possible to suggest that history was coming to an end for opposite reasons - that there were no significant conflicts to disturb the orderly procession of events.

You can't blame Mark Lawson for omitting all this. But you can criticise A Brief History of the Future for being a little too keen on brevity, and for getting a diversity of expert testimony at the expense of coherence and depth. The only real moments of gravitas came at the beginning, with Bryan Magee issuing solemn warnings of the dangers of addiction to the future: "People.... can go future mad. And often have."

For proof of this, you only had to turn to Beyond the Millennium (Radio 4, Monday), in which Sheena McDonald asks thinkers how life will be in 2010. Last week, Professor Chris Hables-Gray was looking forward rather gleefully to future warfare - soldiers in exoskeletons with jet-packs on their backs, "brilliant" weapons which choose their own targets, and so forth. This week, Kevin Murray declared that the city of the future will be a much nicer place than it is now - fewer cars, less crime, better facilities. Murray, particularly, seemed absurdly certain and optimistic; but perhaps that's the only way of making futurology bearable. However grim the future may be when we get there, Beyond the Millennium at least makes it fun for now.

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