The Way We Will Be 50 Years from Today, by Mike Wallace

[18 November 2008]

By Olly Zanetti

Reading Mike Wallace’s The Way We Will Be is a bit like being stuck in a car with your seven year old self. “Are we nearly there?” you’ll whine as you plod through the work, counting the number of pages to go until the end. And, when (if?) you do finish, don’t expect any great epiphany. Your primary emotion is likely to be relief, tainted with regret that you ever even began. This is not a good book.

For a start, the premise is shaky. Wallace’s introduction is thin on content, and extends to a meagre 500 words or so. In this book he has, he explains, assembled 60 of what he terms “the smartest, most imaginative people on the planet” to describe what they think the world might be like in 2058. Moving on to these chapters, it soon becomes clear that no effort has been made to select these people according to a coherent theme, or to pull their comments together into anything in the way of a broad argument. Instead, this is a hotchpotch of thinkers, drawn largely from academia and influential governmental and non-governmental agencies, who proffer their thoughts in a series of disconnected essays.

The papers themselves are too short—on average just over four pages—to allow their authors to put forward anything like a substantive thesis. Not that many have even tried. Whether the result of an ill thought through brief and lacklustre commissioning process, or a feeble round of editing, far too much waffle has slipped into publication. Even the pop-futurologist’s standard ruminations on hover cars and talking fridges rear their heads. Some writers have gone for the customary academic tones, while others have attempted to liven things up with more creative efforts such as futuristic diary entries or letters to grandchildren. Either way, the majority of chapters feel frustratingly insipid. Further, the text is repetitive: as we’re told time and time again for example, technology, particularly medical technology, will advance. No shit, Sherlock.

However, the text’s real flaw is a result of the unstated assumptions upon which it justifies its existence. It alludes to inclusivity, it’s all about how “we” will be in the future, according to “the world’s” greatest intellect. As it becomes clear, “we” means middle class and broadly conservative Americans; and by “the world,” Wallace evidently means the United World of America. Thinkers from developing nations barely get a look in, neither too do those from Europe or Australasia. It’s also worth noting that, of these 60 great minds, 52 of them are male.

Most essays focus simply on the materiality of 50 years from now—on the objects that will be found in rich individuals’ lives. This narrow and technocentric approach is tired and, because of its unpredictability, arguably, worthless. There are a few who look beyond this to consider ideas or philosophies, and it is these essays which are the most successful. Abdulla Salem El-Badri, Secretary General of OPEC, uses his essay to succinctly predict how globalisation and increasing transnational linkages will cause the decline of the nation state in the form we currently know it. Technological advance should be regarded as an inevitability, yet whether the political will exists to ensure the best and most equitable use of that advance is the question of overriding importance. In separate articles, health professionals Aaron Ciechanover and Nancy Brinker discuss how such issues might impact on the areas in which they work.

The occasional engaging contribution does not, unfortunately, detract from the fact that this is an uninteresting, poorly constructed, and essentially pointless text. The book never does what it set out to do, and openly admits that it has taken on an impossible task. Articles far superior in analysis and discussion appear almost daily in the quality press across the world. Science fiction provides just as much in the way of hypothetical futurology. And both are significantly more enjoyable to read.

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