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Some Thoughts on James Burke’s Vision of the Future

By Luke J. Davies.

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In 1973 James Burke made a series of predictions about how the world would be in 1993. He got a lot right: the wide spread use of computers at home and in schools; the data collection and storage that use makes possible; the development and approbation of IVF technology; changes in beliefs about privacy, in the form of a higher readiness in the young to give out personal information. Burke was recently asked to make another series of predictions about the state of the world in 80-100 years from now. (Find a short clip here, and a longer one here.)

The future Burke describes is a far cry from where we are now. It is at once highly technologized—his predictions are informed by a belief in, and enthusiasm for, the promise of nano-technology—and strangely bucolic. He imagines that nano-fabricators (machines that, with very little input, will be able to make anything we want) will lead to a self-sufficiency that will make governments unnecessary. Rather than crowding into big cities, people will spread out more evenly and in small communities. Burke’s future is one in which there is no poverty, or illness, or want. It is a place where people take up gardening because it would be “essential for the comfort of their soul. [He imagines the] planet as a giant untouched wilderness dotted with gardens.”

It is interesting that Burke seems to envision a world in which a technological solution has been given to a seemingly human problem—that of greed. His future is one in which we haven’t changed. Technology has changed so that our desire for material goods can be sated in a way that is both sustainable and egalitarian. (We might ask, in Hobbesian fashion, whether this abundance of material objects would just make us emphasize necessarily positional goods even more than we do now). Of course, Burke might be wrong about the promise of nano-technology. But, it would surprise me if he were wrong about the role of technology itself.

One important series of claims Burke makes concerns the changing nature of human interaction. He believes that holography will become so good that many of our interactions will be with avatars. That rather than going out to see live music or a play, we will instead cast convincing images of concert venues and theatres within our home and watch the life-like though spectral figures of any great performer we desire to see. It is a world of simulacra. While I know that I am opening myself to criticism for being a Luddite, I worry about the fact that this seems rather an accurate prediction. There is too much of Nozick’s experience machine in it for me. Despite the optimism of Burke’s projected future, it seems a place that is mostly void of the human contact that seems to give life meaning. (According to data published in study that has been conducted over 75 years by researchers at Harvard, this kind of contact is the biggest contributor to happiness—at least in men). If the future is how he describes it, I don’t think I want to live there.

In the end, it’s difficult to know what to do with predictions like this. Burke himself acknowledges that he could be wildly wrong. But, even if nothing he’s said turns out to be true, Burke has still told us something about where we are now. The clips are certainly worth the listen and I’d be curious to hear what others have thought.


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5 Comment on this post

  1. I think Burke is correct when it comes to predicting the future of social interaction, but I’m not convinced by his idea of a Utopian society where disease and corporations won’t exist. In a world of perfect nano-fabricators, there will still be people who want a ‘real’ diamond ring or wooden house or piece of artwork. Even if they are identical from a molecular point of view, surely the knowledge that one is ‘real’ will create a very lucrative market for those goods?

  2. He said: “machines that, with very little input, will be able to make anything we want”.

    The first thing that comes to my mind is regulation. This seems like a dangerous tool for people to have, considering how even cleaning products can be used to make bombs and how governments already have difficulty tracking radioactive material for this reason. Being able to create anything could do more harm than good.

    A more optimistic thought is how these nanofabricators could contribute to space exploration. On-site production of water, food and fuel is no small thing.

    Regarding your focus on abundance: it would also be interesting to think a about a hypothetical scenario where renaissance people debate about the consequences of digital photography, assembly lines, enhanced agriculture, international conventions and free-flow of information, and how that would solve what they saw and the most pressing problems of humanity.

  3. I think James Burke’s predictions of the future is a reflection of the current popular belief that is held in western culture at this current moment of time. The constant search for technological advancements is perceived in popular culture as the ultimate mechanism that will help societies progress and proceed to this notion of bigger and better things. This in my view seems very questionable for several reasons and summarized through these kinds of questions.
    How clear/intuitive is it to separate the wants and needs of individual in societies when we see great variation between each other. Does this reduce our progression in society as something purely physical, could this eliminate the thought provoking philosophical discussion that help question the underlying assumptions in science? and last but not least what are the moral implications, could we justify typically wrongful acts of violence for example by explaining its cause due to a lack of technological advancements? Perhaps…
    This is my first comment ever on this site, hopefully I will get better at explaining my points the more I write on it. I am currently a first year student at the University of Brighton studying Human Geography but have been fascinated by moral philosophy since I started studying it in Sixth form (in Oxford).

  4. The predictions sound quaint to me, because they are reflections of *old* popular beliefs about the future. Note that the description is based on questions of means of production, ecology and urbanity – three forces that have dominated 20th century thinking. But he does not seem to assume that people could change fundamentally, nor that the core of the economy already is services (yes, we need energy and other resources, but in developed countries most jobs are in the service sector).

    I am willing to give a fair chance (say 25%) that in 100 years the vast majority of people will be software, largely living extremely fast lives within a computing infrastructure and with by our current standards extremely peculiar notions of personal identity, survival and family. Many will have modified their minds in hard to imagine ways. The role of nature, urbanity and manufacturing will have been largely swept aside as issues of concern, just like we do not spend much resources considering noble heritage, church/king balance of power or guild monopolies – more current concerns will be overruling the quaint old concerns to an extreme degree. This is of course somewhat unsettling, especially since the inhabitants of this future might indeed be posthuman – they have traits and motivations we might not even be able to identify with.

    While my posthuman scenario can be seen as a belief among a certain small group of people and might of course turn out to be as absurd as any other future scenario, it shows the importance of making core assumptions explicit. Burke’s scenario is built on the idea that local micro-manufacturing (and presumably local micro-recycling and energy production) does away with the need for a large society: he assumes we need a large society because of manufacturing and transport, rather than because of large-scale coordination for other reasons (like keeping people from printing weapons of mass destruction or preventing suburbia from covering all of the wilderness). My above scenario hinges on a bundle of assumptions about the possibility of software people and from the properties of software (copyable, editable, runs fast on fast hardware etc.).

    The importance of a future scenario lies rarely in what it accurately predicts, but whether it gives a good explanation for a dynamics we ought to think about. The old predictions about computers and privacy were likely based on a reasonable insight in that having more information and processing is so useful that it would be technologically and socially self-amplifying – this seems to have worked out very well, and might continue for the foreseeable future. Burke now assumes good communications and local manufacturing will lead to a rural renaissance; I have argued the opposite, that this will make cities even more important as clusters of creativity (c.g. THS Cities of the Edge) – both explanations can be examined and compared to empirical evidence (where I think I am winning right now).

    In the end, most talk about the future is done in order to entertain rather than figure out better decisions. But it behoves us to take the future somewhat seriously if we want to influence it.

  5. I have never understood this fascination with bucolic life. I mean to say that the end result of technological triumph is the retreat of people to bucolic settings? I am a city boy. Give me city life any day. Cities mean Civilization to me.

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