books science technology

An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, by Mark Stevenson

From the machine-dominated prison of The Matrix to the environmentally devastated world of Cormac Mcarthy’s The Road, popular culture’s visions of the future tend to come in any colour so long as it’s black. Even Disney of all people served up Wall-E, with a trashed planet and an exiled humanity. Optimism is in rather short supply when it comes to the future.

Mark Stevenson begs to differ. There are plenty of reasons to be hopeful, he suggests. The solutions to our biggest problems are already available to us, and all kinds of radical new possibilities are opening up to us. He is an optimist, and when one of his interviewees asks if he’s an optimist of the ‘panglossian variety’, and his answer is no, there is nothing naive or misguided about optimism that emerges as a result of investigation.

And that’s what this book is, an investigation into the changes that Stevenson might live to see himself in the course of his lifetime. He has read a newspaper report that suggests he has a very good chance of living to be a hundred years old. That’s a lot of life left, so what might it hold? What have we got to look forward to? He sets out to explore his own future and the sort of world he will be living in.

An Optimist’s Tour of the Future is a travelogue, with Stevenson visiting some of the most cutting edge thinkers, theorists and inventors. He meets robot engineer Cynthia Brezeal to discuss artificial intelligence, and George Church to talk about DNA. He interviews Eric Drexler, the ‘godfather’ of nanotechnology, and Vint Cerf, one of the inventors of the internet. He visits a spaceport in the Mojave desert, and concludes that he may well get that long-promised holiday in space. If you think it’s starting to sound like the line-up to a TED conference, he interviews TED curator Chris Anderson for good measure.

One thing is for sure – the next century has some mind-bending developments coming down the track. Genomics is re-inventing medecine. Nanotechnology still sounds like science fiction, but all kinds of products are already on sale that make use of it in one way or another. Elsewhere, Stevenson tackles climate change. He visits a biochar lab in New Zealand, sees biodiesel being bubbled out of an algae-filled pond, and goes to an old Polaroid factory that is now printing solar panels. Yep, printing solar panels.

Some of the technologies here are a bit of a red herring. I am sceptical about some of the more radical claims about nanotechnology. Likewise the chapter on transhumanism, the theorists who argue that humankind can transcend their biology either by biotech or robotics, and can potentially live forever.

Is this stuff really the future? I’m not sure. Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is constrained by culture and politics. Consider North Korea as an extreme example, or the debates around stem cell research in the US or GM foods in the UK. Further, just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it should be done. Putting aside the question of overpopulation (there’s a Kurt Vonnegut short story where everyone lives to be hundreds of years old, until the whole world is one big city), do we want a world in which people live forever? Because if the wherewithal to live forever existed, I suspect Donald Trump would be the first in line.

My favourite chapter in the book is the simplest one. Stevenson visits farms in Australia that are sequestering carbon and overcoming drought through simple land management techniques. Instead of keeping lifestock in pens, they move them, like herds do in the wild. After the hubris and high tech of previous chapters, here’s one that offers a bit of grounding, a reminder that a better future means observing nature and living closer to the land.

This is a fun book, full of fascinating people and radical ideas. Stevenson is a science communicator with a sideline in stand-up comedy, and it’s a winsome combination. It’s a really enjoyable read.

Ultimately however, while I can appreciate the possibilities and look forward to seeing the future unfold, I find I’m not actually very excited by a lot of the things Stevenson celebrates. I can’t bring myself to care about space travel when a billion people lack running water. And that’s the problem with the future, when we make it about an individual me, rather than the collective we. The future I’m excited about it the one where we sort out the inequalities, roll out human rights and participative democracy, and learn to live simpler, more fulfilled lives. The things that will make the biggest difference to the future are not technologies. They are beliefs.


  1. Bright green futures generally rely on ignoring the startling failure to “decouple” the global growth model economy from its material resource base. Yes, this decoupling is happening, but way too slowly at the moment to give much hope for a bright green future.

    Any mention of peak oil? Biodiversity decline?

    Thanks for the review.

  2. Indeed, and by and large any decoupling that is happening is offset by the growth overall. If we halve our resource use per unit of economic activity, but double the economic activity, we haven’t got anywhere.

    Stevenson only really discusses climate change in any depth. There is mention of peak oil and how it could be solved with nanofuels, solar, and algae biofuels. Biodiversity gets a passing look in, as does poverty, but we’re talking single sentences.

    1. Actually, I’m not being very fair there. Stevenson does discuss poverty and biodiversity, but they get sneaked in alongside other things. Climate change gets a whole section to itself, but those others are there in the mix.

  3. Great post.

    I’m hoping to see Jonathon Porrit speak in Cheltenham on the topic of Sustainability: Reasons to be Hopeful – it seems optimism is making something of a comeback.

    I take the view that you might as well be reasonably optimistic, or at least hopeful about the future – after all being pessimistic will only make you miserable in the present, and probably won’t make any difference to how things will work out anyway.


  4. Nanotechnology does seem to be potentially a sort of ubiquitous game-changer, and I’m sure that much of its impact will be in ways we just can’t predict. Combined with solar technology, we get the spray-on solar panel idea, and there are probably wide-ranging applications in medicine, computing, civil engineering etc., too. But I think it’s much like aviation and computers – these have changed our way of life but in ways that would have been very difficult to foresee at the beginning.

    By the way, here’s a rather exciting near-future possibility – combining nanotech with ultracapacitors to make better EVs:

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