Monday, August 6, 2012

Can you be a Futurist without being over-excited?

How to Face the Digital Future Without Fear
by Ben Hammersley, Hodder & Stoughton,434pp. 

Reviewed: 4 August 2012

In my time I've reviewed many books about the future, and each has made claims that irritate me as a reader. But  I admire books that provoke thought, and maybe there's got to be some drama to keep the pages turning.  

Ben Hammersley addresses this book to "non-geeks", who are presumed to be already anxious about a future that they know they don't understand, but will have to endure.   You may need to be already a little bit geekish to enjoy the provocations he offers by way of 64 Things You Need to Know...

Publishers evidently believe that titles promising hidden knowledge are good for book sales. They may be right.  As a contrarian, my instinct is to say "Why 64? Why not 4 or 512?".  In fact, Hammersley gives us 65 chapters, beginning binary-style with 00 and ending with 64. 

My inner geek mutters again: "64 is a nice round binary number, a power of 2. Why not number your chapters in the base-16 hexadecimal notation used by computer programmers? Give us 65 chapters if you will, but number them 00 to 41 hex ?"  Then supply non-geeks with a link to an online hexadecimal converter in case they get lost.

But not much in the world is really binary. Even the genius of computational logic is the way that infinite complexity can be constructed upon machine logic that basically only understands ON and OFF as the prime binary digit. 

Let's face it, most average citizens are worried enough about how to control email inboxes or how long we can avoid committing our lives to smart-phones and social networking.

Ben Hammersley seeks to bring aid to the anxious.  He is a British explainer and prober of the directions and affects of the revolution in computerized communications, Editor-at-Large of the geek journal Wired, and the “UK Prime Minister’s Ambassador to Tech City” (an Internet industry concentration in London).

Any reader may find here more, or many less, than 64 things you need to know.  There's no linear narrative and you can skip randomly about like browsing Wikipedia. There are at least 64 ideas worth thinking about, but readers will differ as to which are worth worrying about.

Privacy, the future of media business models, unprecedented exploitation of databanks of personal information - short chapters will stir you to thought on any of these.

At the wacky end we get serious discussion of The Singularity (Thing 53),  whereby artificial intelligence created by humans is expected to evolve beyond the control of its creators, like Frankenstein’s monster.  We humans are to be subjugated by machines, sometime before 2050.

My personal favourite new Thing is the “spime” -  a “self-documenting object that can interact with the world by tracking its own process of production and gathering information about its usage”.  The object gains in value as it accrues information about itself.  Let's all be spimes.

Richard Thwaites worked for some years in the Australian Government’s National Office for the Information Economy.