For our new edition of Arc we asked Jon Turney, author of The Rough Guide to the Future (2010), to write us a keynote piece about the prediction business: is futurology mankind’s last, best hope? Or has it become just a branch of the entertainment industry? Jon, a senior lecturer at University College, London, responded with a piece about all the bizarre, unsynchronised clocks we live our lives by as we change and grow old. Understanding our own personal past is an everyday task, against which the futures dreamt up by futurologists appear woefully simplistic. Here’s a taster of his argument:
Like anyone, I want to place my life in a larger narrative. Grasping how large that narrative might be, though, is becoming a problem. Our normal intuitions seem tuned to two or three generations fore and aft, which at least gives me an interest in the 22nd century. But in the days since my future was set to begin in 2000 I’ve learnt that human time is inconsequentially brief. I need to get my brain around timescales first revealed to the Victorians – the deep time of uniformitarian geology. And if I practise, and overcome the dizziness brought on by contemplating spans of a few hundred million years, this still gives me only a small taste of cosmological time, which has many more powers of ten to offer. Moreover, cosmic time, it now seems, is asymmetric, so the deep future is far, far longer than the past.
Retreat from these sublime timescapes, and the chill lingers. We have good evidence – of a kind simply not available to people in the past – that human action has very long-term consequences. Raise the CO2 level in the atmosphere, and the effects persist for centuries, at the very least. Warm the globe, and ice caps could melt away in a few thousand years. Cause a mass extinction, and the traces of past extinctions suggest that evolution eventually replenishes biodiversity in the niches left vacant – but it takes maybe ten million years.
You can read Jon’s piece in full in Arc 1.4: Forever Alone Drone, out now,
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