The Future in Plain Sight
Eugene Linden
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buy *The Future in Plain Sight: The Rise of the True Believers and Other Clues to the Coming Instability* online The Future in Plain Sight:
The Rise of the "True Believers" and Other Clues to the Coming Instability

Eugene Linden
Penguin Putnam
288 pages
January 2002
rated 2 of 5 possible stars

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The future, an old television pitchman used to say, is where we are all going to spend the rest of our lives. True enough, I suppose, but the next question is, inevitably, “What is that future going to be like, and what are we going to do about it?”

Curled Up With a Good BookThis is where the futurists, from the apocalyptic visions of Jeremiah down to the careful ambiguities of today's newspaper horoscope, try to supply answers. Sometimes their predictions seem spectacularly right, as when Jean Dixon became famous for forecasting the Kennedy assassination in 1963 (but year after year she had always predicted something like “a dark cloud” over the White House). Most often, however, events prove the predictors to be spectacularly wrong, as in the “World of the Future” exhibit at the 1939-40 World's Fair that envisioned domed cities with moving sidewalks, personal aircraft in every garage, and all-purpose robots to doing all our housework by the year 2000.

Into that doubtful arena, in religion called prophesy and in science Futurology, comes Eugene Linden, whose The Future in Plain Sight attempts to assess century-end trends and project them into a number of scenarios for the year 2050. Linden is probably better prepared for his task than Jean Dixon, and he is certainly more coherent than Nostradamus. He is a seasoned science writer whose facts are generally straight and whose philosophy of science is grounded in the modern ideas of Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. He does avoid the trap of saying, “This will happen” by providing the reader with a range of possible futures, but like all his brothers and sisters in prognostication, his credibility is severely limited by the nature of his art. The reason why all, even erudite, predictions usually go awry has to do with a mathematical application called chaos theory, which says that all systems of a certain complexity are inherently incomprehensible and therefore unpredictable. The example usually given is the weather: It's impossible to know with any accuracy what hurricanes will occur next year, and what course they will take, because there are too many factors in play. A single butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set off changes in air currents that affect the formation of a giant weather system in the Carribean. Weather forecasting, after a projection of a few days, falls rapidly in accuracy and soon becomes meaningless. And so, by extension and in spades, is any sweeping prediction about the future of civilization itself.

Linden bases his visions of our possible future on nine “clues,” or present realities, circumstances as diverse as currency trading and global warming, the migrations of populations and the growing wage gap between Haves and Have Nots around the world. All will tend, in his view, to create worldwide instability. He points out, for example, that twenty years ago a CEO's salary was about fifteen times the earnings of the average worker in his or her company, but now the gap is more than a hundred and fifty times earnings. The differences are even more startling between incomes in the wealthiest nations and the poorest ones. Global weather changes, including the warming effects of industrialization, the loss of biodiversity (the farmers of Bangladesh, Linden reports, once grew as many as ten thousand different variants of rice, but now grow only five), along with continuing shifts of population, are likely to exacerbate poverty and therefore increase instability everywhere. Added to these problems is the crisis in the availability of clean water for drinking and industrial use.

Most interesting for the present reader is the clue that Linden considers last, which he titles “The Rise of the True Believers.” These “true believers” are the majority of human beings who see the world in simple terms, have a firm vision of the rightness of things, and see meaning or magic in everything. Including both Moslem militants and fundamentalist Christians, he shows evidence that they are feeling increasingly empowered to follow their agendas. “Paranoia is flowering around the world,” he darkly notes. Here is a place where we could have used a more specific warning.

Significantly, however, these chapters were written in 1998, so to our changed ears the author's warnings about fanaticism seem muted. The chapter is placed last in his list of nine clues, less than twelve pages out of more than three hundred. To be sure, in the present paperback edition,prepared this year, there is a subtitle that emphasizes fanaticism as a factor in the coming instability (“The Rise of the 'True Believers...") and a long “Afterword to the Plume Edition,” in which the author tries to update his analysis to the terrible new realities, to show, in fact, that his propositions are now more valid than ever.

But it doesn't work. The book can't quite escape the faintly tired look of yesterday's newspaper. All the data, the anecdotes, the conclusions, are clearly from the Nineties, which have been relegated by events to another era entirely.

Much more fun is the second half, subtitled “Scenes from 2050,” in which Linden projects his dire warnings onto imagined scenarios. The scenes include a worldwide financial collapse triggered by a nuclear explosion in Las Vegas, ecological disaster in the Philippines, a meltdown of Antarctic ice with global consequences, and, most interesting, a New York City strangely altered by successive “plague years and economic panics.” Most people are wearing long, flowing robes that facilitate the sterilization process they must undergo to protect against virulent new diseases whenever they enter a building or an office. Their dress also expresses their dominant religion, Maya, that derives from the pan-naturalistic Gaia concept of James Lovelock. The reader can enjoy this vision, a combination of Brave New World and a legend of Atlantis, without having to worry much about its predictive accuracy.

Finally, this book, though diverting and effective, has little to offer that is new. Global warming? The uprising of the impoverished? Resurgence of old diseases that seemed under control? These are alarms that have already been sounded. Linden's core prediction, that the future will be marked by instability, is hardly controversial. There is also almost nothing here about the direction of scientific knowledge, technology, or communications, matters that are sure to weigh heavily on any imaginable future and that are sure to change all the equations, one way or another. For that aspect, the reader might augment these propositions with something like Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines.

© 2002 by Conrad Geller for Curled Up With a Good Book

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