Review: An Optimist’s Tour of the Future by Mark Stevenson

Optimist on tour cover

Click to buy on Amazon

I first met “The Optimist” – or Mark as I like to call him – when he rescued me from a bothersome sex pest at a formal dinner (insert your own frying pan/fire joke here…).

We instantly hit it off with a shared love of geekery, music and bad jokes, meeting up whenever our diaries permit to drink pricey booze and laugh till it hurts.

After more than a year of travelling, researching and writing, he’s finally finished his first book – An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. Like its writer, the book is by turns geeky, funny, thought-provoking and  – at times – controversial.

An Optimist’s Tour is a rollercoaster headfuck of a book that leaves you shaking your head and muttering “wow!” as it speeds around the world asking the question “what next?” The premise is simple, but the answers are incredible and have the potential to change humanity as we know it.

Rather than all the doomsayers predicting war, famine, death, drought, pestilence, climate catastrophe and Katie Price’s next book, Mark asks what would happen if all the amazing technology that scientists are working on actually comes off. What if we can make robots that can think and feel? What about cheating death and engineering humans that can live for thousands of years? Solving the energy crisis using only some humble algae or a giant cauldron? How about restoring the drought-stricken Australian outback with nothing more than a few fence panels and a motorbike?

To answer these questions, he went on an incredible journey to meet some of the most visionary (and geeky) people in the world – Google’s Vint Cerf, futurist maverick Ray Kurzweil, Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed, transhumanist Nick Bostrom, one-woman Kiwi superhero Vicki Buck and robot “godmother” Cynthia Breazeal are just a few of the characters brought to life in glorious detail. You get a real feel for what it’s like to meet these people and get caught up by their energy and ideas. It helps that much of the book is written using direct quotes as the scientists set out their stalls in their own words, handily sidestepping the acres of dreary prose that can dog popular science books.

The stories they have to tell are just as vivid, and have major implications for the future of humanity.  As I read the book, my mind kept filling with plots for schlocky science fiction stories – The man who lived forever! The sludge that saved the world! – but these are real-life scenarios that Mark’s describing. Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace, and he finds out that we already have – or nearly have –  within our grasp a lot of the tools that we need to significantly improve human health and lifespan, reverse rising CO2 levels, solve the energy crisis and even create a networked tube of toothpaste that can re-order itself when it’s empty.

But here’s the rub – how do we actually cope with it all? There’s a nice bit of pacing at work in the book, as Mark pulls the reader through three sections entitled Man, Machine and Earth, laying out not just the “what ifs” but the “what whens” of this new technology. It’s enough to leave you feeling amazed, dazed and not a little bit frightened. How does it all fit together? What will the future look like?

It’s hard to imagine that our lives will be significantly different from today in ten years time, or even 20, 30 or 50. Will it really have changed that much, or will I still be yelling down the phone at my broadband provider while dodging the feral children roaming the streets of Hackney? And haven’t we always had this promise of a glorious techno-future dangled at us? It’s 2011 already – I want my hoverboard, dammit!

Luckily just at this point, there’s the final section – Re-boot – where Mark tries to pull it all together and make some kind of sense from the tsunami of ideas he’s collected. The main conclusion seems to be that human curiosity, ingenuity and creativity has never been a problem – after all, that’s why we’re not (mostly) still living in caves and grunting at each other. It’s whether we actually have the will, both personal and political, and the vision to embrace change and run with these new ideas that could make the world a better place.

To me, this is summed up in the quote from Mark Bedau, telling us that “Change will happen and we can either try to influence it in a constructive way, or we can try and stop it from happening, or we can ignore it. Trying to stop it from happening is futile. Ignoring it seems irresponsible.” In summary, Yay! For technology, and fingers crossed for human nature.

An Optimist’s Tour is an exciting and engaging book, but not just because of the gee-whizz subject matter. It’s clear that Mark knows his stuff and has done his research, as the book bristles with facts, figures and scientific detail. That’s not to say it’s a dull read. He uses stats like Rocky uses his left hook, delivering killer blows to support his arguments. Clever analogies and metaphors, coupled with his easy-going, conversational writing style, make complicated scientific principles pop off the page into graspable reality.

Although I really enjoyed reading the book, I do have to vehemently disagree with one of Mark’s premises. Duran Duran are clearly NOT better than the Pet Shop Boys.  Despite this lapse in musical taste, An Optimist’s Tour is an absolutely cracking read, providing plenty of food for thought and discussion, and I highly recommend it.

5 responses to “Review: An Optimist’s Tour of the Future by Mark Stevenson

  1. “…an absolutely cracking read…”

    I love this term Dr Kat – so quaint, so British…

    I heard you use it on a Naked Scientist podcast the other day (I’m working my way through all 250-odd!) ironically about some staid journal about bacteria or somesuch and you cracked me up. I’m treddling home from work and people looking at me in the street when a burst out laughing…

    I used the term the same way at my workplace with the Australian Government to describe some uber-boring read that came across my desk, and it stopped my boss cold. And then he cracked up too.

    Love ya work Dr Kat!

    • Thank you 🙂 Do check out Mark’s book, as it’s really excellent, and I’m glad you’re liking the Naked Scientists! Thanks for stopping by,

  2. Yes, may the future begin, so that here in Holland I can download this book on my Kindle (impossible so far alas, for copyright reasons). Until then I will not know what is in the book, since I am certainly not going to buy paper books anymore.

  3. Pingback: Naked Scientists special: An interview with the Optimist | You do too much

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