Urgent matters written about in haste

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Future Perfect: What next? And Other Impossible Questions, by Robyn Williams; Allen & Unwin, $17.95, pp 171. ISBN 978-1-74175-318-9, website 

Urgent matters written about in hasteRobyn Williams wrote 2007: A True Story, Waiting to Happen in 2000, "In a burst of rage" at the extinction of species, and the ruination of reef and rain forest. In this fantasy of a near-future (where John Howard is still Prime Minister) animals take over the world, exacting a long-overdue revenge. A science journalist with the ABC for 35 years, Williams has received various honours — a visiting professorship at Balliol, a star named after him in the constellation Carina — none of which has diminished his self-confidence. His latest work, Future Perfect, is concerned — as the subtitle indicates — with "What next? And other impossible questions". The book begins with the assertion that "Thinking about the future is not a normal human activity". Nevertheless it is one that Williams is prepared to undertake, considering in sequence the futures of communication, science, God, transport, cities, sex, innovation, work and last of all 'The Future of Us - Our Last Century?'

The introduction is unpromising, evincing signs of haste that are evident throughout. Then again, urgent matters are being addressed. Some 35-40,000 years ago, Williams proposes, "We invented culture". Evidence: cave paintings in France and Australia, Usually he condescends to the past, better to concentrate on what has not yet come to be. Thus only at harvest time could "peasants [gather] for a grim romp". Galileo enters next: "his cosmology affronted the Church, but that didn't worry him". In fact, the threat of torture, death, an end to scientific experimentation, worried him constantly. No matter, Galileo is soon shuffled offstage so Williams can recollect an appearance of his before an audience of Year Ten students: "I was as familiar as Tycho Brache to the eye-rolling, lounging youth". But he tunes in to their bleak pessimism, their helpless fate as "shuttlecocks of circumstance". Direly, it seems to him, we "have abolished the future yet again".

Time, then, for the book proper to begin. Much of what follows is sage judgement from a mind that is formidably well-stocked. In 'The Future of Communications', Williams persuasively asserts that "We move too much and are beginning to think about the benefits of staying still". Just so, but how can we insert a slow movement into the hectically-paced symphony of modern times? This chapter ends, as do the others, with Williams at play, outlining 'The Hunches of Nostradamus'. Speaking personally and professionally, and perhaps not much in jest, he predicts that by 2010 the ABC will have closed Radio National, merged with SBS and "[restructured] to add five extra layers of senior management".

Future Perfect is punctuated with episodes of autobiography: how Williams's father forced him — against the son's inclinations — to study science; how some of his schooling took place in Vienna; his bureaucratic battles with "accountants sans frontieres"; his admiration for the kind of person, such as himself, "who is refreshed by a romantic interlude". Jealousy, he reckons, is "very nineteenth century". The 'Future of God' chapter refers to recent works propounding the virtues of atheism and elaborating the evils that flow from religion. Williams's friend Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, is introduced by a long, hostile quotation from Terry Eagleton, rather than in his own words. Williams 'small volume', Unintelligent Design is mentioned here. It reappears in the chapter on the future of sex, where he drolly recalls its argument that "the only credible manifestation of intelligent design is the presence of homosexuals in society". Natural selection ought not to have allowed them.

Urgent matters written about in hasteWhatever flaws and fancies there may have been in God's blueprint, Williams does surprisingly little to produce projections of his own. This is a sample: "give commuters trains that are faster than cars ... and they will use them". As well they might, but what social and political interventions will disrupt and amend current circumstances? Indeed his own counsel often appears to be despair. Of the future of work, it "has grown like technology: it is messy, changeable, uncertain, fragmented and ruled by new kinds of bureaucrats". Young people now face, Williams judges, a probable and chilling future of "a discontinuous patchwork of jobs, a gypsy-like lifetime of discontinuity". For tertiary students on the way to that future, handling numerous part-time jobs as well as their studies, Nostradamus's hunch is that they will attend universities in order to sleep.



"So will we make it?" Williams confesses he is unable to answer, although in a book over-stuffed with scantily analysed quotations, he surrounds himself with pessimistic foretellers. Future Perfect is a sketchy diagnosis of much that imperils the human future. Bad news is very nearly relished. There is too little either concrete or venturesome. Admirers of Williams will have expected more. Allen & Unwin might be wondering whether it has published something that really is not yet a book, and certainly not the one that might have been.

 

 

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An excellent review. Very happy to see Peter Pierce writing in Eureka Street. It sounds like Mr Williams should have spent a little more time on this most recent work.
Joanna | 24 August 2007


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