Skip to main content

The Rough Guide to the Future – Jon Turney ***

This is a really interesting book, which is why I feel I need to explain up front why it only has three stars. In part it’s because this is a science website, and there is an awful lot of this book that isn’t science. ‘Futurology’ itself certainly isn’t a science – it’s collection of opinion. As the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data, and collecting together opinions is not science. It’s also notable that the chapter on ‘science futures’ is practically all about technology. Nothing about future discoveries in physics, cosmology, chemistry or even biology (as opposed to biotech and medicine).
The other reason I can’t give the book too high a score is that it’s not always great to read. This says nothing about Jon Turney’s writing, which is great, wonderfully readable and well crafted. It’s all down to the topic and the format. The problem with the topic is that, frankly, when you get down to looking at the future (future of economics, future of politics, future of food supply…) it starts reading like a government ministry checklist. It’s only likely to really excite a civil servant. We want the future to be all about ray guns and jet packs, not supply and demand curves.
As for the format, it’s a case of boxitis. I don’t know why, but some publishers love having little boxes on the page with separate bits of text. I started writing business books before I got into popular science and business publishers absolutely insist on boxes, as, apparently, do the Rough Guide people – I can’t imagine Turney wanted it. Boxes work fine in a traditional Dorling Kindersley style two page spread, where the main body text is complete in itself on the two pages. But in a normal book, where the body text flows from page to page, as it does here, when are you supposed to read the boxes? If you do it at the start or end of the page, you often have to stop reading midsentence. It’s just irritating.
There’s a lot to be interested by and enjoy in this book. I particularly liked it when Turney invoked science fiction and made comparisons with the more way-out ideas of the future from the past. We find out a lot about important topics like climate change, energy problems, water problems and more in a very approachable way. I really, really wanted to like this book. But I didn’t. I would have liked to have seen more comparison of old futurology with what really happened (for example Tofler’s fascinating but almost entirely disastrously wrong ideas in Future Shock). And I’m disappointed that the book tells us that the world’s first maglev train runs from Shanghai Airport. (What about Birmingham Airport’s maglev from last century?) But on the whole the coverage is fine – it’s just the problems detailed above that prevented me from enjoying this ride into the future.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…