Envisioning the future, today

If you're having trouble deciding on a New Year's resolution, here's one suggestion from futurist Bruce Sterling: Spend more time thinking about your relationship to time.

With his new book, "Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years," he aims to nudge people to contemplate the future - not as some far-off event, but as something tactile that is happening right now.

The future is not an alien world, he writes. It's this world with different people at a different time. In some cases really different people.

If biotech takes the course he envisions, in the late 21st century the norm is to look like athletes and supermodels. Interaction with microorganisms and a vast knowledge of their role is common - so common, in fact, that your bathroom will tell you if you've picked up any dangerous substances on your clothes. Heck, you don't even have to have a fridge because nothing rots in your house unless you say so.

These are the stories Mr. Sterling weaves to try and get readers thinking about where industries that will come of age in the 21st century - like genetic engineering - are taking society.

Both laziness and fear (of mortality) often keep people from envisioning the future in a way that connects to the present, Sterling argues.

"It's difficult to think about the future, so we want shortcuts to sort of get it over with," he says in a phone interview from his home in Austin, Texas. "We want to think about the future in grand terms, like armageddon or apocalypse. We put an end to it now, so we don't have to think any farther than that."

Sterling - a veteran science-fiction writer and a Wired magazine columnist - is concerned with the sensibility of the future, not its "hardware and statistics." "What does it mean? and How does it feel?" he wonders in the introduction to his book.

In answering those questions, he hopes to sharpen people's sense of how civilization and its developments are related to the passage of time.

Take genetics. As the discipline sloshes toward maturity, Sterling suggests that the discussions need to go beyond simply whether it's possible to clone a child or make a superbaby: What will that child feel like at 35? How will he feel when the materials that formed him are no longer the latest thing?

Genetics is "a new industrial breakthrough, and it's hugely powerful, so it's going to shape the character of the next century in profound ways," he says.

"I do rather expect there to be something pretty strange happening in the 2060s. I think there's going to be some kind of crossover effect between genetics, cybernetics, and cognition studies.... Once we industrialize those processes, all bets are off."

One possibility is that humanity eventually reaches a place that even sci-fi writers can't describe with complete understanding, a "posthuman" condition that may be the end result of striving, through science, to be strong and attractive indefinitely.

"I have tried to find things in here that are not normal to the fabric of the 20th century. And I've traced them up to the level of what we science-fiction writers like to call the 'Vingean Singularity,'" where the major actors are not human beings and can't be out-thought," he says.

"Tomorrow Now" grew out of Sterling's desire to knock the dust off his prejudices - as he puts it - about the future at the turn of the millennium.

He structured his book after Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage" soliloquy, which follows the many roles a person has in life, from infant to the "mere oblivion" of old age.

Sterling is partial to the chapter he calls "The Lover." In it, he explores industrial design and humanity's relationship to gizmos. He uses advances in phone design (from standard 1950s models to sleek cellphones) to illustrate how intimate that relationship has become.

Form used to follow function; today, functional parts are often too small to see. Now that objects can take any shape, they've been adapted, writes Sterling, to the last design limit: "The sensorimotor needs and desires of the human body."

"The body is now beginning to reshape the technical landscape," he explains.

Sterling uses the Internet to guide him in his search for clues about tomorrow. His chapter on education is guided by his own experience as a web surfer and self-described independent scholar.

Today's orderly school-day structure grew out of a time when children went on to work in bureaucratic organizations, he says. For an information society, he sees education becoming almost a "giant Internet machine," where people spend a lifetime learning and keeping up with what's new.

He says he isn't trying to be a moral arbiter or to scold people with this book. In fact, he remains neutral about what's coming next. "People ask me if I'm optimistic or pessimistic about the future," he says. "This is a book in which I've tried to escape that dichotomy. To me that's like asking if you're optimistic or pessimistic about the 19th century. What I am is engaged."

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