Hip, Connected Futurist Polishes Up His Crystal Ball

Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years , by Bruce Sterling. Random House, 320 pages, $24.95.

Herbert George (H.G.) Wells, science-fiction pioneer and coiner of the phrase “atomic bomb,” famously predicted many events decades in advance: the rise of Adolf Hitler, the London Blitz of 1941, the abolition of all money in 1965 and, of course, the triumph of our present system of one-world government in 1978.

O.K., so the guy had a mixed record with predictions. Indeed, of all the horrors prophesied by Wells, he missed another, very close to home: the sad decline of futurism itself. Two recent works, both of which borrow the title of Wells’ classic novel, The Shape of Things to Come , illustrate the trend. The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come , edited by Frances Carey, patiently explains how everything we’re reading in the headlines is part of God’s Big Plan. Richard Oliver’s Shape of Things to Come: 7 Imperatives for Winning in the New World of Business takes a distinctly lower road. Dippy Christian “inspiration” and faddish “Seven Habits”–style cocktail party fodder-this is how far futurism has fallen.

What happened to the future, anyway? That’s one of many questions posed by Bruce Sterling’s charming if elusive book-length essay, Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years .

But before we get to the next 50 years, let’s talk about the 90’s, a golden (or maybe only gilded) age of pop futurism. Every week, it seemed, another piece of trend-spotting appeared. There was Faith Popcorn’s The Popcorn Report , which was silly and sold millions. Other books were serious and smart, like Esther Dyson’s Release 2.0 , Lawrence Lessig’s Code and Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital . Ms. Dyson, Mr. Lessig and Mr. Negroponte were, if not utopians, then surely optimists. They believed that new technologies-the Net, the Web, computers in our shoes-would change the daily nature of our lives. Many of these books make nostalgic reading in 2002. Ms. Dyson, for example, was a doyenne of the very early text-intensive Net, before the pretty pictures and the dancing-baby graphics brought the 40 million AOLers in. Ms. Dyson, and others, saw that this new medium would be very big. As good Wellsians, they predicted that a whole new form of community, a new way of relating to each other, would emerge.

Twelve years have proven the Net futurists correct, to a degree: Everyone’s online, but what are they doing? Shopping, mostly. Same as it ever was. E-mail, the most significant utility in cyberspace, has changed the way we live our lives, and therefore changed our lives. But there’s no revolution . Can you imagine living without e-mail? Chances are you can; chances are you did, assuming that you’re more than 10 years old. E-mail, in this sense, looks like other handy, life-improving helpmeets such as the stereo and the freon-coil refrigerator. Without a fridge, you’d be drinking powdered milk or shopping quite a lot. This would be a drag. But without a fridge, you’d still be middle-class, with the worldview and assumptions that define the middle class. Net futurists, I’m saying, made a bigger claim: that the speedy, friction-free and global nature of the Web would change not merely how we are, but who we are as well.

Ms. Dyson, right or wrong, was a fundamental optimist. Even in the heyday of the-Web-as-the-next-printing-press, there was another, stronger voice in the fiction end of futurism. William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer , an ur -text of that sub-school known as cyberpunk, depicted the future as a ruined waste ruled by giant mainframes. Neal Stephenson, a better-known and better-selling protégé of Mr. Gibson, followed up with Snow Crash and The Diamond Age , which predicted, again, chaos, waste and ecological collapse.

Bruce Sterling is the third name in the trinity of c-punk. His nine novels and three story collections are bitingly satiric-and quite often brilliant-but never even slightly optimistic.

Of all these writers, Mr. Sterling is probably the most like the fantastically prolific H.G. Wells. A journalist and critic, editor and pundit, Mr. Sterling is the author or co-author of 10 books since 1990. Like Wells, and unlike his fellow cyberpunks, Mr. Sterling is joiner, a kibitzer, comfortable with causes and campaigns. Wells, atheist, socialist, and aggressive free-love man, joined and quit every countercultural group in the England of his day. A steadier presence, Mr. Sterling has led since 1998 the Viridian Design Movement, an e-community (O.K., a Web site and mail list) devoted to exposing the dread effects of global warming. In short, Bruce Sterling is a hip, connected guy whose views you want to know. And if, with Tomorrow Now , he has put himself in the prediction business, you want to know those, too.

But prediction, as we saw with old H.G. and his corny global government, can be a dicey proposition. Mr. Sterling doesn’t frame Tomorrow Now as simple futurism, a roster of inventions for the next 50 years, a kind of Sharper Image catalog for 2053. “My quest,” he says, “is not for the future’s hardware or statistics; it’s for its sensibility, its basic attitudes and deep convictions. Its meaning, its feeling.”

Tomorrow Now takes its clever structure from Jacques’ soliloquy in As You Like It . You know the one. It starts, “All the world’s a stage … ” and takes us through the seven Shakespearean ages of man. Mr. Sterling makes these ages into stages. Stage One is the infant, birth, the beginning of the cycle, and a chapter in which Mr. Sterling riffs on bioengineering. There are chapters on the student (education), the soldier (new forms of war), the lover (our enduring love affair with objects), the justice (law and government), the pantaloon (commerce), and finally Shakespeare’s “mere oblivion” or death. A stage is also, of course, a place to perform, and Mr. Sterling is a fine performer here-graceful, funny, informed. He’s at his best, ironically, not in the future, but in the present, describing how we form a kind of creepy co-dependency with our computers and cell phones.

Fine, but there’s a problem: What’s the point of futurism without a few predictions? It’s like a murder mystery without a corpse. Sensing this, Mr. Sterling throws us the occasional bone. Fifty years from now, he says, the average reader of this paper will be bioengineered to look like an athlete or supermodel. People will drive “scarab-colored nonpolluting vehicles that run on hydrogen.” These cars will function as “mobile office cubicles,” uplinked, online, G.P.S.’d, veritable Batmobiles for the erstwhile office worker. The bathroom of tomorrow seems especially forbidding. “You don’t have a ‘shower stall,'” Mr. Sterling writes. “You have a standard, everyday body-imaging system that gives you complete interior and exterior health scans every morning as it washes you. Your toothbrush scans the contents of your mouth and catalogs its microorganisms. Your toilet … provides you with vital metabolic information about your body-the substances that enter and leave it and the vital processes within it.” Every object will be “smart” (chairs morphing to our butt-shapes, our butt-shapes stored in memory).

There’s a bit of Esther Dyson in these pages. Mr. Sterling’s future will have two heroes. One is bioengineering. The other is superfast computing, which will, he says, be everything Microsoft and AOL are not: flexible, transparent and infinitely user-friendly. “A network,” Mr. Sterling says, “is not hierarchical, it’s not disciplined, pyramidical, gated and machinelike. It is distributed and swarmlike.” Money and data, and therefore power, will zip around with clicks, rendering boundaries, physical and federal, irrelevant. Major corporations will join the stegosaurus in the tar pit. The state itself will vanish, replaced by highly mobile, highly wired NGO’s. People will routinely live to be 200 years old. All of this will happen, that is, if we reduce our use of fossil fuels and battle greenhouse gases. If we don’t, the polar caps will melt, and everyone will die. These, it seems, are the choices.

Oddly-or shrewdly- Tomorrow Now barely touches on the bad news (that we could all die), focusing instead on a future world made unimaginably splendid by technology. This vision places Mr. Sterling between camps, not as near-term or as practical as an Esther Dyson, nor as sweepingly dystopian as Mr. Gibson and the other cyberpunks. But in a larger sense, of course, all futurism comes back to the Wellsian belief in machines, technology, inventions as the great shaping force behind our lives and history. And surely, at one level-and a deep one-Wells was on to something. But perhaps there’s a reason why, seven decades after The Shape of Things to Come , we still live with, and through, such muddled institutions as money, county government, families and marriages. It would be ironic, but maybe these dim, grubby, time-worn compromises are the future the futurists can’t see.

Mark Costello’s Big If (Norton) was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award. Hip, Connected Futurist Polishes Up His Crystal Ball