The future belongs to us all

From the oracles of the ancient world through Nostradamus to the contemporary newspaper horoscope, human beings have always wanted to know what the future holds. And at the turn of a century and a millennium, every media outlet goes in for a veritable orgy of prediction. Flying cars, artificial life (carbon-based or otherwise), human lifespans of 120 or more, brains implanted with silicon chips, robots that put out the cat, sex in virtual reality - the visions come thick and fast. The one certainty, however, is that the future will take us by surprise. A decade ago, hardly anybody foresaw the significance of the Internet and its spin-off, e-commerce. Now, many seers predict, it will do for the 21st century what the railway did for the 19th. Yet the proportion of US mutual funds (the main American investment vehicle) bought electronically is already in steep decline. Even in retrospect, it is not always easy to see why particular developments occurred when they did, and not earlier or later. Why did the ancients fail to develop the concept of zero? Why was the horse-drawn plough not invented until quite late in the first millennium? Why did it take about half a century for anybody to think of combining Watt's steam engine with rails (which had been around in mines for generations)? Why did it take another 30 years for the idea of moving freight, as well as people, by rail to catch on?

If it is futile to predict the future, it must be equally futile to predict that new forms of technology will have such-and-such an effect on society, economics or politics. Some writers suggest that the Internet is the quintessential democratic technology; that, because it eliminates the middleman from the transmission of information and opinion, it makes control impossible and authority redundant. This is an absurdly over-optimistic view. The Gutenberg printing press - which made possible the rise of Protestant individualism - may have seemed to hold similar promise. Yet the succeeding centuries saw examples of despotism as stern as any known before. The real and lasting challenges to authority came from the American and French revolutions, and their ideas of liberty and equality, not from any new technology. In the 20th century, it now seems astonishing that, after the invention of the car, the aeroplane, the telephone, television, radio and so on - all developments that seemed to improve individual mobility and communication - the east European tyrannies could suppress not only freedoms of speech and thought, but the freedom to travel. But suppress they did, on an unprecedented scale. The regimes collapsed not - as chronologically confused historians may one day try to argue - as a result of, say, the Internet or digital broadcasting, but because both the ruling elites and their subjects recognised that communism was politically and socially bankrupt.

In short, the world in the 21st century, like the world in any previous century, will be what we want it to be. Ideas, political convictions, cogent arguments, faith, hope and charity (or their opposites): these will shape the future, not some scientist's box of tricks. Ignore those bastard children of Marx who argue that the free market or the mighty multinational or the death of the welfare state or the genetically modified tomato is inevitable and irresistible. If we don't want these things, we needn't have them. Nor should we accept that only an unbridled private sector can keep us abreast of progress: the Internet itself is a triumphant refutation of that view, being developed, in its early stages, almost entirely by universities and government agencies while, as one recent study puts it, "decision-making in the competitive market place was narrow, short-sighted, self-protective and technically far inferior".

Above all, we should learn that we cannot rely on the Internet to protect us from tyranny, any more than we could rely on earlier forms of technology. Consider this prognostication, from a recent issue of the American magazine New Republic: "It is possible that every appliance, every light switch, every thermostat, every automobile will be networked. Everything will be connected to everything else. Networked cameras and sensors will be everywhere. The military will develop intelligent cockroach-like devices that crawl under doors to watch and listen. The likelihood exists that everything will be seen and known." This comes, not from a paranoid Luddite, but from the vice-president of a leading telecommunications software company. The price of freedom remains the same: eternal vigilance, not the cost of a modem.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Now then, are we getting anywhere?