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Book Review: The Art of the Long View

I’ve been calling myself a futurist for the past five years, and for five years, I’ve been lying. But no longer, because I’ve read this book, which is every bit as a thought-provoking as Science Fiction for Prototyping proved disappointing. Peter Schwartz is one of the founders of the Global Business Network consulting firm, and honed his skills designing scenarios for Shell Oil in the 1980s. His scenario planning techniques underpin the Prevail Project. In The Art of the Long View, he makes a strong case for the utility of scenario planning, explains how to develop a proper futurist mindset, and how to create your own scenarios.

Scenario planning is not predicting the future. Rather, it is about challenging the official future, and the assumptions that underlie it. Scenarios force you to examine your unspoken beliefs and values, the evidence supporting them, and how you might react in the future. An organization that includes scenario planning in its process is better able to react to rapidly changing conditions, and less likely to be rendered slowly obsolete through technological change.

Scenario planning is inherently interdisciplinary. A scenario plan has to include technological, economic, cultural, and political factors, as well as individual psychology. Broad areas of knowledge rather than deep and narrow research is better suited at picking up on trends. The ideas and forces that most powerfully influence the future originate on the margins of society, among the dispossessed, the utopian, or the just plain weird. Finally, Schwartz includes a detailed, 8 stage guide to using scenarios in your own organization, with a good balance of theories and examples. Perhaps the ultimate success of scenario planning is that it creates a shared language to talk about the future.

Scenario planning might not be about predicting the future, but a futurist who makes no predictions isn’t very useful. The book was published in 1991, and some parts feel oddly anachronistic, like the Japanophilia, the groping towards a ‘digital global teenager’, and the absence of the War on Terror. On the other hand, he offers three scenarios for the world in 2005: New Empires focused on regional militarism, Market World with multicultural entrepreneurialism, and Change Without Progress, where the wealthy hollow out states, and fear of losing what little remains prevents successful action. Change Without Progress is strikingly similar to the world today, with our 1%ers and 99%ers, paralyzed multinational bodies, and collapsing infrastructure.

Scenario planning is not a strict methodology that automatically produces valid results, it’s an attitude towards the future that is based on broad understandings of historical forces and skepticism about the status quo. The results will vary on the quality of the questions you can ask, the data available, and the conversation you foster. But as far as crystal balls go, scenario planning is one of the best.

Humanity’s Quest for Immortality

One of humanity’s oldest impulses has been to conquer death. From Egyptian mummification to the Christian heaven, the idea that some way, through material or spiritual works, we can transcend the mortal coil and live forever is highly seductive. These day, since and technology promise longer lives and immortality, ranging from the modest and sensible precautions of eating correctly and exercising, to the radical biomedical revolutions professed by Aubry de Grey and Ray Kurzweil.

Between antiquity and post-modernity lies a broad area of research into immortality that hasn’t yet been explored. John Grey has come out with an interesting new book examining the quest for immortality in the Victorian and Soviet eras, revealing a fascinating secret history of spiritualists, eugenicists, Soviet utopians, and the science fiction writer HG Wells.

Darwinism is impossible to reconcile with the notion that humans have any special exemption from mortality. In Darwin’s scheme of things species are not fixed or everlasting; there is no impassable barrier between human minds and those of other animals. How then could only humans go on to a life beyond the grave? If all life were extinguished on Earth, possibly as a result of climate change caused by humans, would they look down from the after-world, alone, on the wasteland they had left beneath? Surely, in terms of the prospect of immortality, all sentient beings stand or fall together. Then again, how could anyone imagine all the legions of the dead – not only the human generations that have come and gone but the countless animal species that are now extinct – living on in the ether, forever?

Science could not give these seekers what they were looking for. Yet at the same time that sections of the English elite were looking for a scientific version of immortality, a similar quest was under way in Russia among the “God-builders” – a section of the Bolshevik intelligentsia that believed science could someday, perhaps quite soon, be used to defeat death. The God-builders included Maxim Gorky, Anatoly Lunacharsky, a former Theosophist who was appointed commissar of enlightenment in the new Soviet regime, and the trade minister Leonid Krasin, an engineer and disciple of the Russian mystic Nikolai Fedorov, who believed that the dead could be technologically resurrected. Krasin was a key figure in the decisions that were made about how Lenin’s remains would be preserved.

Weakened in Britain, belief in gradual progress had ceased to exist in Russia. An entire civilisation had collapsed, and the incremental improvement cherished by liberals was simply not possible. The idea of progress was not abandoned, however. Instead it was radicalised, as Russia’s new rulers were confirmed in their conviction that humanity advances through a succession of catastrophes. Not only society but human nature had to be destroyed, and only then rebuilt. Humans did not go on to a new life on the other side. There was no other side. When humans died they returned to dust, just like other animals. But once the power of science was fully harnessed, the God-builders believed, death could be overcome by force. Eventually all of humankind could look forward to scientifically guaranteed immortality, but the process of technological resurrection would begin with the most valuable of human beings – Lenin.

Read the full excerpt at The Guardian.

The protagonists of John Grey’s book are the immediate sources of the current technological quest for immortality. Though the scientific barriers we face today are different, the philosophical quandaries and contradictions of physical immortality are similar. What will life mean without the end of death? How can society evolve when the powerful never relinquish their power? Is living forever truly the highest goal than e can devote ourselves to? There a difference between individual immortality, and the continued survival of humanity as a whole. For our species and our culture, death is tragic, but ultimately necessary and even unavoidable.

Should we seek immortality, or are our scientific resources best used elsewhere? John Grey’s history of the strange quest for immortality may help us decide.