The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Mark Stevenson
|The Interview: Bookbag talks to Mark Stevenson|
|Summary: We were very impressed by Mark Stevenson's An Optimist's Tour of the Future and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to ask him a few questions.|
|Date: 24 January 2011|
|Interviewer: Zoe Page|
We were very impressed by Mark Stevenson's An Optimist's Tour of the Future and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to ask him a few questions.
- Bookbag: Close your eyes and imagine your readers. Who do you see?
Mark Stevenson: Well, it would be very tempting to say I imagine a sea of incredibly smart women who, when they're not in the lab, earn extra money as lingerie models. The truth is I don't see anyone. I wrote the book to have as wide an audience as possible – and was inspired as much by writers like Bill Bryson and Michael Palin as I was by Simon Singh or Michael Brooks. That's the whole point of the book – that it should appeal (I hope) to anyone who's curious – and not a particular 'market segment' – and I'm glad to say I've had e-mails and endorsements from kids at school saying it's inspired, them to senior ranking scientists (including one Nobel Peace Prize winner) and a lot from people who open with something like “I don't normally read science books but…”. I reply to everyone because I'm so touched that anyone would take the time to write.
- BB: An Optimist's Tour of the Future is very, well, optimistic. Did you uncover (and simply ignore) many depressing possibilities during your research, or is the future really as rosy as it sounds?
MS: This question goes to heart of something I've discovered in writing my first book – that however hard I've tried, people have taken what the want out of it. I speak at great length in the book about all the pessimistic stuff – indeed it'd have been an ridiculous oversight not to. I've had reviews that say I'm looking at the world through rose-coloured spectacles and others that make a point of my discussions of disaster and my scepticism of pure techno-fixes. In reality the book walks straight down the middle. I'm not saying the future will be better, I'm saying it could be, and we need to remember that and fight for it. Because the one thing I do know is if we can't imagine a better future we certainly can't make it. So, I hope this book puts some of the good options back on the table, and reminds us why it so important to keep hold them when we face the challenges we do. In doing so I hope the reader is better informed about the choices we face, and face down the cynics who tell us not to bother or believe in each other.
- BB: What do you say to people who argue your optimism is just wishful thinking?
MS: I'd say 'read the book'. Wishful thinkers always get a bashing from me. There's even less use to us than cynics because they mix denial and hope in a dangerous cocktail called apathy. Cynics at least present a challenge, and can re-framed as 'critical friends'. This book isn't about wishful thinking. Nothing in it is made up, or hoped for, it's stuff that's happening right now. As I said, I don't shy away from the downsides to nearly everything I encounter – and I'm very clear about what those are. There are going to be accidents with our new tools. We'll have a biotech Three Mile Island and a nanotech 9/11 I don't doubt. People are going to die. The question is, how do you take the good, and minimise the bad? That's one of the questions I hope I go some way to answering.
- BB: My sister really likes the sound of this book and wants to borrow it now I'm finished. She's an astrophysicist. I am... not. How do you go about making a book like this appealing to geeks and non-geeks alike?
MS: I think part of the reason is that the book has a very broad scope. It covers genomics, philosophy, artificial intelligence, robotics, the climate, the internet, agriculture, space travel, politics, energy and hamsters – but all in an approachable way. I think most people are curious and we're all, by the nature of our lives, often asked to concentrate on narrow areas of interest – and this is especially true of scientists. I was very lucky in being able to write a book that allowed me to follow my nose and it's nice that, I'm getting e-mails from many scientists (like your sister) as well as non-scientists to say they enjoyed its breadth. My favourite message was from a neuroscientist at Berkeley who told me my book had allowed her to get up to speed on her husband's work in genomics. You have to remember that scientists are only scientists in one area, and they are just as interested in everything else as you are (and often less informed). In fact, the institutional reductionism in science I think makes them hungry to get a wider view. By the way, tell your sister to read 'The Medici Effect' by Frans Johansson too. After she's read my book, of course!
- BB: Of all the advances and developments you discovered, which is the one that gets you the giddiest in anticipation?
MS: I avoid giddiness. It can obscure your reason. But what 'blew my mind' wasn't so much one particular thing but the combination and interplay of it all. I saw just how powerful the tools we are creating can be, especially as they work together. There are some extraordinary benefits available, if we get things right, not least in terms of medicine, energy production, biodiversity, dealing with climate change and the opportunity for a huge peace dividend. There is everything to play for.
- BB: Looking to the past, what's the one technological advance you couldn't live without now and would simply have had to invent if someone else hadn't done it for you?
MS: Technology has its own wants and needs as Kevin Kelly's excellent 'What Technology Wants' explores. Technology will, and does, arise as a natural consequence of itself and our increasing dependence on it. Technological advances I take as a given. I think it's emotional and institutional innovations I'd miss more. So, if love didn't exist, I'd hope I'd have the wisdom to suggest it to the world. Wisdom must keep pace with technology – and that's not always easy.
Or, if you want a simpler answer I'd say 'tea'.
- BB: You have a blog, a website, a twitter account... Do you look back fondly on the days when we weren't so cyber obsessed and had time to live in the real world, or are you a fan of all the ways we can now interact with millions of people across the globe without getting out of bed?
MS: I'm not cyber obsessed. I'm happy to turn it off. Nobody forces me to be on-line, I choose to because it offers me more freedoms than vexations (of which we're all aware). In fact I find my on-line activities help me live in the 'real world' more. I've made many real life friends that I first 'met' on the internet and certainly I couldn't have written the book with the internet as a resource for finding and reading journals as well as reaching out to my interviewees. I find these technologies incredibly useful in connecting me with people – and I talk about how our increasing interconnectedness is both good (and sometimes) bad in the book. Of course some people retreat into technology and forget to go to the pub. That can be dangerous, but it's not the norm by any stretch of the imagination.
- BB: “The meek shall inherit the Earth. The rest of us are going to the stars.” Discuss
MS: Well, Larry Niven (the science fiction author) said “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right!” It is certainly true that mankind is going back to the stars, both 'meek' (whatever that means) and otherwise.
Our failure so far to grant widespread access to the solar system is due to politics, not possibilities. But that's changing – and in a good way. I spent a fascinating time at the Mojave Spaceport where I met the people building the new commercial spaceflight industry. What struck me was, in general. they were military-minded, right-wing, neo-con capitalists and… fierce environmentalists. Stuart Witt, the spaceport manager asked, 'Doing this thing we now dub “green” is literally doing the right thing. This isn't about politics, it's about doing the right thing as stewards of spaceship Earth.'
The good news it that space is, over the next 100 years, going to become a much cheaper proposition than it has been. So, I hope, even the 'meek' are going to hitching a ride to the heavens and in doing so it'll help us all appreciate Mother Earth more too.
- BB: My childhood crush, Villa out of Blake's 7 (I was a strange child) wasn't the first person to say “I'm going to live forever, or die trying”. In the book you consider the idea of eternal life, but if it were an option, would you be in a rush to sign up?
MS: That's a question I struggle with – and I think I should, because it could become a real one in the coming years – and if not, I suspect its something that, if I ever have children they to their children will have to consider. As I say in the book “the idea of being rejuvenated to a younger body is very attractive. But I worry that what I think might be good for me might not be good for humankind as a whole.” There again, it's looking increasingly likely that our world population is set to peak around 9 billion and then decline (and I explain why in the book) so people living longer may not be such a problem (although it may be for all sorts of cultural and social reasons).
Selfishly I'd like to live a very long and very healthy life. I'm insatiably curious and would love to see the next 300 (or more) years – to do more to help us take our stewardship of the planet seriously, to study maths, master a few languages, release a killer rock album, raise a family and maybe, just maybe, understand why people like cricket.
- BB: What's next for Mark Stevenson?
MS: I'm involved in a global project launching, we hope, in 2011 called 'The Age of Smart' which seeks to use the power of mobile technologies to empower people to come together, and challenge each other to solve the world's grand challenges (notably climate change and reaching the millennium development goals). It's very much a bottom-up model of creating and disseminating solutions as I (like many) have lost faith in our current governmental structure to respond to change quick enough and with enough intelligence. (I talk about the strong need for institutional innovation in the book). I'm also starting the next book, although my agent has told me not to tell anyone the idea, so I can't here. In addition I'm working with Michael Brooks (author of 13 Things That Don't Make Sense) on a live comedy project. Working with Michael is about as much fun as you can have without being rich, young, good-looking, drunk and naked.
- BB: Congratulations and good luck with The Age of Smart! Thanks so much for the interview, Mark.
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