Wednesday, 6 November 2013

2081 - A review of the book by Dr Gerard O'Neill

by Adam Manning

I’ve long been an admirer of Dr O’Neill’s classic on space colonization, The High Frontier.  As a result I was excited to order a copy of a lesser known book of his entitled 2081 which, as the name suggests, is a description of a possible future set in that year.  Written in 1981, it’s interesting to note not only the future world he describes but also, given that we are now over thirty years on from his start date, to reflect on the changes since it was written and how his future projection fares as a consequence.

The first part of the book contains an overview of prior futurist writing including the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne so as to consider how accurate previous predictions have turned out.  These inform Dr O’Neill’s futurism as he takes note of the way previous writers were successful or not in projecting what might happen. 

We are then launched into a wide ranging exploration of the world of 2081.  In The High Frontier at various points Dr O’Neill adds colour to his writing by using the figure of a couple of new immigrants to the space colony to help flesh out his description.  He uses this technique to an even greater degree in what is a vivid account of life towards the end of the twenty-first century.

Surprisingly not much space is spent on describing the space colonies for which Dr O’Neill is often remembered now. The narrative concerns a visitor from a space colony travelling to Earth. Dr O’Neill focuses mostly on practical matters, such as detailing how the various transport systems function.  Sub-orbital travel to quickly move around the surface of Earth is common.  The people in the pleasant, domed American settlement the visitor initially spends a lot of time in generally use self-driving cars to get around town. 

One of the most striking concepts of the future from our time involves that of the Singularity, that is a rate of technological change so accelerated that it is impossible for us to really understand what might be on the other side.  Computer technology has undoubtedly permeated industrial society by even 2013 let alone 2081 to a much greater degree than even Dr O’Neill seems to have predicted.  He briefly sketches the use of laptop computers in 2081 and digital cameras able to store a whole one hundred photos.  Yet not even he could grasp how ubiquitous and constantly engaged computer technology and specifically the internet would become over the next thirty years, to say nothing of the seventy years beyond that.

I wondered whilst reading this book whether we had in a practical sense gone through a technological singularity already over the last thirty or forty years. Whilst not perhaps the total break with our current world set out by transhumanists, there can be no doubt that the current power of computers was not fully envisaged at the time 2081 was written.

In Dr O’Neill’s 2081, only an educated elite seem to need or be able to work. Much of the population that is unable to acquire the advanced technological skills needed to work cannot be employed and instead seem content to live in the background on public benefits.  Fortunately for the purposes of his narrative, the space colony’s visitor to Earth spends time with a successful middle class family and enjoys their high standard of living.  Only shopping as a cultural delight, the bulk of their consumables are purchased via online commerce. 

The one very futuristic element in the North American setting is that old science fiction stand by, the humanoid robot.  He is a butler, kitchen maid and all round helper with a face that reminds the visitor of a panda. 

Dr O’Neill doesn’t seem concerned with the politics, philosophy or religious beliefs of the people of Earth in 2081 and his primary mission is to describe the technology they use to lead their comfortable lives.  The space colonies provide much of Earth’s huge energy needs. Yet the expansion of humanity into space has seemingly not worked any major changes into the outlook or beliefs of Earth’s inhabitants – they simply lead easier and more enjoyable lives.

One of the chief concerns we have when we think of the future is global warming. In 1981 this was already considered a problem and we might be generous to Dr O’Neill and consider that given the knowledge at that time, he is remarkably astute to mention it as much as he does.  Fortunately one of the themes of technological changes to 2081 is ensuring it is more benign to the environment. The environment, Dr O’Neill notes, is going to be a major movement and locus of change in the future. Let us hope he is right.

After a cross country holiday, our visitor to Earth then goes on a world tour. Great Britain and Europe more broadly fare well in the world of 2081 although the Soviet Union is still limping on, albeit with much of its communism muted by de facto capitalism.  Africa fares worst in his future.  Whilst Dr O’Neill decides that all out World War 3, a possibility to be sure, doesn’t actually happen by 2081 the international scene is still acutely dangerous. In passing, we are told that some African capital cities have been destroyed through the use of strategic nuclear weapons by terrorists.  Alarmingly, the narrator only narrowly misses being destroyed in a nuclear bazooka attack on an airport terminal in Africa that kills 4,000.  Dr O’Neill’s concern is that nuclear terrorism may come to be a catastrophic danger.

He travels through Asia and spends time in Japan, the most advanced technological nation in the world where the humanoid robots so precious in America are a common place.  For all their advanced society and enormous wealth, the Japanese are desperately paranoid about the risk of nuclear terrorism.

What is striking about this vision is that the people of 2081 are not quite as exposed to the incessant digital information flow that we already are in 2013 yet their world has been transformed by a greater, more encompassing change in the use of technology. In Dr O’Neill’s world it has been used to enhance people’s lives to give them ease and comfort.  No longer the fossil fuel based polluting society of today, by 2081 the use of space solar power has altered things for the better.  It is a hopeful vision in which not only has life expanded out into the solar system but has somehow struggled to provide the possibility of a benign existence on our precious Earth.

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