BBCi Book of the Future. London: BBC Worldwide, 2003. Pp. 129. ISBN 0563487712. £4.99.

Reviewed by Djibril

This short book, which was produced in collaboration with Comic Relief, claims to be the UK's 'first democratically edited book'. Most of the entries in this collection (all but a few invited guest articles) were submitted on the BBC website (see address below), on the theme of the world in 2020. The vignettes in this volume are all short, the longest spanning two pages, the shortest a single line (e.g. the rather pointless contribution from Tara Palmer-Tomkinson (70)). Most entries are by members of the public, signed only with bulletin-board usernames; some are by guest celebrities: most notably the opening piece on the 'Soft-served world' by the late Douglas Adams, which is an insightful and postmodern satire of the artificiality and commerciality of the current internet—and no doubt its successors.

These entries range from comic to serious, from observant to cheaply parodic, and from the informed to the opinionated. A few are genuinely speculative. There are also a healthy smattering of illustrations and Private Eye-esque mildly satirical cartoons, a few songs or poems, and a few entries by young children—some movingly sincere, some just childish. Many contributors seem to have their imagination limited by being locked firmly in the present: several references to Brooklyn Beckham dominating the pop charts, for example. A few of the more interesting entries (for better or for worse) are summarised below, in no particular order.

Phil Colvin's ‘Film of the year: 9/11’ (63) is the most interesting of the many entries that make predictions concerning the media and entertainment worlds: Hollywood excels itself in 2020 with a film in which "the most audatious terrorist act of all time [is] seen through the eyes of two star-crossed lovers." Brilliantly satirical, and absolutely believable.

Kev Jones's ‘Intelligence not included’ (52) is about intelligent technology, and one of several entries that bewail our increasing reliance on machines not only to work for us, but even to think. Phil M.'s ‘Welcome to the Educasium’ (44) presents a fully customised online learning programme, complete with medical body scans and a virtual mentor, doing away with the need for schools (or presumably any human interaction) at all. Jennifer Haslam-James's ‘My new game’ (90) is also an all-encompassing virtual environment, but one that is much closer to reality: an insecure, slightly disabled girl immerses herself in a new virtual reality computer game where she can play a perfect woman, and she has managed to over-ride the built-in time-out function designed to save people from becoming so involved they forget to eat, or drink, or live...

Dr Tricia Macnair's ‘Day in the life of a 2020 GP’ (34) is another intelligent and informed look at the future of a health service is which medicine has become almost entirely automated, but also heavily streamlined for economic necessity. Unhealthy lifestyles are penalised, and hopeless cases are euthanased; the emphasis is on prevention rather than cure, with gene therapy, vaccination, and screening taking up most of a doctor's time. There is a very quaint comment appended by a user called Augurist (35), who condemns Macnair's apparent approval of enforced euthanasia as "Orwellian", with the bleating "It just won't happen."

A handful of entries point out that in fact, seventeen years is not a very long way into the future, and that not much might have changed after all. Slartibartfast's ‘2020, I've just gotten older’, sceptically predicts that very little will have changed either technologically or politically, and asks why science can not be used to help protect the planet, rather than for war. Robert Tye's ‘Small steps, not giant leaps’, suggests that while technologies such as microprocessors, motor vehicles and medicine will continue steadily to improve over the next two decades, there will be no radical changes. This is both unimaginative and safe, of course, since the major paradigm shifts that affect all our lives will be precisely those that no one could have predicted. Andrew Pinder's ‘The future is today’ rather blandly assumes that minor technological changes will improve our lives, the democratic process, and society in general; especially naïve is the claim that "IT is the great leveller, and it cascades down, not up."

Chris Morris's ‘Thinking the unthinkable’ (115) is not so much a prediction for the future as an analysis of the political origins of the modern world in post-enlightenment experiments in democracy. Fascism, communism and capitalism have all failed, he argues, or are about to, and any desire to return to the security of traditional religion is also doomed to failure. Without offering any concrete answers for the future, this most political of the entries in the book nonetheless leaves room for hope. Chris Skinner's ‘Voting rights’ (40) is less overtly political, and less optimistic, predicting an ever more apathetic electorate, ever less representative government, and cynical hopelessness in the face of economic interest groups. And the narrator is the prime minister!

Michael Meacher MP's ‘Green and easy’ (68), is a sincere and serious manifesto from the Minster for the Environment, who argues that while it will take real effort and fundamental changes for our economy and industry to learn to respect the ecosystem, preserve nature and protect the planet, such changes need not be unrealistic or unpopular, compromising on standards of living or profit margins. This may be somewhat optimistic, given the resistence of certain industries to any such changes, but it is indubitably an admirable position. Zoe Goldsmith's ‘"Local" food for real communities’ (80) is something of a utopic story, predicting the end of nuclear power and fossil fuels, and a return to renewable energy sources and local production of organic foodstuffs. A note of realism, it is assumed that only the fear of disaster and economic chaos could lead to such wholesale changes.

AngelEyes's ‘E.T.’ (74) is a nice little story, very dark and satirical and at the same time down-to-earth, about the discovery of life on another planet. In the space of two page-columns it manages to be both entertaining and orginal, avoiding cliché, bad science, and hackneyed spectacle; it retains credibility by not identifying the "fundamental religious group" involved (although sadly the author is on record in the web forum as saying this means "Islamic", not realising that there are many fanatics of all faiths). Otherwise it is one of the best-written contributions in the book. Another space themed entry, B. James Proctor's ‘2020: A Space Odyssey or just another year?’ (70) is a sensible and down-to-earth argument that if we do not start looking after our own planet now, we just won't survive long enough as a species to even come close to colonising other stars or planets. Hear hear.

A few dystopic entries remind us that not all progress is positive. Richard Fair's ‘The key to the future’ (84) is the voice of an old man cryogenically preserved to cheat death, and as a result living in an eternal, frozen hell. Quality vs. length of life, anyone? Ashley Stewart-Noble's ‘The Catholic super-state’ (101) is a dire warning, not so much a vision of the future as a reminder of the power of the church today, of the role of groups such as Opus Dei, and the frightening number of people, influencial figures and world leaders who profess loyalty to a religious autocrat rather than to elected, secular authority.

Redyam's ‘Implant mad’ (103), combines cybernetic technology with a sense of wonder, speculating about all forms of body-enhancing implants (except, strangely for brain attachments—not all that incredible if we are to believe Prof Warwick et al.), including medical, recreational, and military applications. Oracleboy's ‘Utopia within’ (104) begins as a story of miraculous nanotechnology and near-perfect medicine available only to the rich, until an altruistic billionaire invents and donates to the world a brain implant, linking everyone who chooses it to a central computer mind. Thus a form of world-wide nirvana comes into being, ending all conflict, suffering, and loneliness.

Although perhaps containing more opinion than information or entertainment, as one might expect to find on a free-for-all web forum, this book is not as shallow as it might have been. Considering the low shelf price, it is not at all unreasonable.

Official website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/future/

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