The future lies with transhumans

By Matt Nippert

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Far-out soothsaying is commonly the preserve of charlatan psychics or prophets having visions, both of whom have little credibility to lose.

Commentators with reputations to protect usually steer well clear of the long-term forecasting game to avoid the fate of Francis Fukuyama-a writer who was somewhat premature in predicting the triumph of liberal democracy in 1989's The End of History.

Either bravely or foolishly, French economist Jacques Attali has thrown caution to the wind in committing to print his bold thoughts on the history of the next 100 years, as well as the last 1000, in A Brief History of the Future.

While Attali's history of human civilisation to the present day contains sweeping generalisations ("Asia sets out to make a man free from his desires, while the West seeks to make him free to realise them"), it is nonetheless compelling.

Attali sketches the movement of world power from Bruges to Venice, then to London, New York and Los Angeles. These cities were not necessarily the richest or most powerful places in the world during their reign, but they were the best at attracting scientists and artists and adapting modern technologies. With these levers the core city was able to dictate terms to the periphery. Throughout, Attali draws wry and insightful lessons from history, such as Britain's 19th century adaption of steamship motors to trains: "Irony of history: the world's leading naval power is about to revolutionise land transport." Once Attali â€" a former adviser to Francois Mitterand â€" turns his pen to the future, the outlook inevitably becomes cloudy.

Pax Americana, he says, will reign for at least another 30 years. The oil shortage will not lead to a crisis in the next century, but disputes over fresh water will. Breaking with his previous chapters on city-based domination, Attali predicts that following the decline of the American empire, a polycentric world will emerge where no one place is able to dominate the globe.

A growing band of trans-national nomads - pirates, corporations and religions among them - will then render the nation-state redundant: "Nations will be nothing more than oases competing with one another to attract passing caravans." Further, Attali speculates that the recent tensions-formerly a symbiosis - between free markets and democracy will be resolved with markets scoring a crushing victory. Private insurance will decimate government social welfare systems, with a consequence being a presently unthinkable self-regulation of behaviour. The obese, smokers and the uneducated will be penalised by higher premiums.

As Attali writes, "ignorance, exposure to risks, wasting, and vulnerability will be considered diseases".

Finally, planetary war is forecast between pirates, corporations and religions.

While grim, it is in trying to see past this phase that Attali's optimism outruns his analysis. From the ashes of the next world war he sees the rise of an altruistic "transhuman" class who will organise the world for humanity's benefit.

Of course, forecasting this far into the future avoids the Fukuyama downfall: By the time this far-fetched prediction comes to pass (or, rather more likely, doesn't), reader and author alike will have long since passed away.

* Matt Nippert is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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