Works in Progress - Spring 2010

A Very Long View from Here

By A.C. Grayling | June 27, 2013


What constructs will almost certainly dominate the intellectual, scientific, and political debates of the current century? British philosopher A. C. Grayling, the author of Ideas that Matter: The Concepts that Shape the 21st Century, due out in April, here ventures out on a precarious limb. Although some of his ideas are familiar, others are less so, and Grayling suggests that their arrival on the radar of public consciousness is imminent.

1. Climate Skepticism from some individuals and self-interest from almost all governments are radically impeding progress to ward effective global action, even as the train of humanity rushes toward a broken bridge over a chasm, and at increasing speed.

2. Secularism In the bad-tempered quarrel between the religious and the non-religious, secularism is the one great hope for a public space in which all viewpoints and none can tolerantly coexist. This is the idea that although all faith groups have a right to exist and have their say, none of them has a right to dominate others, and all of them should recognize that they are self-constituted interest groups, just like political parties and trade unions, and must obey the same restraints.

3. Education The heroic task of opening minds and stimulating imaginations remains essential, as does the urgent task of increasing general scientific literacy. Innovative educational techniques and greater numbers of gifted and committed people to work in education are urgently needed in the 21st century.

4. Internet The World Wide Web is the largest graffiti-scrawled toilet wall in the universe, but it also contains vast potentialities and utilities, and the rapid advance of technology tells us that both the rubbish and the utility will grow. Online working from home will become the norm, transforming relationships and work-life practices.

5. Migration Human history is a story of movements of people in search of a better life, and all efforts to stem the tide of human beings moving across the globe are bound to fail. Those migrating from Africa and the Middle East, by all means legal and illegal, will eventually bring even greater changes to Europe, which will be a challenge as the 21st century progresses. For many Europeans the prospect is fraught.

6. China Within a few decades China will be an even more dominating influence in world affairs. Because it is a country without democracy or a satisfactory human rights record (to put it mildly), the rest of the world should continue encouraging it to practice good statehood.

7. Brain One of the great frontiers of human understanding is inside our skulls. Although in recent years there have been impressive advances in our understanding of the anatomy, physiology, and functioning of the brain, we still do not know how it performs the nanosecond-by-nanosecond miracles it is capable of, nor do we understand consciousness itself. Investigation of the brain and eventually an understanding of consciousness promise many benefits, including treatment of diseases, enhancement of cognitive powers, and repair of damage caused by injury and stroke.

8. Liberty Terrorism, crime, and the sheer populousness of countries encourage greater government surveillance and the centralization of control over and information about citizens, even in the liberal democracies of the West, while the capacity for surveillance is dramatically enhanced by technology. One of the dilemmas for the 21st century is how civil liberties and individual rights are to be protected in an environment of threat and surveillance.

9. Technowars The increasing use of robot technology in warfare—unmanned drone aircraft, robot soldiers, intelligent enemy-seeking missiles—means attack, defense, and counterattack among computer systems. Some wars might wholly take the form of conflict between computer systems.

10. Genotherapy The great hope in medicine is that sooner rather than later gene therapy will help to heal damaged or diseased hearts, nerves, kidneys, and livers; will encourage regrowth of severed limbs; and will reverse the ravages of aging.

11. E-publishing Books, newspapers, and magazines: At century’s end, will they still exist outside expensive private collections owned by cognoscenti? For at least a decade and a half there has been an expectation, and for some an apprehension, that the printed word will become a rarity as screens proliferate. Already newspapers and magazines are struggling to survive in the shift from print to screen.

12. Retromania People born in Western countries 50 or more years ago have witnessed a bewildering technology-driven transformation in their personal and work lives and environments, and the process continues at a breathless pace. Much of what has happened has been welcome and exciting, and we all depend on what the changes have brought, not least on the communications revolution enabled by e-mail and mobile telephony. Increasingly so comes nostalgia for the slower pace and greater security of a past (a romanticized past, of course) that was more manageable and comprehensible. The fashion for all things retro is already growing, and that is not a bad trend. Understanding the past helps to make sense of the dizzying journey that is the 21st century; it reminds us of the yesterday from which today exploded forth like a rocket.

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