Surveying the next generation

Highlights from the spiked/Orange survey ‘Enlightening the Future 2024: Key Challenges for the Next Generation’.

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Enlightening the Future 2024, hosted by spiked in partnership with Orange, is a survey of experts, opinion formers and interesting people. It was launched with the modest ambition of challenging the downbeat spirit of the age, when our society seems to live in permanent fear of the future.

We asked contributors to identify some key challenges facing the next generation – those born this year, who will reach the age of 18 in 2024. The aim is to confront cultural anxieties about the future, and kickstart a debate about how we might engage with those challenges more constructively.

The contributors range from professors and international leaders in their field to up-and-coming young bloods, from the UK, Europe, America, Asia and Africa. Their contributions deal with issues ranging from the science of climate change to science fiction; from IT to Africa; from health to housing; from the future of philosophy to the future of television.

Despite the diversity, all of them touch on issues to do with how we might act today in order to help shape the ideas and society of tomorrow.

Rising to the challenge?

Many contributors identified familiar challenges such as climate change, population growth, and future energy sources. Reflecting the mood of cultural pessimism, some interpreted challenges more as problems rather than opportunities. But the survey overall demonstrates a welcome absence of the bleak doom-mongering that tends to characterise too much debate on these issues today, and an ambitious problem-solving attitude to the future.

The appliance of science and technology

The science and technology sectors, so often the means to human advancement, are now operating under a cloud of public suspicion. One central challenge identified by survey contributors is to tackle contemporary cultural and political barriers to scientific advance, be it religious irrationalism or the precautionary principle. Where some put their faith in new technologies – from computer modelling to artificial intelligence – to solve humanity’s problems, others emphasise the importance of humanising technology.

Mobile society

Survey contributors who focus on the mobile and information technology sectors emphasise the tremendous changes we are likely to witness over the next 18 years – and the need to challenge our society’s fears of these technologies, or risk wasting the opportunities they are likely to offer.

Healthy attitudes

The challenges identified in the sphere of health range from the negative prospect of coping with future pandemics, to the more positive prospect of coping with a 200-year age span.

Raising our horizons

While some contributors suggest we need to lower our horizons where consumption, economic growth and population are concerned, elsewhere there is a welcome emphasis on the need to raise our sights, as individuals and collectively, in order to meet the challenges of the next 18 years in every area from psychiatry to philosophy, and from economics to architecture.

What do we believe in?

From different fields and standpoints, many contributors keep coming back to the challenge of working out what we believe in as a society, what values or visions of humanity we are prepared to uphold, as a precondition for resolving many of the specific challenges in the coming years. There are calls for a new rationalism, a new commitment to free speech, a new Enlightenment, a new idea of adulthood, a new vision of our common humanity – in short, a new challenge for the twenty-first century.

An A-to-W of what some survey respondents said:

‘The 2024 generation will face a massive challenge balancing the need for energy for fertiliser to feed the world against all the other demands on energy. I don’t always agree with Tony Blair, but I’m sure he’s right to reintroduce the nuclear option.’ Professor Tom Addiscott, soil scientist.

‘Africa is destined to be great and our current condition is no pointer to our future.’ David Ampofo, chief executive of Channel Two Communications, Ghana.

‘Undue reverence for sentiment – valuing how a person “feels” about a technology over what they know from experiments – risks cultivating a Luddite attitude or, worse, propagating the idea that technology is a kind of dark magic.’ Anjana Anhuja, science writer.

‘I’d like to see science find its proper role as an enabler and humanistic endeavour, rather than being seen as either a panacea or the source of all ills.’ Philip Ball, consultant editor of Nature.

‘If we wish to make progress not only in science and medicine but in our quality of life, then we must challenge the threat of the anti-science lobby by bringing the intellectual honesty of the scientific process into the political arena.’ Professor Michael Baum, UCL.

‘It is fashionable today to focus on the threats to humanity from war, disease, famine, global warming, or from extinction by some wayward meteor. However, the most important threat by far comes from the insidious tides of bureaucracy, because they strangle human ingenuity and undermine our very ability to cope.’ Don Braben, physicist.

‘Society must renew its faith in freedom of speech as one of the most important tools we have in both protecting our societies from extremist ideas, oppressive government, and allowing the peaceful coexistence of different and often competing ideologies and belief systems.’ Amir Butler, executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee.

‘Our only hope lies with computer power and computer modelling.’ Professor Peter Cochrane, co-founder of ConceptLabs, former chief technologist at BT.

‘A key focus should be to be clear about our core values and principles and then use these to drive the use of technology.’ Soumittra Dutta, dean of executive education and professor of business and technology at INSEAD in Fontianebleau.

‘How can human societies survive in an overheated world? That’s our only major concern: it must be.’ Professor Brian J Ford, biologist and science writer.

‘The key challenge will be to make adults behave like grown-ups to give the young role models worth aspiring to.’ Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas.

‘Powerful cultural influences that call into question the status of science, civilisation and humanity’s capacity to do good encourage us to be cautious, conservative and risk-averse – attitudes that lower expectations rather than help us to make the most of opportunities in the future.’ Professor Frank Furedi of Kent University, author of The Politics of Fear.

‘Psychiatry must regain confidence in its own wondrous philosophical and phenomenological heritage, as a source of insights into what it is to be human – for answers to that classic question, “what is man?”’ Dr Robert Harland and Dr Gareth Owen, KCL.

‘Teachers need to have confidence in the ability of all children to learn what Matthew Arnold described as “the best that is known and thought in the world”. The educational solution for 2024 is to go back to the future.’ Dennis Hayes, joint president of UCU.

‘In my field of theoretical physics the challenge is to complete Einstein’s dream, a theory of everything to allow us to “read the mind of God”. Perhaps a young person will be inspired by this discussion to complete the entire theory.’ Professor Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist and author.

‘The 18-year olds of 2024 will be a different digital species to anything we can conceive of today. Their innovation potential can only be realised in a society which is comfortable with experimentation.’ Dr Norman Lewis, director of technology research Orange Home UK.

‘We need to reawaken confidence in what are, with telling disparagement, called “technical fixes”, which could achieve the modest goal of bringing electricity to every household on Earth and the greater goal of making the whole carbon issue irrelevant. As well as standing for a new Enlightenment, we should raise again the banner of improvement.’ Ken Macleod, science fiction author.

‘Creativity is the key – and it’s something television is bad at.’ Paul Marquess, managing director of Showrunner at Endemol UK.

‘In 2024 stem cell therapy for the degenerative changes of ageing will be well established. There will be ethical discussion about the dilemma concerning life span being expanded to 200 years. Most organs will be rebuilt by a combination of stem cell and gene therapy.’ John Martin, Professor of Cardiovascular medicine at UCL.

‘It is vital hat the euphemised notion of “affordable” housing is addressed in a manner that is more than cosmetic if new ghettos are not to appear.’ Jonathan Meades, writer and broadcaster.

‘The hope for the future will come from a reborn and refreshed Enlightenment, unembarrassed in its acceptance of the human need for higher purpose.’ Marc Pachter, US cultural historian and museum director.

‘Stop fighting the advance of science and technology and learn to live with and benefit from technical progress. Infotech will be handing autocrats and governments astonishing new possibilities; this is one technological advance which does need to be watched, limited and resisted.’ Matthew Parris, writer and broadcaster.

‘Extreme precautionary regulation of Genetically Modified Organisms is preventing the potential of agro-biotechnology to produce more food on less land with less water.’ Professor Ingo Potykus, chairman of the Humanitarian Golden Rice Board and Network.

‘There can be no improvement in the quality of life for the half of our people who live on less than $2 a day without the invention of sustainable technologies, without the rationalisation of consumption levels, and without reaching a level population.’ Peter H Raven, professor of botany Washington University St Louis.

‘The key theme for mobile telephony will be boundaries related to privacy, work-life balance, use by children, or boundaries imposed by government.’ Jack Rowley, GSM Association.

‘In the next 18 years, society (ie, Western society) should be addressing the issues of faith (whether, which and why), sex (whether, when and why not), food (what, why and where from), and children (whose and how many).’ Roger Scruton, philosopher and writer.

‘To fulfil the promise of a universally-used worldwide web, the goal for the next decades could be to make more people more creative more of the time.’ Ben Shneiderman, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, co-inventor of the Nassi-Shneiderman diagrams.

‘I predict water wars, violent race and class divisions in Western countries when the immigrant underclass gets sick of cleaning toilets for a pittance, and the tragic demise of the long shower.’ Lionel Shriver, Orange prize-winning novelist.

‘A century ago the huddled masses saw America as a new frontier that offered them room for dreams and big ideas. Today we live in the Age of Disillusionment, in which those big ideas lie in tatters and any frontiers are out of sight.’ Victor J Stenger, professor of physics at the University of Hawaii and of philosophy at the University of Colorado.

‘Even when we have mastered the complexities of death in old age whether through cancer or other degenerative disease, all our advances over the next 20 years must not be at the expense of providing a pain-free and dignified death to all.’ Richard Sullivan, director of clinical programmes at Cancer Research UK.

‘We should acknowledge the extraordinary achievements of humanity in distancing human life from organic existence and challenge re-descriptions which conceal the huge gap between ourselves and even our nearest animal kin. Without a clear view of the human potential, we shall be inhibited in our attempts to address the many practical difficulties that lie ahead.’ Professor Raymond Tallis, gerontologist, philosopher and writer.

‘The challenge to the arts is to halt their accelerating decline into a merely self-flattering activity for the urban middle classes. Their ability to shock and open up debate will require enormous courage on the part of individuals.’ Peter Whittle, creator of the New Culture Forum.

‘Architects’ raison d’etre has always been to maximise their impact on nature. I don’t believe the next generation will thank us for architectural modesty.’ Austin Williams, director Future Cities Project.

What some survey readers said:

‘The blind audacity of the respondents’ self-deceiving optimism astounds me. Their faith in the flawed Enlightenment belief in progress is truly a sight to behold. But there is of course cause for optimism – the coming oil crisis.’ Tristan Edmondson.

‘I think the biggest threat we face is summed up in the dismal low horizons evident in some of the feedback. The sky really is the limit. We just need to throw off the shackles of fashionable self-loathing and challenge blinkered attitudes to personal ambition.’ Russell Tayler.

What spiked editor Mick Hume said:

‘The Enlightening the Future survey is now closed to contributions, but the debate about how to meet these challenges is hopefully only just beginning to open up.’

Read on:

Read Mick Hume’s essay on the survey, ‘What next for humanity?’, here.

Read the full list of responses to the survey here.

Read all of our readers’ feedback here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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