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INTERVIEW: Michael Hanlon, Author of Eternity, Our Next Billion Years

Michael Hanlon is the science editor at the Daily Mail in the UK. His recent book, Eternity, Our Next Billion Years, bucks the recent doomsday wave of apocalyptic writing, and postulates that, yes, we humans will be hanging around for a very long time. The books is divided into three time frames (the next few centuries, millennium from now, a billion years from now) and is told in part with scientific speculation with added speculative fiction vignettes. Michael is also the author of The Science of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and 10 Questions Science Can’t Answer (Yet).

SF Signal Irregular Larry Ketchersid interviewed Mr. Hanlon about his book, ranging through a wide variety of topics including where to spend the world’s money in the future (quite enjoyable when someone else is footing the bill), the space program and the calamities that could derail humanity.

LARRY KETCHERSID: Many different types of people attempt to predict the future, from science fiction writers to scientists to charlatans to my cousin. You mention at the beginning of your book the idea of “temporal parochialism”, the concept that only the future that one can conceive of (in most cases, our children and our grandchildren) is important. Besides the ability to see beyond that parochialism, what prerequisites qualify a person as a futurologist?

MICHAEL HANLON: Anyone can be a futurologist! That is why it is such a productive area. But there is a wild discrepancy between making intelligent guesses about the future and the sort of wild stabs-in-the-dark that characterise most crystal ball gazing.

I think the key thing is to realise that the future will be (most likely) both different and much the same. One (perhaps trivial) thing that struck me was a comment I read by an economics writer that most of the homes people will be living in in the year 2059, in a big European city like London or New York, already exist. That is where science fiction so often gets it wrong, ignoring the fact that the ‘future’ will, almost inevitablty, be a palimpsest, a thin layer deposited upon the past. Thus, the world of 2059 will be full of stuff made in 2009, just as the world of today is full of stuff made in 1959. Europe and much of Asia are full of 1000-year-old buildings! I have been to a Midnight Mass in a building in Rome (the Pantheon) that was constructed about 95 years after the murder of the man who was being worshipped within.

That’s the easy part: stuff, and the near-future. Picturing the inevitable psychological evolution that will accompany the march through the centuries is rather more difficult. Again, you have to think of the things that will be different, and the things that will be the same. We are Victorians, in different clothes. The people of 2120 will be us, again in different clothes. But there will be subtle differences. In my book I rather play down the possible effects of things like genetic engineering and space travel, partly because I think these technologies have been overplayed, and partly because they are so unpredictable.

As to the distant future, we actually know some quite concrete stuff about how the Earth will evolve and change in the eons ahead. I have tried to dial a fair bit of this into my book.

LK: Interestingly, there is a recent “sub-genre” of science fiction named “MundaneSF” which shouts “c’mon authors, life isn’t going to change that much in the next century, ground your science fiction in reality.” Your book maps out the future for this type of near-future (a few centuries from now), plus a bit further out (few millinnia), then around the end of the earth’s life span (a billion years). Some of your speculative vignettes struck me as science fiction used to show a possibility, vs. science writing. You mention in your acknowledgment some of the fiction writers you read (Vernor Vinge, Olaf Stapledon), could you share others based on the three buckets of time in your book, writers who keep plausible science in mind versus wild speculation?

MH: The British author Stephen Baxter grounds his books in reality. His futures are (often grimly) plausible, evoking a mid-late 21st Century of general shabbiness and overcrowding. Arthur Clarke was unafraid of trying to predict the medium-term future (2030 is easy; One Billion AD is easy; 2300 is fiendishly hard). I love all his work – I grew up with Clarke (my mother was a huge sci-fi fan and took me to see ‘2001’ when I was six) but agree with the comment made after his death by his friend Michael Moorcock that Clarke’s future consisted of ‘brainy men in togas discussing theorems’. If a big mistake of most science fiction is to be wildly pessimistic, then Clarke’s error was to assume a surfeit of intelligence and deficit of stupidity. Still a superb writer and all-round good guy though.

By far and away my favourite book set in a the far distant future is Hothouse by Brian Aldiss. I read this first when I was nine (I still have the very same, very battered 1973 copy) and although there was a fair bit I didn’t ‘get’ (especially the sexual references) I was utterly bewitched. I have re-read it at least a dozen times since and it gets better each time.

Is it ‘plausible’? Sort of. Apart from the bit about a non-rotating Earth and Moon being tidally locked to each other (seriously breaking several major laws of physics) Aldiss’s vision of a planetary jungle-gone-mad is one of the most inventive I have ever come across.

LK: Your book postulates that mankind will most likely survive despite disasters natural or man-made. You mention this briefly, but can you give your opinion as to why many people are convinced that an apocalypse of some form or fashion is inevitable?

MH: I think we love contemplating our own demise. It is like guilt; armageddon seems to be hardwired into our psyche. I think it is more than a coincidence that the birth of the modern environmental movement coincided, TO THE YEAR, with the end of the Cold War and the lifting of the immediate threat of nuclear doom. People LOVED wallowing in the imminent terror of the Millennium Bug, even though it was palpable bullshit from the start.

LK: The Millennium bug was real, but I agree with you that the media hype was “palpable bullshit”. I worked for Compaq Computer Corp. at the time, and we found and fixed many Y2K bugs in many applications. But the majority of those applications weren’t “mission critical”, involving life support systems like the electrical grid. The media succeeds in turning these events into worldwide calamities, and it appears the hype machine is getting in gear to promote, overblow and misinterpret the 2012 “apocalypse” now. In your book, you speak in several places how the Internet, the fact that much if not all information is recorded and stored, and this worldwide connectivity may impact the near future even more than it has to date. Will this fuel the hype machine by giving it many more outlets, or let future generations cut through the crap by empowering individuals?

MH: Probably both! I tend to believe that more information means less misinformation. Yes, the Internet fuels conspiracy theories but the Internet also make it easy to rebut them. The great strength of the Internet is the democratisation of information it allows. I don’t think we have even begun to scratch at its potential yet. Looking back, the existence of the ‘Net is the single biggest difference between today’s world and the world of my childhood.

As to Y2K. I was first made aware of the Bug in 1991, when I was told about it by my friend who was then a professor at MIT. He explained then that the date-code issue would be an annoying but fixable problem for some systems and – this is the best bit – correctly predicted that the media would, in a few years, hype the problem and start doomsaying the end of the world.

Since then I remained a bug-skeptic all along.

Some of the stories were just ridiculous – Russian missiles being launched, WW3 and so on. I did a fair bit of post-Bug analysis in early 2000 and discovered almost no serious disruption caused by the Bug. This could of course mean that the estimated $300bn spent combating Y2K was money well spent. But the fact that many countries (Italy, Russia, India) chose to almost completely ignore the ‘problem’ and yet nothing happened there either, indicates that, just maybe, we were taken for a ride. I think the world should ask for its money back! A third of a trillion would come in quite handy now …

LK: …speaking of a “third of a trillion”…In chapter 4, titled “futures I will not see”, you discuss space travel, genetic modifications/perfections, “borg”-like societies (aka North Korea) and humanistic robots as futures that you do not foresee as probable in the near term (correct me if I have this wrong).

MH: No, that is right. All are possible, but all are, to varying degrees, unlikely. I would place the Borg at the bottom of the likeliness scale and, perhaps, space exploration as the least-unlikely. The main question with humanoid robots is, why?

LK: Being from near Houston, home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the cost and complexity of space travel, and the recent/current Augustine panel over the near future of the federal space program are in the news and editorials almost daily. There are several perspectives, including (a)NASA’s run rate is relatively cheap given what the US Government is spending on other programs (Kevin Cowing of cites the annual cost of America’s human flight programs at $7 billion a year, compared with $10 billion a month in Iraq); (b)commercial ventures will be more economically efficient than NASA; (c)space travel is too hard and expensive, and should be left to the sci-fi writers. Your books suggests visits to Mars by 2050s or 60s, with a more or less permanent colony somewhere in the solar system in 2100. What development (if any) do you believe would tip the balance towards a more aggressive exploration of space: national fervor again (it was capitalism vs. communism in the 60s space race, will it be us vs. the Chinese next)? Self-preservation (here comes an asteroid or any one of many reasons to get off the planet)? Or do you believe it will continue to be a money/budget issue, whether commercial or federal?

MH: Interesting question. It’s not just the cash, or lack of it. Space exploration is at an impasse primarily because the people in charge of space do not know what it is ‘for’. Are we exploring space to open up resources? For national pride? For purely scientific reasons? To boldly go and find a new home for humankind? Or what?

People often compare space travel to the great Age of Exploration in the 15th-18th Centuries. But it is quite different. Even in the 1500s, it was relatively easy to cross the Atlantic from Europe and found a colony in North America. You could breathe the air, for a start, which was a help. No new technology was required. You just needed a boat and some willing jack-tars, a good compass and a good sense of direction.

Space is unbelievably hostile (although of course there may be millions of individual planets out there that are not), extraordinarily expensive and, most importantly, rather big. Getting anywhere interesting takes not-insignificant fractions of a human lifetime.

I think there are two paths. One likely, one unlikely. The first, more likely path, is depressing. Space exploration gradually grinds to a halt in the 21st Century. Shorn of any obvious raison d’etre, we simply lose the will to send groups of people on expensive and dangerous missions to Earth’s near-environs. Less likely, but possible, is that we discover a new reason to get interested in space. My personal choice would be to throw everything we have at detecting earthlike Exoplanets and the search for alien life. I would happily scrap every cent of the manned spaceflight budget for this. Fleets of robots out to Europa and Titan. And, most importantly, a huge telescope construction project. This might – actually – save manned spaceflight as building telescopes on the Lunar farside or a fleet of super-Hubbles at L2 or wherever may require on-site human engineers to accomplish.

Then, if we find something, all bets are off. Most importantly, the Great Alien Hunt will rekindle public interest in space.

To my mind, the worst possible way of ‘doing’ space has been illustrated by NASA in the period 1972-today. The ISS and the Shuttle have been utter disasters from day one. They could have spent the cash on almost anything else and it would have been better. This is, perhaps, an argument for winding up NASA, or at least the manned spaceflight division of it (I would defend JPL to the wall). And letting someone else do the job.

LK: I would think that another “new reason to get into space” would be “self-preservation”, whether from over-population (you mention in your chapter titled “new world order” that in the year 2020 our population of 7.8 billion will be a billion larger than 2008), natural resource depletion (excellent motivation to explore the Asteroid Belt sooner rather than later) or just to simply find more room. Our only hope may be that some inventive soul create a process or commodity that makes the price come down, so that humanity’s natural push to explore can come back into being.

MH: I agree that space provides an excellent insurance policy against human extinction and civilisation collapse. Since we now live in an era when it is, or at least soon will be, possible to wreck our civilisation or even wipe ourselves out, it would be good to have some sort of backup somewhere else. My preference would be to establish a massive repository of data on the Moon and, one day, a self-sustaining colony on Mars. The Moon is actually an excellent place in many ways. Nothing happens there, which is good news if you want to put things somewhere safe. It is close and we know how to get there. It is in effect a gigantic space station that someone has been good enough to build for us!

But moving significantly large numbers of humans off-world ain’t going to happen. The numbers and costs are simply too large. Mars, the only likely home for humans in our Solar System, is 100m miles away. If we wanted to get, say, a billion people there (or to Titan or wherever) then this would probably occupy the resources of the entire planet more or less for eternity. A birth control programme would be cheaper … and rather easier.

As to resources, I agree that asteroid-mining may provide the most plausible business model for space exploration there is. Asteroids are actually easier to get to (and back from) than the Moon.

LK: The subject of “new world order” has entered many science fiction writers world building, from fellow Texas writer Chris Roberson’s worlds with Chinese societies battling Aztecs to Firefly/Serenity including oriental curse words. Civilizations do appear cyclical in their rise and fall, whether Egyptian pharaoh, Roman Empire, European colonial empires or other. You explore many areas in this chapter (including China and India’s rise, the Africa question, the possible dwindling of the USA similar to Europe’s) but there is no mention of a single world government, a panacea of many sci-fi novels. In your projections…just ain’t gonna happen? Civilizations are destined to rise and fall, collapsing under their own weight?

MH: Even maintaining coherent national governments is beyond the wit of much of the planet. A species which cannot agree what sort of electrical plug to use, what side of the road to drive on, what weights and measures to adopt, let alone what language to speak or which god to worship is a long, long way from a sci-fi-style world government.

But having said that, we DO (paradoxically) have a sort of world-government, or at least a very dominant world culture – that of the West. This is a ‘civilisation’ but not really like any others in history. That is its strength.

Will the West survive forever? I think there is an outside chance that it might. Our civilisation is a bit like Rome without the mad emperors and random violence. It is, in effect, a Christianised, technological Rome, which has been an excellent thing. The poorest people in the richest countries today live far, far better than the richest people in the richest countries even 300 years ago.

There is absolutely no doubt that the main driving force to life getting better for the majority of humans in the last 200 years (which it has, no argument) has been technology. And technology continues to improve. So I am optimistic. My main worries? Nuclear war, obviously (although we would probably recover). Some GM superplague, from which we might not (anything which kills more than 2/3 the global population may put the kibosh on our civilisation). Or a global psychological collapse. I am exploring this last ‘disaster’ in the novel I am currently working on …

LK: New Novel? Sounds great!

MH: I hope it will be. It is set in the medium-term future (the early 3000s) and in a time several centuries after something Very Nasty happened to humanity. Not a plague, or a war, or a comet (nor even a singularity) – but some kind of mental breakdown which everyone’s since forgotten about. We kind of got over it, but it was enough to make life pretty shabby. Until someone ( a cop, in the novel) works out the stupendous reason we all got crazy … the USP is that the ‘disaster’ – the thing that made everyone go bonkers – was, quite literally, the worst possible thing that it is possible to imagine happening to the human race. Far worse than nuclear war or even total wipeout. Anyhow, I must get it finished. Or at least properly started ….

LK: You bring out the concept of contiguous and non-contiguous civilizations, especially in the chapter entitled “talking to the future” where you speculate on whether or not we should put in place some documentation that will last (a Rosetta stone marking, similar to the Voyager communication) that future generations could find and learn what might have been lost. The obvious philosophical question is should we do that, or is it better for future civilizations to learn lessons on their own?

MH: In the book, I speculate that this may not, in fact, be a good idea. It is possible that, at some future date, our descendants regress to a state of technological ignorance. We obviously have no idea what the world will be like then, who will be in charge, or anything. If we leave, say, instructions to build an atomic bomb or even just a steam engine lying around, one can imagine these falling into the hands of a warlike and aggressive tribe or nation which would use this technology to do great harm. We would bear some moral culpability for this. If I kill a million people a million years hence, does it count? Yes.

Countering this is the idea that technology tends to increase well-being.

Say the Romans had stumbled upon the steam engine (they probably came pretty close to doing so). Steam powered locomotion (railways) would have stitched together the empire in a way that marching legions of troops and horses along straight roads never could. Most importantly, it would have enabled a far more efficient food distribution system. Yes the Romans were often brutal, were no democrats, had slavery and so forth – but all the evidence is that life under Pax Romana was, for the average joe, probably at least as good as anywhere else on the planet at the time.

On balance, I would argue for carefully selected information to be left – purely on the grounds that it is depressing to think that should our civilisation collapse we would have to go through all that Dark Age bother again to get back to where we are now.

LK: The obvious science fiction-esque question is: are we sure that our know-it-all civilization wasn’t preceded by another non-contiguous civilization?

MH: Interesting question. It is possible but, I think, unlikely.

Why? We would see it in the rocks. If the previous civilisation was human, that means it was very recent, geologically. If they built cities, maintained a large population, had technologies and so on, it is likely that we would be digging up evidence of this all the time. Yes, cities crumble, there were ice ages to scrape the land clean, but concrete lasts a long time and plastic perhaps even longer. And the ice never went down/up beyond the mid-latitudes.

We would see evidence of resource-depletion – mines, quarries and so forth. The fossils of thousands of domesticated animals. Garbage pits. And weird chemical-pollution spikes in the atmosphere – trapped in air-bubbles in the Arctic ice (which are coming in for a LOT of scrutiny at the moment). But we see none of this.

We know quite a lot about what has happened to Earth in the last million years and the impact of a major ancient civilisation would, I believe, be pretty clear.

Non-human? I still doubt it.

It is – just – conceivable that a race of super-bright dinosaurs evolved, that had wheels and fire and so forth – even steam engines – and that they all got wiped out by the comet. But, again, it seems likely that we would see the evidence. We would see an overwhelming number of fossils of one particular species, accompanied by various fossilised artefacts and so on.

Mines and quarries and so forth last a LONG time.

The fact that the rocks are full of dumb beasts shows that, on balance, we were the first to get here.

LK: In your middle section, targeted a few millennium out, you take both sides of the singularity argument (the singularity will be a good guy vs. the Terminator-esque singularity that will put the hurt on humanity and all parts of the galaxy it can reach). But there is another debate about whether reproducing consciousness in a machine is even possible. Our current scientists seem widely split on whether such an event is imminent or quite a ways out due to the complexities involved (witness this blogging heads “debate” between Scott Aaronson, EE and Comp Sci prof at MIT specializing in quantum computing and Eliezer Yudkowsky, research fellow at the Singularity Institute).

If you were placing your bets, would you put your fine British Pounds on the singularity occurring in the new few decades, new few centuries or not at all?

MH: Ah … the Singularity. I really Do Not Know. My gut feeling is that it will not happen, but I am probably only 53-47 on this. So no bets.

Of all the ‘strange’ futures that we may be able to see coming it is, on balance, perhaps the most likely. I certainly believe that if it IS going to happen it will probably do so in the next century or three. Moore’s Law and all that.

That is in terms of very generalised singularities. These may not even involve replicating or transferring human consciousness into a machine. We may not even need machine consciousness for a singularity-type transformation.

But I have no idea – no one has any idea – whether any of this is possible, how it will work. It is all speculation. We do not know how consciousness operates, we don’t even know what it is. So to talk about taking it from one object and putting it in another seems silly.

Having said that, I am not a loony or a dualist and I firmly believe that the property we call consciousness must be emergent from purely physical processes. The only argument against being able to replicate consciousness in a machine is, essentially, a mystical one. The mundane belief is that it is doable. That is why we cannot rule it out. Maybe the Net will ‘wake up’ in a couple of decades .. then all bets are off. It will be entertaining, to say the least.

LK: Though there is much we humans do not know; consciousness, the power of the human mind and how it works is near the top of the list. There is a large ground swell of groups (some scientific, some less so) who are returning to teachings of the past, where humanity didn’t have all of its fancy scientific equipment and only had its brain to use. Even Dan Brown makes a big deal of Noetic Sciences in his latest novel, The Lost Symbol. Is this an example of reaching back to a not-so-contiguous civilization for knowledge? Could a path to a better understanding of consciousness and the singularity be a path backwards in history rather than forwards, or is Noetic Science et al just mumbo jumbo?

MH: Again, I do not know. Since mainstream science has little to say on a lot of this I see no harm in exploring other approaches. But, I would argue, if these approaches yield results they become, ipso facto, science. I am always wary when people talk about the ‘wisdom of the ancients’. For the most part, the ancients knew jack-shit …

LK: Michael, you speak of temporal parochialism, where people only look at local time. I believe there is also a geographical factor which tempers ones perspective (yes, I do know people who have rarely gone outside of good ole Texas). In closing, I’d like to have you speculate on what would be different in your own perspective of the future if you weren’t British; is their a geographic temporal parochialism? What would a Chinese, or Brazilian or Texas (!!!) futurologist view differently from yourself?

MH: Would there be differences? You’d have to ask them, but I suspect the answer is ‘yes’. But perhaps less ‘yes’ than at any time in history. The way people think is becoming quite convergent. The world view of an educated Brazilian or Japanese or Chinese probably isn’t so different, today, to that of a similarly educated person from the UK or, indeed, Texas. But a hundred years ago this would not have been the case.

As to the nature of the differences, I can only speculate. People from non-Judeochristian traditions may have grown up with a subtly different idea of progress to that prevalent in my culture. Many Asian traditions emphasise cyclicity, rather than linear temporal change, for example. It would be fascinating to think what the average Indian or Tibetan thinks the world will be like in 200 years’ time, or the average Japanese … most interesting of all would be to ask someone from a culture entirely outside the mainstream – someone from the New Guinea Highland tribes, for example, or an Inuit.

I have certainly tried to avoid being too UK-centric in my book – I think I hardly mentioned Britain – but I accept fully that my ‘take’ on what might happen to, say, Africa comes from a very European mindset. Sadly, it is the only mindset to which I have personal access!

LK: Michael, thank you for your time, and good luck with this book and the next. On my next trip to London, we’ll toss a few pints.

MH: I’ll hold you to that. Thanks for asking such interesting questions.

About Larry Ketchersid (55 Articles)
Author of two novels (Dusk Before the Dawn, Software by the Kilo) and one volume of non-fiction stories. CEO of a security software and services company; co-owner of JoSara MeDia, publisher of iPad apps, print and eBooks. Runner, traveler, Sharks fan, Rockets fan, Packers shareholder.

4 Comments on INTERVIEW: Michael Hanlon, Author of Eternity, Our Next Billion Years

  1. An interesting interview, and from someone who writes for the Daily Mail no less… I think I will have to have a look see for this book.

  2. Thanks, Andy. Definitely an enjoyable interview and a book that made me think.

  3. Martin Sommerfeld // October 20, 2009 at 5:53 am //

    I enjoyed the interview as well, thanks a lot. Michael Hanlon made some quite interesting points.

  4. Martin, thanks for the read and the good words.

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