A review of Future Perfect by Robyn Williams

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Future Perfect
What next? And other impossible questions
By Robyn Williams
Allen & Unwin
9781741753189, $17.95aud, August 2007-11-19

Predicting science is an uncertain art, and one which is, like any prophesy, fraught with dangers. But Robyn Williams is no prophet. He’s a scientist, and his thoughtful book on the future is one which takes a careful look at where we might be heading and what it means for how we should be living now. Williams is the popular and witty presenter of 3 Radio National Science shows — Science Show, Ockham’s Razor and In Conversation, and is often called upon to participate in controversial panels. He is one of Australia’s most famous celebrity scientists, primarily because of his ability to illuminate complicated scientific issues and his lucid manner in front of a camera. He also is rather funny.

In his latest book – Williams’ tenth (his oeuvre includes a novel) – takes a look at the future from a number of different perspectives. The book tackles communication, science as a field, the future of God (with a big nod to Dawkins as one might expect), transport, cities, sex, innovation, work, and humanity. The overall thrust of the book is that it is not only interesting and enlightening to have a look at where we might be in say, 20 years, it is imperative. Ignore the future and you let chance dictate it:

For the first time in human history a man or woman can get access to nearly alll knowledge, going back to the beginning of time. That makes modern people more than mere shuttlecocks of circumstance. Life is no longer a matter of escaping the sabre-toothed tiger. We have become time lords. (8)

Let chance dictate it, and the future doesn’t look so bright. Between war, mass media, government control, and of course climate change, the human race isn’t looking too good. Although Williams pulls no punches, and suggests that this may well be our “last century”, the overall tone of the book is positive. With a hefty dose of humour, the reader is encouraged to consider the impact of what we do today on how the future might look. While the book isn’t didactic, and is often jocular, Williams makes it clear that whether or not the human race survives, and in what shape, is something that we have to imagine and work towards:

Picture the kind of future you would choose. Do it in simple, everyday scenarios, like what your house should look like, your road, your shopping centre or gym. Apply possible improvements, based on every science program you’ve ever seen or any science fiction book you’re enjoyed, and create yoru dream. Encough dreamers and it could be realised!(136)

The end of each chapter contains a slightly tongue in cheek (with political and social sting) “Hunches of Nostradamus”. Encouraging deep thought, prudence, parsimony, and projection, Williams urges the reader to take responsibility for tomorrow. Future Perfect is a lighthearted, fun to read book with a serious message that might just change the way you envision the future and live today.

Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.