Saturday 18 October 2014

The Meaning of the 21st Century by James Martin: Review part 1 - Humanity’s Greatest Challenges

“There’s a reason for the 21st century. Not too sure, but I know that it’s meant to be.” - The Red Hot Chili Peppers
The work of James Martin was brought to my attention when I read his obituary after his passing on 24th June, 2013. One of the UK’s most influential computer scientists, and probably its foremost futurologist, his early work1 foresaw much of what would unfold as IT evolved and revolutionized society. He helped to create the digital revolution through his work on information engineering at IBM, as well as through several companies he founded, amassing considerable personal wealth along the way. His fascination with the future led him to deploy this wealth by founding The James Martin 21st Century School at the University of Oxford and dedicating the latter part of his life to understanding and communicating the challenges facing humanity.

'The Meaning of the 21st Century' contains his reflections on the challenges facing humanity over the next hundred years, and some of the possible solutions. Published in 2006, it is unabashedly subtitled 'A vital blueprint for ensuring our future.' It weighs in at over 500 pages, and I read it gradually over the summer of 2014. Its expansive themes make it sometimes heavy going. I have come to agree with many of the accolades it receives on the inside cover (‘A wonderful book… a privilege to read.’ ‘A fire bell warning.’ ‘ a short course on the most pressing mega-problems of the new century.’) It is somewhat daunting to try and distill the book into a blog post sized text. In this post I focus on the Grand Challenges he identifies facing humanity2. Martin touches on a great many over the course of the book, which I find helpful to arrange in three broad categories: (1) ecological and environmental challenges; (2) social and institutional challenges, and (3) technological challenges.

Ecological / environmental challenges

Ecological / environmental challenges are now broadly recognized and widely discussed. Our ecological / environmental challenges include: water scarcity, deforestation, topsoil erosion, soil salination, loss of biodiversity, depletion of marine life, and global warming (with its sub-problems of: ice caps melting, ocean current perturbation, sea level rising, extreme weather events). Many of these contribute to the possibility that we will reach our agricultural limit, a thesis famously put forward by Malthus. Many would say it has since been discredited, but just because it hasn’t happened yet, that doesn’t mean it never will. Some of the ecological problems receive more attention than others; ultimately any of them could spell disaster for the functioning of society. Also, the degree to which these problems are inter-related is probably underestimated. For example deforestation has a cluster of knock-on effects, it (i) reduces biodiversity, (ii) releases greenhouse gases, (iii) reduces the rate at which CO2 is absorbed, (iv) leads to topsoil erosion, (v) contributes to desertification. When we realize that tackling one cause can stem many effects, the rationale for taking action increases considerably.

Social / institutional challenges

Social / institutional challenges are beginning to receive attention, but mostly to their symptoms, i.e. the latest flare-up of unrest or the latest act of terrorism. Relatively little attention is paid to their root causes. Social challenges include: population growth, poverty, religious extremism, terrorism, social unrest, rising inequality, illiteracy, bureaucratic paralysis, regulatory capture, public service mismanagement, and institutionalized short-termism. Again, these are intertwined in various ways, for example rising inequality is a catalyst of social unrest, extremism and terrorism, and also leads to regulatory capture and political stasis due to the concentration of power in the hands of an entrenched plutocracy.

Technological challenges

Thirdly, technological challenges are probably the ones most overlooked in the mainstream discourse, and it is here that Martin’s insight adds the most to the conversation. He takes a critical eye and looks at technology not as an unalloyed benefit but also as a threat – potentially a grave one – to the wellbeing of humanity. Technological challenges include: ease of access to weapons of mass destruction (in particular nuclear or biological weapons), computer intelligence, risky scientific experiments, hormone disruptors in the water supply, ethics of transhumanism and genetic engineering, new destructive weaponry (e.g. nanotechnology, robotics, and new bio-weapons), and rising scalability contributing to unemployment and inequality. Martin stresses that computer intelligence is ‘non-human-like’ so we should not expect computers to suddenly gain consciousness in the conventional sense. However, the Singularity still poses a threat, as intelligent computers would be inherently unpredictable:
‘Technical controls will be needed for computing, perhaps in the form of hardware design, to ensure that when computers become incomparably more intelligent than we are, they act in our best interests.’ (p.287)

Relationships between the three areas

One of the book’s great strengths is that it looks at how all three forces interact. For example, Martin (correctly) predicted a rise in Islamic extremism facilitated by the spread of internet technologies for recruitment purposes. Long before the rise of ISIS, he framed these comments in terms of Al Qaeda:
'Al Qaeda’s recruiting video is on the Web… Osama bin Laden’s rhetoric is highly persuasive to many young Muslims, telling them that God want them to help end Islam’s humiliation. Right now [i.e. 2006], most of the vast target audience for this message doesn’t yet have the ability to see Web-delivered TV. As the technology spreads, this means of recruitment will reach far more potential volunteers.' (p.342-343)

Martin feared that technological advances will make weapons of mass destruction accessible to terrorists. Drawing on the work of Graham Allison, he saw a high probability that we will see nuclear terrorism sometime in the 21st Century.

Another highly inter-connected challenge is population growth. At its heart, population growth is a social issue, with fertility rates highly dependent on a country’s level of economic development. But population growth has enormous consequences for the environmental and ecological problems (including the ultimate question of whether the planet can sustain the world’s population).

A third example is the rising scalability in production technology (a recurring theme on this blog). Scalability is facilitated by technological advances. It can increase economic output, but it also contributes to inequality, which in turn stimulates social unrest and terrorism.

A key dilemma that Martin does not really address, but which became apparent to me while reading the book, is whether ending poverty and saving the environment are compatible goals. If we could raise the living standards of the world’s population to a Western level, the damage to the environment would be untenable. Realistically, we have to find ways to make the Western lifestyle ecologically neutral (what Martin terms ‘eco-affluence’) before the rest of the world catches up to our level of development. Anything else will spell environmental disaster for all of us.

The opening chapter of the book is available at

You can follow me on Twitter: @David_Clough1


1 Including 'The Wired Society' in 1977 and 'Technology's Crucible' in 1987
2 In chapter 13, Martin presents a list of 17 challenges, but these are not exhaustive of the many challenges he covers elsewhere in the book; my three-bucket structure is hopefully more digestible. In future I plan to write a separate post about the solutions or avenues for progress that Martin identifies.