by David D. Friedman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 300pp. Hardcover. £17.99/$30.00. ISBN: 9780521877329. eBook format. $24.00. ISBN: 9780511421402.

Reviewed by Debora Halbert, Department of Political Science, University of Hawaii at Manoa. Email: halberd [at] hawaii.edu.


According to the introduction of David Friedman’s new book, FUTURE IMPERFECT, the project grew out of a seminar on future technologies he taught. The goal of the book is to develop multiple scenarios that problematize the implications of technology for our future. Despite his futures focus, however, he does not endorse long-range futures planning because, as he puts it, the future is radically uncertain. Given that we might not even exist as a species in the next 50 years (p.320), there is little reason to plan beyond the much more realistic event horizon of the next few decades. Thus, he limits his discussion to the next thirty years because as he claims, “beyond that my crystal ball, badly blurred at best, becomes useless; further future dissolves into mist” (p.11).

While Friedman limits his future scenarios in time, the scope of topics under consideration is wide-ranging. The topics covered in the twenty-two chapters range from problems associated with the growing popularity of the Internet to nanotechnology and space exploration. Friedman claims to focus on the legal and social challenges associated with technological change, but in almost every chapter he tends to invoke rhetorical questions instead of structured analysis. As a result, the book includes vague thought experiments that are not grounded in current trends or emerging issues. These hypotheticals may have been useful when teaching a seminar on technology a decade ago, but in the context of an uncertain and always moving future, many are out of date in the context of the futures scenario building he attempts here.

For example, when discussing privacy, encryption, e-commerce and copyright law, Friedman deals with important issues but offers dated examples in support of his analysis. His chapter on encryption describes the policy debates over public key encryption that have been ongoing for the last twenty years, but with no new future implications. The same is true for copyright. Friedman simply re-hashes old debates without linking his speculation to the controversial aspects of the law currently under discussion, including the problems associated with property rights in nanotechnology – one of the other future scenarios discussed in the book.

Nanotechnology itself is poorly handled. This is an issue that may not yet be entirely understood by the general population and also might move us beyond Friedman’s 30-year future timeline. However, in positing the possibilities of a nanotech future, Friedman cites K. Eric Drexler’s original 1980s discussion of “grey goo,” hardly [*1132] the last word in the debate. Friedman is concerned with government centralization, a theme that emerges throughout the book, and somehow nanotechnology will lead to dictatorship, but this scenario is never fully developed. Alternative scenarios are not discussed at all, which is a shame, given the implications of nanotechnology, including the possibility of a post-materialist future that renders scarcity and disease obsolete.

FUTURE IMPERFECT not only deals with issues of computer technology, but also the intersection of social institutions and technology, including reproductive technologies, marriage, and aging. Friedman raises a multitude of issues associated with reproductive technologies, primarily as they impact the lives of men. While Friedman acknowledges that reproductive technologies will change our definition of the family and expand the possible numbers of parents a single child might have, he spends at least as much time considering the importance of determining paternity and sexual access to beautiful women.

In Chapter 14, Friedman’s hypothetical asks us to consider the problems associated with paternity testing if it were required at the birth of all children. The scenario posits that females seek out the best genes for reproductive purposes and then often mislead their partners about the paternity of the resulting children. Mandatory paternity testing would be a way for fathers to determine if they are really the biological father (p.203). It is not clear why this is a future scenario, or even a hypothetical that needs testing. The technology already exits, people can request a paternity test if they want, and at best such a plan only requires a simple change in policy.

Despite the duplicity of women (and geese as well, evidently), we learn that “One function of the marriage institutions of most human societies we know of, past and present, is to give males a reasonable confidence of paternity by providing that under most circumstances no more than one male has sexual access to each female” (p.205). So, we understand that marriage has had a traditional social function that could be disrupted. What is not clear is why any of this should matter. Friedman suggests later in the chapter that there is the possibility of a multiplicity of parents (biological, surrogate, and so on). However, instead of following this trend towards the destruction of the nuclear family, he speculates on whether male jealousy is hardwired, thus making alternative marriages and social pairings unlikely (p.206). We are already dealing with the legal ramification of test-tube babies, surrogate mothers and sperm donors. It is not clear that Friedman’s focus on biological determinism and male jealousy sparked by female infidelity (male infidelity seems acceptable) makes the future any different from the past.

When dealing with the “problem” of aging in Chapter 17, we are again asked to consider the issue from a male perspective. Friedman poses a question about the possibility of extending life for hundreds of years or perhaps even attaining immortality. Friedman states [*1133] that “my own guess is that the problem of aging will be solved, although not necessarily in time to do me any good” (p.251). His “guess” is not supported with evidence. Instead, the endnotes include some science fiction references, a 1992 Consumer Report article on antioxidents, a NATIONAL REVIEW essay on cryonics, and some narrative footnotes on population growth and congressional terms. However, it is illuminating that the real problem with aging is associated with male access to women. As Friedman speculates,
While thinking about how to spend your second century, you might want to consider the social consequences of eliminating the markers of age. In a world where aging is entirely under our control, a young woman of 20 might be dating a young man 100 years older than she is – and he might or might not tell her. The same thing already happens online, where a flirtatious twelve-year-old girl may be almost anything, including a forty-year-old FBI agent. If you, a grandfather with a retirement pension and a century behind you, could go back to college as a freshman, would you? Part-time? Lots of cute girls. The women of your own generation are just as cute, thanks to the same advanced biotech that makes you eighteen again, but the real thing has its charms. Perhaps. (p.256).

I guess at one level I am happy women will be able to take advantage of anti-aging technology to become “cute” again and thus continue to be sexually available to the 100-year old men now loitering around college campuses, but if this is the extent to which our understanding of a future in which aging disappears can go, then kill me now.

The gendered implications of Friedman’s futures do not end with the continued dominance of the patriarchal family or powerful men retaining control over the senate (p.253), but we also learn in Chapter 20 that virtual reality can be used by “homely women” to “leave their faces behind” (p.284), and in these virtual utopias, “all women are beautiful and enough are willing. All men are handsome. Everyone lives in a mansion that he can redecorate at will, gold-plated if he so desires” (p.290). Ultimately, Friedman discounts this virtual reality scenario because, despite the fact it might appear as a paradise, much like masturbation (pp.290-291), it is not a substitute for the real thing. A virtual life is not a “real” life and thus he would not “touch the thing with a ten-foot pole” (p.291).

While there are many ways to use scenarios, good scenario building usually will unpack starting assumptions and introduce the reader to the most recent issues surrounding the topic under consideration. To discuss the future, one must track emerging issues, deal with possible “wild card events” and try to work systematically through the different permutations of a topic. Scenarios are not fantasy but instead are generated out of the present and tracked into possible futures. Friedman’s general refusal to move beyond the immediate future limits the possibility of planning for the long-term consequences of human behavior. For example, when [*1134] it comes to solving global warming, an issue that gets several pages of attention in the final chapter, Friedman argues there is no reason to try to “do much about global warming at present” because “substantial problems due to global warming are decades into the future” (p.319). Not only should these problems be left to future generations to solve but his conclusion suggests we can not and should not plan that far in advance anyway. Such a perspective undermines the very methodology Friedman claims to be using – one generated by futures studies.

It could be that Friedman’s point is to repudiate futures studies, but if this is the case, it is not clear why he begins the book by saying he wants to create multiple possible futures so that we can better understand the impact of technological change on our lives. Furthermore, he does not cite any futurists or demonstrate that he has read the literature of scenario building, strategic planning or environmental scanning (just to name a few futures methodologies that might be relevant). In the one area where he mentions futurists directly, those engaged in the environmental movement of the 60s and 70s, he discounts their predictions (pp.316-317) without recognizing the importance of their warnings in changing policy to help avert some of the problems they saw looming on the horizon.

While I generally agree with Friedman’s thesis – that the future is uncertain, that technology will have a profound impact on humans and our environment, and that there will be radically different ways of being in the world because of technology, if I were to recommend a book that covers these issues, it would not be this one. Friedman offers under-researched and vague scenarios. He would have been better served if he had delved into fewer topics in more detail and provided up-to-date research. He also might have been better served by writing a book that described his preferred future – one with limited or no government, where men act according to their biological imperatives and women are willing and beautiful, where we can travel through space and use virtual reality, but still come home to a nuclear family (albeit one that plays World of Warcraft). This seems to be the future Friedman can get behind, but we do not call it research – we call it fantasy.

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 2008 by the author, Debora Halbert.