Michael Douglas is narrating Bermuda-based humanitarian Dr. James Martin’s documentary on our brave new world — or our doomed one.
He’s the Prospero of Agar’s Island. Like the Magus in Shakespeare’s Bermuda-inspired play, Dr. James Martin is sequestered from the outside world on a lonely island. Also like “The Tempest’s” cloistered protagonist, the books he was exiled with have allowed him to develop the “art” of divining and processing information from the world he stands at one giant remove from.
Martin has spent years in his digitalised Bermuda library — pondering the global data stream that flows through communications channels he both anticipated and helped to create — and has teased out meaning, significance and, ultimately, wisdom, from the unruly and unending deluge. He has discerned patterns in seemingly random terabytes of unrelated data, detected trends which had remained invisible to many a trained eye, extrapolated sometimes apocalyptic conclusions. Unlike Prospero, though, there’s no sorcery involved in Martin’s art — except perhaps the everyday magic of deductive reasoning: reasoning reinforced by the perspective he has gained viewing the world’s turbulent affairs from the second most remote location on the planet.
The Prospero analogy isn’t an exact one, of course. Martin’s exile to Agar’s Island is self-imposed — he has transformed an old British army powder magazine once honeycombed with tunnels and scarred with quarries into a lush private garden crowned by a home that successfully marries the Bermudian vernacular style with the simplicity of line and form associated with Bauhaus. The house is a characteristic Martin fusion of the traditional and the functional. He proudly notes not a single window pane was lost when Hurricane Fabian’s pile-driving winds hammered the exposed property for eight hours in 2003, a testament to old Bermuda building techniques and modern forward planning.
Although he’s an intensely private man, he’s also very much a public figure. While he doesn’t attend all of the seminars, meetings and think-tank sessions he’s invited to, his technologically-mediated presence is often present even when he’s not — projected from Bermuda or the Vermont home where he spends part of the year by means of webcasts or teleconferencing.
But the Magus comparison — a man who combines the zeal for scientific inquiry with an almost intuitive understanding of the natural world and appreciates the delicate synergy which exists between the two — is peculiarly apt. And it’s certainly more meaningful than most of the conventional labels attached to him.
Martin is most often described as a futurist — that annoyingly imprecise but increasingly ubiquitous term which applies as much to cyberpunk science fiction writers and New Age gurus as it does to those who engage in long-term forecasting and analysis. His abiding concern is establishing a sane, equitable and sustainable future for a species he contends is far outstripping both its ability to adapt to an increasingly technology-driven environment and its natural resources.
Now 77, Martin is a British-born, Oxford-educated scientist. Starting in the late 1950s he played a key role in the evolution of systems designs which made the Information Technology Revolution of the ’80s and ’90s possible yet he’s a man who often has his cell phone turned off. He’s been a computer consultant for the US Defence Department and despises war as only a soldier — or a repentant member of the military-industrial complex — can. He’s a Pulitzer Prize nominee for the “Wired Society”, one of more than a hundred texts or popular science books he’s penned. And along the way he acquired a fortune beyond even the most fevered dreams of avarice — a fortune he has invested in an attempt to secure the uncertain future which so alarms him. Frankly, he’s the most globally influential man you’ve never heard of. But while his public persona seems to be composed of the radar-absorbent material that’s given him the reduced signature of a stealth fighter, the specifics of his work and philosophy are freely available. To find them you need to read his books — in particular “The Meaning of the 21st Century”. It’s sub-titled “A Vital Blueprint For Ensuring Our Future” but might just as well have been described as a survival guide.
And the book now has a companion film Martin recently released on-line — a one-hour distillation of the key points narrated by Michael Douglas. The documentary is as authoritative, cool-minded and informative as its subject matter — shot in Bermuda and at locations around the world — is sometimes distressingly chaotic. Visually and thematically arresting, there’s an understated urgency to the film’s message which is not distorted by either hyperbole or hysteria. We stand at either the threshold of a brave new world, the Magus of Agar’s Island warns us, or a doomed one. The choice is ours
Martin believes we are approaching a kind of cultural and environmental critical mass — what Martin calls “the canyon years”, which he estimates will occur mid-century — a period when we might endanger the planet’s very ability to maintain its equilibrium in the face of increasing overpopulation, overexploitation and overconsumption. What he chillingly — but accurately — describes as a natural “correction” might then take place. Without urgent preventative measures being taken, he foresees a catastrophic culling of humankind’s billions by way of pandemics, famine and extreme climate change. Earth will finally revolt against the relentless punishment humankind metes out, particularly if the global population continues to follow the type of exponential growth curve that would have staggered Thomas Malthus (revolutionary improvements in medical science since World War Two have lowered mortality rates but done nothing to curb birth rates — the world’s population grew from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 6.5 billion in 2005 and will reach almost nine billion before 2050 if current trends continue).
Aside from the prospect of the Biblical Horsemen of Pestilence and Famine being unleashed on us by a weary and overburdened planet, Martin also believes humankind’s time-proven ability to loose War on itself is not going to diminish in the 21st century. A confrontation between superpowers wielding doomsday weapons remains unlikely. But the growing schisms between rich and poor countries, the Islamic and Christian worlds, the educated and uneducated, are all likely flash-points in potentially devastating future struggles for resources and cultural primacy. And then there is the ever-present spectre of free-lance warfare in the form of nuclear or biological terrorism. Devices once only found in the superpowers’ arsenals can now be easily assembled and delivered to targets not in warheads but in a fanatic’s suitcase.
Martin is not a peace-at-all-costs pacifist — like Bertrand Russell, he believes while war is always a great evil, in some extreme circumstances it’s actually the lesser of two evils. But he believes those circumstances which might lead to unchecked warfare later in the 21st century can be addressed — and largely neutralised — if concerted action is taken now: action in the form of education, Western investment in the infrastructures of dysfunctional states — he advocates a type of global Marshall Plan for the underdeveloped and non-developed countries — and a fairer distribution of increasingly limited resources. The alternative is a world doomed to resurgent tribal warfare in ugly new forms.
And nor, despite his unyielding emphasis on an overtaxed ecosystem, is he a wild-eyed environmental doomsayer engaging in pseudo-scientific speculation and sloganeering. His predictions are based on sound scientific hypotheses and legitimate, observable and quantifiable trends. He is nothing if not contemptuous of the highly selective (or entirely fictitious) research so often employed by both environmental cultists and big industry’s paid apologists in the scientific community and the public relations field. Both the angry-minded eco-warriors and vested interests like coal, oil and tobacco, he says, obscure and trivialise the raft of legitimate problems we face. He shares Carl Sagan’s frustration with the fact a world increasingly dependent on science and its innovations remains almost completely scientifically illiterate and can be too easily swayed — and confused — by self-interested, self-promoting conmen.
Silver-haired and boasting a quicksilver mind Martin’s a professional polymath, much more a philosopher of ideas than the technocrat he’s also been pigeon-holed as — imagine Isaiah Berlin’s soul transmigrated into the body of Buckminster Fuller and you begin to get the idea. He’s as conversant with economic, environmental and weapons systems as the modern computer systems he helped to pioneer. He’s as informed about environmental degradation as he is degraded cultures. He is as conscious of genetically modified food as he is of the imminent prospect of genetically modified people. A physicist by training, he’s also fluent with the full range of social sciences.
And he has the uncommon ability to communicate fantastically complex ideas and scenarios in clear, precise and compelling terms: his speaking and writing styles are entirely free of impenetrable techno-speak, academic-ese and other jargon. His intent is to connect and communicate with a general audience in succinct, almost precision-tooled terms: he’s the thinking man’s thinking man as well as the layman’s. Simply put, Martin organises, systematises and analyses knowledge in the same way as the Information Engineering processes he developed — only his human software is deployed in the service of global public policy rather than private sector firms.
There’s no question Martin suffers from what might well be termed late-life annihilation anxieties. “The Meaning of the 21st Century”, published in 2006, is replete with enough disturbingly plausible worst-case scenarios to keep Stephen King stocked with story material until his dotage. But unlike, say, his precursor in prognostication H.G. Wells, whose dreams of achieving a scientifically-driven, socially-just utopian world were incinerated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and who telegraphed his despair in the title of his last work– “Mind At The End of Its Tether” — Martin remains cautiously but determinedly optimistic about humankind’s prospects. Martin’s guarded thinking actually owes less to Wells’ almost religious faith in science’s ability to redeem humankind — a faith so child-like and unquestioning it was doomed to be disappointed — than it does to his contemporary, “Brave New World” author Aldous Huxley. The grandson of a pre-eminent biologist, Huxley never believed in science’s supposedly unlimited promise to technologise away all of the world’s problems. Rather, he argued scientific advances always had to be subordinated to other, socially constructive mechanisms and forces. “The very arts and sciences which we have used to conquer Nature have turned on their creators and are now conquering us,” Huxley said in 1931, anticipating — among other things — the desocialised generation of scientists who, during World War Two and the Cold War, engaged in what they called “pure research” no matter how patently impure the motives of political and military institutions subsidising and weaponising their work. “Science is the organised search for the truth and, as such, must be looked at as an end in itself. But truth about the nature of things gives us, when discovered, a certain control over those things … Science is power as well as truth. Besides being a means to an end, it is an end in itself.” Huxley’s early 20th century musings about the dangers of accelerated science detached from civic and global responsibility could have served as the epigraph for Martin’s “The Meaning of the 21st Century.”
For a man whose mind is sometimes focused on points a century or more hence, Martin champions a curiously (and refreshingly) old fashioned concept — what he calls “the mechanics of decency”. This amounts to a philosophy for storm-proofing social and cultural structures against the sometimes cyclonic forces of change as efficiently as he reinforced his Bermuda home.
He clearly believes this can happen as a result of ongoing appeals to both reason and self-interest — and the application of main force exerted by nation states, if necessary. Martin has more than once invoked the US industrial base’s almost overnight shift to war-footing status in 1941: similar national or international mobilisations may be required again if the world is confronted with a potentially civilisation-ending natural or man-made cataclysm.
The West’s traditional laissez-faire approach to change — the time-lag which invariably exists between new technological, cultural and environmental developments and our adaptation processes — will no longer suffice, not in our science- and technology-saturated age. In an era of designer pathogens, downloadable plans for hydrogen bombs and natural catastrophes which are growing ever more amplified as a result of human activity, social evolution must be encouraged to march in lockstep with change as much as is practicable — not remain the vaguest of after-thoughts. Martin wants humankind to maximise the benefits of modern technology while minimising the attendant risks. These risks, he concedes, can never be entirely eliminated but for the most part they can be anticipated, prepared for and, in some instances, preemptively addressed.
In a world where old social orthodoxies, old industries and old institutions are being outpaced by the ongoing consequences of new technologies like so many asthmatic Model-Ts competing against a Bugatti Veyron, Martin has attempted to handicap this hopelessly one-sided race. In 2005 he donated $100 million of his own money to Oxford University for the creation of the Oxford Martin School — a multi-disciplinary research institute fostering a collaborative approach to both defining and addressing the unparalled challenges of the 21st century. Last year he pledged an additional $50 million if that sum could be matched by other donors: that his appeal was quickly oversubscribed speaks to his quiet but pervasive global prestige.
The central tenet of Martin’s belief system is that the runaway technological advances of recent decades cannot be viewed in scientific, economic or cultural isolation. A complex spiderwork of relationships and interrelationships exists between computing and communications breakthroughs and the economic and social changes they have triggered in the West (as well as collateral impact on developing, underdeveloped or entirely destitute countries). There are all manner of far-reaching consequences — both intended and unintended– reverberating around the world along the delicate web of fibre optic cables now girdling it. It’s not just a Wired Society, Martin argues, but a wired-together one. And it’s not just the Culture Shock principle we have to be mindful of but the ongoing and seemingly unending series of cultural aftershocks stemming from our wrenching transition to the Information Age: aftershocks manifesting themselves in everything from unemployment lines in the West made up of those left jobless by new production techniques to snaking lines of volunteers for terror armies in the underdeveloped world.
The Martin School is literally a monument to the concept of “interconnectivity” its benefactor champions — the recently-coined word made bricks and mortar. It provides Oxford’s academics, scientists and social and cultural theorists with an arena within which they can discuss, assess and propose solutions to an array of problems unique to the 21st century in the most meaningful context — a global one. It’s a crucible for strategic planning and forthright communication between luminaries in highly specialised (and often self-ghettoising) fields. The Martin School is an initiative which is both critically necessary and long overdue — an attempt to address what moral philosopher Mary Midgley called the grotesquely inverse relationship between increasingly complex science and increasing public bewilderment: “Many scientists will now say flatly that most of us cannot expect to understand what is happening in science at all,” said Midgley. “… This gloomy estimate must extend, of course, far beyond the uneducated proles to the scientists themselves when they deal with anything beyond their own increasingly narrow provinces …”
With the walls between separate disciplines pulverised, with scholars and scientists making common cause, Martin’s hope is the school will assist humankind to realise its fullest potentials for ingenuity, creativity and melioration. We will increasingly come to depend on all three qualities as we confront a newly-opened Pandora’s Box of technologically-spawned woes in the decades ahead. To not make optimum use of these talents, Martin rues, could be to sign the death warrant not only of our civilisation but of our species.
As he says in a perhaps Fabian-inspired observation in “The Meaning of the 21st Century”, the world must come to realise the veneer of civilisation is fragile and can be as easily torn away as roofing slates in a hurricane. And the tempest, he fears, is already upon us.
[Photo credit Tom King. Part 1 and 2 of the documentary is above, and you can view the full video free online here.]
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- Dr. Martin’s New Film On 21st Century Woes : Bernews.com | October 31, 2011
- Dr. Martin Speech: 21st Century Challenges | Bernews.com | January 21, 2013
- Exploring Dr. James Martin’s Bermuda Retreat | Bernews.com | June 25, 2013