Time to get back to the trees again

The secret of success is predicting the future. But what tomorrow will actually bring may not be all we hoped for

In a world where the only constant is change, every marketing man and woman must be for ever on the qui vive for the next big idea that’s going to sneak up from behind and put him or her out of business.

It’s always been the same: you get stuck in your ways, a little complacent, you nod off for a moment and bang, the sand-filled sock of change let’s you have it across the windpipe.

History is littered with the tales of men who were so busy prospering that, had fate abandoned stealth and turned up in hobnailed boots, they would still not have heard. How many stocking suspender magnates, once the proud masters of humming factories, were propelled into skid-row by the sudden advent of pantyhose? How many fly-button tycoons, whose vast fortunes had furnished estates and delighted strings of mistresses, were undone by the zip?

Contrast those discarded husks with the men of vision, the inspired entrepreneurs who saw change coming and seized the moment. When DIY became fashionable and scuppered many an honest tradesman, Smith and Nephew did not stand idly by as the nation took up hammer and chisel, saw and screwdriver: they invented Elastoplast.

To be like them, to capture the zephyr of change and turn it to your will, you must look beyond the day. You must see before others what the morrow will bring. Aha, I hear you say, that’s all very well, but, not being blessed with second sight, and hardly of a mind to call up Doris Stokes on the ouija, how the hell do I predict the future?

The answer, my friends, is simple. You get along to the annual conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. There, in the space of a few short days, you will learn from the sharpest brains at the cutting edge what our world will look like when it has spun a few times more.

How you make use of the information is, of course, up to you. Much of what you hear may seem useless. But where would we be without science? We’d still be hobbling about on arthritic hips, staring at a blank space in the corner of the room where the telly should be, and drawing in lungsful of Capstan Full Strength in blissful ignorance. Never underestimate the scientists.

Visitors to this year’s conference came away enriched by the knowledge that we shall soon have personal computers stuck in our heads. According to Prof Peter Thomas, of the University of the West of England, within about 30 years silicon chips will be implanted in our brains. “It will be possible,” he says, “when meeting a person one has met before, to have instant information about this person remembered from the previous meeting, flashed in the back of one’s spectacles, which will act as the computer’s screen.”

How very useful. Such a device dispenses with the need to have a memory of one’s own and provides the opportunity to browse through the back of one’s glasses rather than look into the face of some tiresome bore you thought you’d seen the last of.

How are these brain chips to be powered? “The source will be in the owner’s shoes, with energy created by the act of walking,” explains Prof Thomas. Of course. There is, however, a snag: according to the Department of Health, most Britons are strangers to walking. Might it not be possible to power the computer by the restless shifting from one buttock to another, a huge untapped surge of energy released when Richard and Judy are on the box?

Much of science is common sense. For example, researchers from the University of Leicester told the meeting that country music drives listeners to suicide.

Less obvious in these days of guilt-ridden environmentalism is the malign force of nature. “Man is a very insignificant and late-arriving addition to the planet,” announced Prof Donald Hawke, of Birmingham University, airily. Viruses, lightning strikes, giant sea waves, earthquakes, landslides, forest fires and volcanic eruptions, all have wrought a havoc that makes man’s efforts seem puny by comparison.

Science is, however, planning our destruction in its own way. We late arrivals are to be done to death by homicidal fridges.

Prof Roland Burns, of Plymouth University, told conference that the day is not far off when unemotional machines may decide that humans are a nuisance and the world could be run more efficiently without them.

Domestic appliances of the future, he explained, would replenish fridges by learning from experience the dietary habits of their owners. They would order the food from machine-controlled department stores, which would deposit it in containers outside our front doors.

But, warned Prof Burns, the machine that controlled the house might decide: “Life would be simpler if I kept the fridge empty and the doors locked. The people would then starve and I would no longer have to bother with them.”

The greatest number of headlines were prompted by the news that, when man came down from the trees, he had already mastered the art of walking, a habit it’s taken about 4 million years to shake off.

It’s about time to get up among the twigs again. Better that than buy one of those new-fangled fridges.

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