Interview: John Higgs – The Future Starts Here

Author John Higgs is developing quite the cult around his prolific output. In recent years he has generated a sequence of books which explore the surprising, and often magical recesses of popular cultural history. His subjects are often well known; Timothy Leary’s influence was investigated in I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary. The KLF were the subject of The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. He has also explored beneath the lesser-known events of the last century: Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, and explored the human geography of space and time in Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past. However, the subject of a John Higgs book isn’t always necessarily the only thing that the book delivers. Often, larger and more magical truths are revealed.

John’s latest book is called The Future Starts Here: Adventures in the Twenty-First Century. It’s a courageously optimistic book that charges readers to be vigilant, creative, and imaginative. A less poetic subtitle could be ‘nihilists and nay-sayers can fuck off’. But John’s not that blunt. Instead, he points at the responsibilities of living in the now, in exploring possibility beyond the media-driven zeitgeist, and delving deeper into what it means to take ownership of opportunity, and the future.

Oh – and it also has some terrifying information on octopuses.

Optimism, thinking outside of the mainstream, and taking creative control of the now, and then the future… all reasons we sat down and talked with the man himself.

Finn: ‘The Future Starts Here’ Has been released for a couple of months now. Has your relationship with the work changed or evolved? Will we hear any revisions on the audiobook?

John Higgs: No, you can’t really go back and change these things, beyond minor typos or corrections and the like. That way madness lies. It’s a piece of work from a particular moment in time and it has to stand or fall on those terms. As tempting as it can be to go the full George Lucas, there’s a risk that you’ll lose the initial integrity of the thing. Plus, events might make the predictions of the book so wrong that they become funny, and what sort of monster would want to prevent that?

Finn: At the core of the book there’s a message of reframing our perspective with a view of brighter possibility. Have you heard from any readers whose world-views have altered since reading the book?

John Higgs: Yes! This has been the most satisfying part of the book. People are generally kind and flatter you if you’ve written a book they’ve enjoyed, but there was a sense of gratitude that came from readers of this book that I’d not experienced before – or if not gratitude, just relief that there was something confirming what they sensed but which our culture constantly denied. It was especially pleasing to hear from teachers who felt that they not only understood their kids more, but who were now teaching them that the future is theirs to build, and that to do so will require their imagination.

Finn: ‘The Future Starts Here’ is an optimistic book. Almost all of your previous works carry a similar optimism, or playfulness. Do you intentionally seek out narratives that lead toward positivity?

John Higgs: I wouldn’t avoid writing about a subject because it was bleak, but in general you have to be aware that what you put out into the world has consequences.

This was my main objection to the film Yesterday, which portrayed a world in which the Beatles never happened as being virtually identical to our world, in all its culture and social norms. This in itself is obviously crazy, but it also suggests a writer who had no idea that songs, stories and art have an impact and that they affect people, and hence does not need to take any responsibility for what they put out. 

Most of us will never affect things on a societal level like the Beatles did, of course, but we will affect individuals. And if you deny that there is hope when hope exists, or if you focus only on the dark and ignore the light because that’s the norm in our media culture, then you’re subtly reducing your reader’s quality of life. Sure, this is the sensible career move, but if you can live with that you might as well go and work in advertising. At least it pays better.

Finn: There’s a boldness to ‘The Future Starts Here’ that is perhaps different to previous books. Typically you’ve looked backwards. Here, you project into the future, addressing some large, and often daunting subjects. AI. Economics. Science. The Environment. Can you speak a little on the most challenging chapter, in terms of condensing data into accessible, and fun prose without losing the depth and weight of the subject?

John Higgs: All chapters were challenging in their own way, but that’s part of the fun of it. If anything, it was the overall structure of the book that was the most difficult thing. There’s a lot of ideas seeded throughout the book that should appear innocent enough when they appear, but which are all building up to the bigger picture at the end. For example, some early readers weren’t convinced about the discussion about generations until the section on Big Data was moved before it, as this framed the way they thought about macro level generalisations. There were a lot of problems like that, which took a lot of thought and trial and error to deal with. Annoyingly, parts of my brain are still trying to work out the optimum structure of the book, long after it is published. I do wish the first third of the book was a bit wilder.

Finn: You speak a little of Elon Musk. Do you feel that private enterprise will cut a more creative, active path toward the future by comparison to more traditionally funded, institutionalized research?

John Higgs: Private enterprise is active and energetic, but it lacks ambition in terms of the things it can do. Its goal is just to maximise shareholder returns, and it has no imagination beyond that. It’s a bit like a souped-up sports car that is only used for going to the shops and back. State bodies and institutions lack its resources and energy, yet they tend to be behind all the truly important innovations such as the invention of the internet, the Apollo programme, the NHS and so on. That’s because they can aim to achieve something amazing in a way that corporations are too boring to ever do.

This is why Elon Musk is so interesting, I think. He’s very much an anomaly. Making money is a means to an end for him – it’s a necessary step but it’s not his goal. I’m not convinced by his ultimate goal, which is to get millions of people to go and live on Mars, the poor sods. But the things he is achieving in pursuit of this goal are amazing.

Finn: Your inter-generational viewing of ‘The Breakfast Club’, where you share the differences between Gen-X’ers and Millennials’ opinions on the film is a great segment. There’s a sense that you were surprised at a truth that was sat in clear view all along. Were there any other revelatory moments during research, where you dropped personal opinions and developed new emotional ideas?

John Higgs: Yes, I’d grown up unconsciously believing that mankind would whizz off into space and populate alien planets. It wasn’t until I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora that I realised that this was pure fantasy, that our future is here on Earth and that we have to find a sustainable way forward. That was a shock that I initially fought against, because spaceships are ace, let’s be honest. I had to change a lot of my basic assumptions after that, but I’m glad I did.

Finn: In a field of many radical ideas, you spend some time discussing the concept of Universal Basic Income. In real terms, where do you think economic restructuring will happen first?

John Higgs: That’s almost impossible to say, although I suspect it will happen first in a country currently undergoing political chaos rather than a country that is being governed in a sane and stable way. Politically, what’s playing out here in the UK and elsewhere is the last thrash of the dragon’s tail. An older generation who understand themselves as isolated individuals have found themselves in a world of networked individuals, and the cognitive dissonance involved in trying to deal with this has led to fundamentalism and extremism. But swings to one extreme are followed by swings to the other, and simple demographic changes over the next couple of decades are going to end the reign of the isolated individualists. As awful as things may look now, they won’t stay this way for long, and in the changes to come there will be windows of opportunity for things like Basic Income.

Finn: There is a diversity of subject matter across your work, but can you speak a little on the continuity that unites each story?

John Higgs: I could – I’d rather not though. I do think of each book as a chapter in a larger piece of work, even though each one should initially appear to be entirely unconnected and standalone. I’d prefer readers to discover how they are connected for themselves, rather than make a big deal of it. 

Finn: Octopuses are scary, right?

John Higgs: #NotAllOctopuses

Finn: What secret can you tell us about your next book that will prove that you’re not an A.I. bot trying to get a gig in the next Aaron Sorkin writer’s room?

John Higgs: I’m currently writing about William Blake, and I am proud to announce that I can now make an almost-convincing argument that Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, written by Blake in the early nineteenth century, was the first book about The Beatles. I’d like to see an AI that could do that!

The Future Starts Here is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.


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