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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Death of a great optimist

Norman Macrae 1923-2010


When I joined the Economist in 1983, Norman Macrae was the deputy editor. He died last week at the age of 87. Soon after I joined the staff, a thing called a computer terminal appeared on my desk and my electric typewriter disappeared. Around that time, Norman wrote a long article that became a book about the future. It was one of the strangest things I had ever read.

It had boundless optimism --

Over the last decade, I have written many articles in The Economist and delivered lectures in nearly 30 countries across the world saying the future should be much more rosy. This book explores the lovely future people could have if only all democrats made the right decisions.

combined with a weird technological vision --

Eventually books, files, television programmes, computer information and telecommunications will merge. We'll have this portable object which is a television screen with first a typewriter, later a voice activator attached. Afterwards it will be minaturised so that your personal access instrument can be carried in your buttonhole, but there will be these cheap terminals around everywhere, more widely than telephones of 1984. The terminals will be used to access databases anywhere in the globe, and will become the brainworker's mobile place of work. Brainworkers, which will increasingly mean all workers, will be able to live in Tahiti if they want to and telecommute daily to the New York or Tokyo or Hamburg office through which they work. In the satellite age costs of transmission will not depend mainly on distance. And knowledge once digitalised can be replicated for use anywhere almost instantly.

and a startlingly fresh economic perspective --

In the 1890s around half of the workforce in countries like the United States were in three occupations: agriculture, domestic service and jobs to do with horse transport. By the 1970s these three were down to 4 per cent of the workforce. If this had been foretold in the 1890s, there would have been a wail. It would have been said that half the population was fit only to be farmworkers, parlourmaids and sweepers-up of horse manure. Where would this half find jobs? The answer was by the 1970s the majority of them were much more fully employed ( because more married women joined the workforce) doing jobs that would have sounded double-Dutch in the 1890s: extracting oil instead of fish out of the North Sea; working as computer programmers, or as television engineers, or as package-holiday tour operators chartering jet aircraft.

When he retired in 1988 he wrote

Some will say [I have] been too optimistic. That is what a 65-year-old like me finds it natural to be. When I joined The Economist in 1949 it seemed unlikely that the world would last long. But here we stand, 40 memory-sodden years on, and what have we done? What we have done - largely because the poorest two-thirds of people are living much longer - is approximately to octuple real gross world product. During the brief civilian working lives of us returning soldiers from the second world war, we have added seven times as much to the world's producing power as was added during all the previous millennia of homo sapien's existence. That may help to explain why some of us sound and write rather tired. It does not explain why anybody in the next generation, to whom we gladly vacate our posts, can dare to sound pessimistic.

He was a rational optimist.