2000 : WHAT IS TODAY'S MOST IMPORTANT UNREPORTED STORY?

Theoretical physicist; Author, The Janus Point (forthcoming) and The End of Time
a) The Extraordinary Proliferation of Jobs and Careers; b) James P. Carse's Jewel of a Book, Finite and Infinite Games

The very notion of the "most important unreported story" makes it inevitable that any answer will be highly subjective. For can anyone honestly say they know for sure what is the most important thing in life? One might say that the very essence of life is growth and uncertainty about the direction in which it happens. I feel forced to look for striking unreported stories whose ultimate importance is inevitably unknown. Then I find that no story is completely unreported, only underreported compared with the standards I would apply.

In this line, I find that the existence of serious (though not conclusive) scientific evidence for the complete nonexistence of time has been strikingly underreported. But having just published a book on the subject (and also undergone Edge edition No. 60) on this theme, I do not feel like returning to it. I offer two substitutes.

Though certainly reported, there is a feature of modern life that I feel should be given more prominence. It is the extraordinary proliferation of jobs and careers that are now open to people, both young and old, compared with my childhood over 50 years ago. I can gauge this especially well because of a piece of research that is worth mentioning on Edge. In the midst of the Second World War, but when it was already clear that the Allies would win, the British war cabinet decided that it should start thinking about how life should be improved for both the urban and the rural population. Task forces were set to work, researching the existing state. As it happened, the village 20 miles north of Oxford where I grew up and still live (South Newington) was chosen as the centre of an oblong region (measuring 4 by 6 miles on the Ordnance Survey map of Britain) that was to be studied in detail as typical of rural Britain. Every village in it was surveyed, and almost every person living in this region questioned about their lifestyle and occupations.

The outcome was a book and a film called Twentyfour Square Miles, made just after the war, when I was a boy of eight. Every few years, this film is shown in the village. What is most striking is the subsequent incredible mushrooming of career opportunities (and the large degree of equalization of prospects between the sexes). Back in 1945, boys could look forward to jobs in agricultural (quite a lot), as motor mechanics (perhaps 20 such jobs in the entire region), working in the aluminum factory in the nearby town of Banbury, and not much else. For girls the options, apart from motherhood, were essentially limited to domestic service, working as salespersons, and secretarial or other clerking jobs. Probably only about one child in 20 would go on to higher education. The transformation in 55 years has been amazing — and it seems to me to be accelerating. In fact, any reasonably bright young (or even relatively old) person in the region can now choose to follow more or less any career.

There is some concern today that we are all becoming more and more stereotyped. It seems to me that the mere fact that we now engage in such a huge variety of occupations should largely offset any such danger of stereotyping. Now to my second offering.

A highly original book not widely known must be an important unreported story. (The President of Edge can hardly disagree!). It turns out that the book I have in mind is actually quite widely known (it has about half a million sales worldwide, as I learned recently on the phone from its author) but seems to be almost completely unknown in the UK. I am a sufficiently chauvinistic Brit to think that the UK reading world is important, so here goes.

I learned about the book from Stewart Brand's The Clock of the Long Now: It was a professor of religion, James P. Carse of New York University, who came up with the idea of "the infinite game". His 1986 jewel of a book, Finite and Infinite Games, begins, "A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the game."

This struck me as an extremely novel idea. I immediately ordered the book and was not disappointed. A slim volume written in the addictive aphoristic manner of Leibniz's Monadology and Wittgenstein's Tractatus, with both of which it most certainly can be compared, I think it is perhaps the most original perspective on life and the world I have encountered. In fact, I was so delighted that I logged onto amazon.co.uk and ordered 50 copies to send to friends as Christmas and New Year presents (along with a copy of this entry to serve as explanation for the said slim volume).

My order had a gratifying effect on the Amazon sales ranking of Finite and Infinite Games. Before my order it stood at 25499. Two hours later it was 4287. I mention this in the hope that some high Amazon executive reads Edge and will ponder a somewhat less erratic way to measure the rankings, which fluctuate so wildly as to be almost useless. I think they need a Longer Now.

I am writing this on 31st December 1999 while listening to BBC Radio 3's monumental day-long 2000-year history of music called "The Unfinished Symphony". The subtitle of Carse's book seems especially apt in this connection —" A Vision of Life As Play and Possibility". Perhaps the idea of life as an everlasting game or an ongoing symphony is the most important unreported story.

On the subject of slim volumes, the British photographer David Parker, who specializes in science studies and monumental landscapes with a trace of the human element (Utah mainly), recently told me the ultimate traveling-light story. Years ago he was trekking in Bolivia with a friend who takes traveling light to the extreme. He therefore allowed himself just one book, the Tractatus. To lighten even that slim load, he would read one page each evening, tear it out and then deposit it carefully wherever his bed happened to be: beneath a stone if in the open or in the bedside table to rival the Gideon Bible if in a hotel. One can hardly call the Tractatus an unreported story, but the method of dissemination is worthy of Professor Emeritus James P. Carse.