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My Reaction to The Observer’s 20 predictions for the next 25 years

Posted in futurism

The UK’s Observer just put out a set of predictions for the next 25 years (20 predictions for the next 25 years). I will react to each of them individually. More generally, however, these are the kinds of ideas that get headlines, but they don’t constitute good journalism. Scenario planning should be used in all predictive coverage. It is, to me, the most honest way to admit not knowing and documenting the uncertainties of the future—the best way to examine big issues through different lenses. Some of these predictions may well come to pass, but many will not. What this article fails to do, is inform the reader about the ways the predictions may vary from the best guess, and what the possible alternatives may be—and where they simply don’t know.

1. Geopolitics: ‘Rivals will take greater risks against the US’

This is a pretty non-predictive prediction. America’s rivals are already challenging its monetary policy, human rights stances, shipping channels and trade policies. The article states that the US will remain the world’s major power. It does not suggest that Globalization could fracture the world so much that regional powers huddle against the US in various places, essentially creating stagnation and a new localism that causes us to reinvent all economies. It also does not foresee anyone acting on the water rights, food, energy or nuclear proliferation. Any of those could set off major conflicts that completely disrupt our economic and political models, leading to major resets in assumptions about the future.

2. The UK economy: ‘The popular revolt against bankers will become impossible to resist’

British banks will not fall without taking much of the world financial systems with them. I like the idea of the reinvention of financial systems, though I think it is far too early to predict their shape. Banking is a major force that will evolve in emergent ways. For scenario planners, the uncertainty is about the fate of existing financial systems. Planners would do well to imagine multiple ways the institution of banking will reshape itself, not prematurely bet on any one outcome.

3. Global development: ‘A vaccine will rid the world of AIDS’

We can only hope so. Investment is high, but it is not the major cause of death in the world. Other infectious and parasitic diseases still outstrip HIV/AIDS by a large margin, while cardiovascular diseases and cancer even eclipse those. So it is great to predict the end of one disease, but the prediction seems rather arbitrary. I think it would be more advantageous to rate various research programs against potential outcomes over the next 25 years and look at the impact of curing those diseases on different parts of the world. If we tackle, for instance, HIV/AIDS and malaria and diarrhea diseases, what would that do to increase the safety of people in Africa and Asia? What would the economic and political ramifications be? We also have to consider the cost of the cure and the cost of its distribution. Low cost solutions that can easily be distributed will have higher impact than higher cost solutions that limit access (as we have with current HIV/AIDS treatments) I think we will see multiple breakthroughs over the next 25 years and we would do well to imagine the implications of sets of those, not focus on just one.

4. Energy: ‘Returning to a world that relies on muscle power is not an option’

For futurists, any suggestion that the world moves in reverse is an anathema. For scenario planners, we know that great powers have devolved over the last 2,000 years and there is no reason that some political, technological or environmental issue might not arise that would cause our global reality to reset itself in significant ways. I think it is naïve to say we won’t return to muscle power. In fact, the failure to meet global demand for energy and food may actually move us toward a more local view of energy and food production, one that is less automated and scalable. One of the reasons we have predictions like this is because we haven’t yet envisioned a language for sustainable economics that allows people to talk about the world outside of the bounds of industrial age, scale-level terms. It may well be our penchant for holding on to industrial age models that drives us to the brink. Rather than continuing to figure out how to scale up the world, perhaps we should be thinking about ways to slow it down, restructure it and create models that are sustainable over long periods of time. The green movement is just political window dressing for what is really a more fundamental need to seek sustainability in all aspects of life, and that starts with how we measure success.

5. Advertising: ‘All sorts of things will just be sold in plain packages’

This is just a sort of random prediction that doesn’t seem to mean anything if it happens. I’m not sure the state will control what is advertised, or if people will care how their stuff is packaged. In 4, above, I outline more important issues that would cause us to rethink our overall consumer mentality. If that happens, we may well see world where advertising is irrelevant—completely irrelevant. Let’s see how Madison Avenue plans for its demise (or its new role…) in a sustainable knowledge economy.

6. Neuroscience: ‘We’ll be able to plug information streams directly into the cortex’

This is already possible on a small scale. We have seen hardware interfaces with bugs and birds. The question is, will it be a novelty or will it be a major medical tool or will it be commonplace and accessible or will it be seen as dangerous and be shunned by citizen regulators worried about giving up their humanity and banned by governments who can’t imagine governing the overly connected. Just because we can doesn’t mean we will or we should. I certainly think we may we see a singularity over the next 25 years in hardware, where machines can match human computational power, but I think software will greatly lag hardware. We may be able to connect, but we will do so only had rudimentary levels. On the other hand, a new paradigm for software could evolve that would let machines match us thought for thought. I put that in the black swan category. I am on constant watch for a software genius that will make Gates and Zuckerberg look like quaint 18th-Century industrialists. The next revolution in software will come from a few potential paths, here are two: removal to the barriers to entry that the software industry has created and a return to more accessible computing for the masses (where they develop applications, not just consume content) or a breakthrough in distributed, parallel processing that evolves the ability to match human pattern recognition capabilities, even if the approach appears alien to it inventors. We will have a true artificial intelligence only when we no longer understand the engineering behind its abilities.

7. Physics: ‘Within a decade, we’ll know what dark matter is’

Maybe, but we may also find that dark matter, like the “ether” is just a conceptual plug-in for an incomplete model of the universe. I guess saying that it is a conceptual plug-in for an incomplete model would be an explanation of what it is – so this is one of those predictions that can’t lose. Another perspective: dark matter matters, and not only do we understand what it is, but what it means, and it changes our fundamental view of physics in a way that helps us look at matter and energy through a new lens, one that may help fuel a revolution in energy production and consumption.

8. Food: ‘Russia will become a global food superpower’

Really? Well, this presumes some commercial normality for Russia along with maintaining its risk taking propensity to remove the safeties from technology. If Russia becomes politically stable and economically safe (you can go there without fear for your personal or economic life) then perhaps. I think, however, that this predication is too finite and pointed. We could well see the US, China (or other parts of Asia) or even a terraformed Africa become the major food supplier – biotechnology, perhaps – new forms of distributed farming, also possible. The answer may not be hub-and-spoke, but distributed. We may find our own center locally as the costs of moving food around the world outweighs the industrialization efficiency of its production. It may prove healthier and more efficient to forgo the abundant variety we have become accustomed to (in some parts of the world) and see food again as nutrition, and share the lessons of efficient local production with the increasingly water starved world.

9. Nanotechnology: ‘Privacy will be a quaint obsession’

I don’t get the link between nanotechnology and privacy. It is mentioned once in the narrative, but not in an explanatory way. As a purely hardware technology, it will threaten health (nano-pollutants) and improve health (cellular-level, molecular-level repairs). The bigger issue with nanotechnology is its computational model. If nanotechnology includes the procreation and evolution of artificial things, then we are faced with the difficult challenge of trying to imagine how something will evolve that we have never seen before, and that has never existed in nature. The interplay between nature and nanotechnology will be fascinating and perhaps frightening. Our privacy may be challenged by culture and by software, but I seriously doubt that nanotechnology will be the key to decrypting our banking system (though it could play a role). Nanotechnology is more likely to be a black swan full of surprises that we can’t even begin to imagine today.

10. Gaming: ‘We’ll play games to solve problems’

This one is easy. Of course. We always have and we always will. Problem solutions are games to those who find passion in different problem sets. The difference between a game and a chore is perspective, not the task itself. For a mathematician, solving a quadratic equation is a game. For a literature major, that same equation may be seen as a chore. Taken to the next level, gaming may become a new way to engage with work. We often engineer fun out of work, and that is a shame. We should engineer work experiences to include fun as part of the experience (see my new book, Management by Design), and I don’t mean morale events. If you don’t enjoy your “work” then you will be dissatisfied no matter how much you are paid. Thinking about work as a game, as Ender (Enders Game, Orson Scott Card) did, changes the relationship between work and life. Ender, however, found out, that when you get too far removed from the reality, you may find moral compasses misaligned.

11. Web/internet: ‘Quantum computing is the future’

Quantum computing, like nanotechnology, will change fundamental rules, so it is hard to predict their outcome. We will do better to closely monitor developments than to spend time overspeculating on outcomes that are probably unimaginable. It is better to accept that there are things in the future that are unimaginable now and practice how to deal with unimaginable as an idea than to frustrate ourselves by trying to predict those outcomes. Imagine wicked fast computers—doesn’t really matter if they are quantum or not. Imagine machines that can decrypt anything really quickly using traditional methods, and that create new encryptions that they can’t solve themselves.

On the more mundane note in this article, the issues of net neutrality may play out so that those who pay more get more, though I suspect that will be uneven and change at the whim of politics. What I find curious is that this prediction says nothing about the alternative Internet (see my post Pirates Pine for Alternative Internet on Internet Evolution). I think we should also plan for very different information models and more data-centric interaction—in other words, we may we find ourselves talking to data rather than servers in the future.

I’m not sure the next Internet will come from Waterloo, Ontario and its physicists, but from acts of random assertions by smart, tech-savvy idealists who want to take back our intellectual backbone from advertisers and cable companies.

One black swan this prediction fails to account for is the possibility of a loss of trust in the Internet all together if it is hacked or otherwise challenged (by a virus, or made unstable by an attack on power grids or network routers). Cloud computing is based on trust. Microsoft and Google recently touted the uptime of their business offerings (Microsoft: BPOS Components Average 99.9-plus Percent Uptime). If some nefarious group takes that as a challenge (or sees the integrity of banking transactions as a challenge), we could see widespread distrust of the Net and the Cloud and a rapid return to closed, proprietary, non-homogeneous systems that confound hackers by their variety as much as they confound those who operate them.

12. Fashion: ‘Technology creates smarter clothes’

A model on the catwalk during the Gareth Pugh show at London Fashion Week in 2008. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Smarter perhaps, put from the picture above which, not necessarily fashion forward. I think we will see technology integrated with what we wear, and I think smart materials will also redefine other aspects of our lives and create a new manufacturing industry, even in places where manufacturing has been displaced. In the US, for instance, smart materials will not require retrofitting legacy manufacturing facilities, but will require the creation of entirely new facilities that can be created with design and sustainability from their onset. However, smart clothes, other uses of smart materials and personal technology integration all require a continued positive connection between people and technology. That connection looks positive, but we may be be blind to technology push-backs, even rebellions, fostered in current events like the jobless recovery.

13. Nature: ‘We’ll redefine the wild’

I like this one and think it is inevitable, but I also think it is a rather easy prediction to make. It is less easy to see all the ways nature could be redefined. Professor Mace predicts managed protected areas and a continued loss of biodiversity. I think we are at a transition point, and 25 years isn’t enough time to see its conclusion. The rapid influx of “invasive” species with indigenous species creates not just displacement, but offer an opportunity for recreation of environments (read evolution). We have to remember that historically the areas we are trying to protect were very different in the past than they are in our rather short collective memories. We are trying to protect a moment in history for human nostalgia. The changes in the environment presage other changes that may well take place after we have gone. Come to Earth a 1,000 years from now and we may be hard pressed to find anything that is as we experience it today. The general landscape may appear the same at the highest level of fractal magnification, but zoom in and you will find the details will shifted as much as the forests of Europe or the nesting grounds of the Dodo bird have changed over the last 1,000 years.

14. Architecture: What constitutes a ‘city’ will change

I like this prediction because it runs the gamut from distribution of power to returning to caves. It actually represents the idea using scenario thinking. I will keep this brief because Rowan Moore gets it when he writes: “To be optimistic, the human genius for inventing social structures will mean that new forms of settlement we can’t quite imagine will begin to emerge.”

15. Sport: ‘Broadcasts will use holograms’

I guess in a sustainable knowledge economy we will still have sport. I hope we figure out how to monitor the progress of our favorite teams without the creation and collection of non-biodegradable artifacts like Styrofoam number one hands and collectable beverage containers.

As for sport itself, it will be an early adopter of any new broadcast technology. I’m not sure holograms in their traditional sense will be one, however. I’m guessing we figure out 3-D with a lot less technology than holograms require.

I challenge Mr. Lee’s statements on the acceptance of performance-enhancing drugs: “I don’t think we’ll see acceptance as the trend has been towards zero tolerance and long may it remain so.” I think it is just as likely that we start seeing performance enhancement as OK, given the wide proliferation of AD/HD drugs being prescribed, as well as those being used off label for mental enhancement—not to mention the accepted use of drugs by the military (see Troops need to remember, New Scientist, 09 December 2010). I think we may well see an asterisk in the record books a decade or so from now that says, “at this point we realized sport was entertainment, and allowed the use of drugs, prosthetics and other enhancements that increased performance and entertainment value.”

16. Transport: ‘There will be more automated cars’

Yes, if we still have cars, they will likely be more automated. And in a decade, we will likely still see cars, but we may be at the transition point for the adoption of a sustainable knowledge economy where cars start to look arcane. We will see continued tension between the old industrial sectors typified by automobile manufacturers and oil exploration and refining companies, and the technology and healthcare firms that see value and profits in more local ways of staying connected and ways to move that don’t involve internal combustion engines (or electric ones for that matter).

17. Health: ‘We’ll feel less healthy’

Maybe, as Mulgan points out, healthcare isn’t radical, but people can be radical. These uncertainties around health could come down to personal choice. We may find millions of excuses for not taking care of ourselves and then placing the burden of our unhealthy lifestyles at the feet of the public sector, or we may figure out that we are part of the sustainable equation as well. The later would transform healthcare. Some of the arguments above, about distribution and localism may also challenge the monolithic hospitals to become more distributed, as we are seeing with the rise of community-based clinics in the US and Europe. Management of healthcare may remain centralized, but delivery may be more decentralized. Of course, if economies continue to teeter, the state will assert itself and keep everything close and in as few buildings as possible.

As for electronic records, it will be the value to the end user that drives adoption. As soon as patients believe they need an electronic healthcare record as much as they need a little blue pill, we will see the adoption of the healthcare record. Until then, let the professionals do whatever they need to do to service me—the less I know the better. In a sustainable knowledge economy though, I will run my own analytics and use the results to inform my choices and actions. Perhaps we need healthcare analytics companies to start advertising to consumers as much as pharmaceutical companies currently do.

18. Religion: ‘Secularists will flatter to deceive’

I think religion may well see traditions fall, new forms emerge and fundamentalist dig in their heels. Religion offers social benefits that will be augmented by social media—religion acts as a pervasive and public filter for certain beliefs and cultural norms in a way that other associations do not. Over the next 25 years many of the more progressive religious movements may tap into their social side and reinvent themselves around association of people rather than affiliation with tenets of faith. If however, any of the dire scenarios come to pass, look for state asserted use of religion to increase, and for a rising tide of fundamentalism as people try to hold on to what they can of the old way of doing things.

19. Theatre: ‘Cuts could force a new political fringe’

Theatre has always had an edge, and any new fringe movement is likely to find it manifestation in art, be it theatre, song, poetry or painting. I would have preferred that the idea of art be taken up as a predication rather than theatre in isolation. If we continue to automate and displace workers, we will need to reassess our general abandonment of the arts as a way of making a living because creation will be the one thing that can’t be automated. We will need to find ways to pay people for human endeavors, everything from teaching to writing poetry. The fringe may turn out to be the way people stay engaged.

20 Storytelling: ‘Eventually there’ll be a Twitter classic’

Stories are already ubiquitous. We live in stories. Technology has changed our narrative form, not our longing for a narrative. The twitter stream is a narrative channel. I would not, however, anticipate a “twitter classic” because a classic suggests the idea of something lasting. For a “twitter classic” to occur, the 140-character phrases would need to be extracted from their medium and held someplace beyond the context is which they were created, which would make twitter just another version of the typewriter or word processor—either that or Twitter figures out a better mode for persistent retrieval of tweets with associated metadata—in others words, you could query the story out of the twitter-verse, which is very technically possible (and may make for some collaborative branching as well). But in the end, twitter is just a repository for writing, just one of many, which doesn’t make this prediction all that concept shattering.

This post is long enough, so I won’t start listing all of the areas the Guardian failed to tackle, or its internal lack of categorical consistency (e.g., Theatre and storytelling are two sides of the same idea). I hope these observations help you engage more deeply with these ideas and with the future more generally, but most importantly, I hope they help you think about navigating the next 25 years, not relying on prescience from people with no more insight than you and I. The trick with the future is to be nimble, not to be right.

3 Comments so far

  1. Let us take an example of Texas. The “Wise Health Insurance” is quite popular in Arizona. It provides so many offers for the low income people.

  2. See:

    “Preliminary Analysis of a Global Drought Time Series” by Barton Paul Levenson, not yet published.

    Under BAU [Business As Usual], agriculture and civilization will collapse some time between 2050 and 2055 due to drought caused by GW [Global Warming].

    Reference: “The Long Summer” by Brian Fagan and “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. When agriculture collapses, civilization collapses. Fagan and Diamond told the stories of something like 2 dozen previous very small civilizations. Most of the collapses were caused by fraction of a degree climate changes. In some cases, all of that group died. On the average, 1 out of 10,000 survived. We humans could go EXTINCT in 2051. The 1 out of 10,000 survived because he wandered in the direction of food. If the collapse is global, there is no right direction.

    We must take extreme action now. Cut CO2 production 40% by the end of 2015. [How to do this: Replace all coal fired power plants with factory built nuclear.] Continuing to make CO2 is the greatest imaginable GENOCIDE. We have to act NOW. Acting in 2049 will not work. Nature just doesn’t work that way. All coal fired power plants must be shut down and replaced with nuclear and renewables. Target date: 2015.

    Prediction: At least 4 Billion people will starve to death or die some other way in one year by 2056.

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