The List






The Plight of the Futurologist - Part Two


It's been rather a long time since I published my first set of predictions regarding the state of the world in 2020, but despite what some might think the delay is most definitely not due to any intention on my half to wait until December 31st 2019 to make further forecasts!

The reason for the delay is actually the far more prosaic need to engage in what Oscar Wilde once described as the 'curse of the drinking classes' - or, for those of you not familiar with the Irish writer's witticisms: work.

So without, further postponement, I give you the next four wondrous predictions:

5) We won't all be speaking Mandarin (or for that matter Cantonese)

Warren Buffet, the great American investor wrote recently:

"The 19th century belonged to England, the 20th century belonged to the U.S., and the 21st century belongs to China. Invest accordingly.

Now leaving aside Buffet's historical and geographical inaccuracies (it was the British Empire for one thing, not the English Empire), and the fact that he has an ulterior motive in talking up an emerging market in which he personally has large financial interests, he seems to have a point. After all, who can argue with figures that show that China's total research spend is now greater than Japan's, or that GDP growth has been in double figures for much of the 21st century? China is the new USA, and by 2020 will own the world, many would argue.

But they're wrong, of course, because like Malthus, they are taking an overly simplistic view of the future, based on modelling that is purely linear. China will undoubtedly be a major world force in the twenty first century, but its current success is built upon economically unsustainable conditions - mainly involving absurdly cheap labour. This enables it to manufacture items at extremely low unit costs. Remove this ability, however, and all that remains is a small (albeit growing) knowledge base, and little else, other than agriculture.

Now, obviously, the pool of cheap labour in China, with over a billion inhabitants to choose from, is not going to evaporate overnight, but, as the country becomes richer, living standards rise, and the awareness of wealth and interest in it consequently increase, there will be growing pressure for upwards movement in wages. And with a move away from the communist model of the state taking primacy over the individual, the old notion of working for the greater good - something that has defined the Chinese workforce over the last decade - will be lost in the sea of western world mass culture profligacy that will inevitably descend as individuals' disposable incomes rise.

Where exactly China will find itself in the global hierarchy in 2020 depends very much on how successfully it is able to manage the transition away from a low cost manufacturing base to a more value added economy. I would hazard a guess that its profile in 11 years' time will be very similar to Japan's in the 1980s, albeit with much greater GDP, but much lower GDP per capita.

6) We'll still be doing the steering

Self driving cars may be viewed as a utopian dream or a dystopian nightmare; whether your are of the former or latter persuasion is largely determined by whether you view the act of driving itself as an enjoyable activity or a necessary evil.

Car manufacturers and technologists have been harping on about self driving cars for a couple of decades now, and they've been a staple of sci-fi films for even longer, but it's only recently that the technology has become available at a low enough cost to make the idea feasible. In fact, the technology, in the form of GPS combined with multifarious sensors, and large amounts of processing power, is available to make this happen, in theory, today.

In practice, though, it will take a huge leap of faith in the accuracy and robustness of technology to convince the general populace to take their hands off the wheels, their feet off the pedals, and relinquish control of their lives to a machine, and therein lies the sticking point. Until this paradigm shift is made (which would be helped if Microsoft could produce a reliable version of Windows), nothing will change.

7) We won't be living in a dystopian nightmare (but neither will it be a utopia)

There's a reason why the best known seers and prophets throughout history have hidden their predictions behind wilfully obtuse and ambiguous language - there's little that makes you look more foolish than seeing the date at which you categorically stated that the world would end pass without incident. Hard facts have no place in the world of the successful soothsayer.

Hollywood writers, however, tend to be more liberal with their predictions - especially those who wish to portray a dystopian near-future. So, in 1997, crime was out of control and Manhattan had been transformed into an enormous maximum security prison (Escape from New York); in 2000, the US government sponsored a cross country race in which points were scored for pedestrian fatalities (Death Race 2000); and, perhaps most famously, in 1984, Britain was in the grip of a totalitarian regime with a sideline in thought control and the altering of history (1984).

The common theme with much dystopian sci-fi, aside from the unrelenting pessimism, is these laughably wide of the mark judgements of exactly when these scenarios will occur; if you're going to have humanity wandering around in jump suits and living on the moon (Space: 1999 - amusingly!), or living in a post-apocalyptic nuclear desert (pretty much any sci-fi from the 1970s and 1980s), at least put some thought into how long such a paradigm shift would take humanity to achieve, and base it 200 years in the future or suchlike. I mean - 1999 for God's sake! Humanity was still listening to Oasis, and wondering if the promised broadband internet would ever be publicly available back then - the chances of our colonising the moon were, even from a wildly optimistic mid-1970s perspective, fairly slim.

So, unless the Large Hadron Collider accidentally results in the discovery of a limitless source of power, or wipes out three quarters of humanity, 2020, just like 2000 from the viewpoint of 1989, will be much like today: we'll still be wearing jeans, living in conventional houses and driving cars. We won't be travelling through space and time, living underground in a post-apocalyptic wasteland or flying around enormous mega-cities in our personal jets.

8) The end of the (printed) word is nigh

Academics may decry the end of leafing through dusty journals in dark and dank library basements, and the hyperlink's inevitable triumph over the arcane and anachronistic secret garden that is the Harvard referencing system, but their laments will fall on deaf ears amongst technophiles and students alike.

The printed word is static in a world of change, expensive to reproduce when the digital marginal cost is close to zero, and, perhaps most importantly, doesn't integrate with the technology of the 21st century. Its death may be slow, and it may take longer than 11 years, but that it will eventually happen is one of the few predictions on which I would be willing to bet my house.