These have been boom times for “futurists,” a profession without credentials, in which anyone can opine about tomorrow’s Undiscovered Country. Ever since the turn of the century, a whole spectrum of corporations, intel and defense agencies, planning councils and NGOs have expressed growing concern about time scales that used to be the sole province of science fiction (SF). In fact, all those companies and groups have been consulting an ensemble of “hard” SF authors, uninterrupted by travel restrictions during a pandemic.
While I spend no time on airplanes now – and my associated speaking fees are now lower – I nevertheless am doing bunches of zoomed appearances at virtualized conferences… one of them looming as I type this.
One question always pops up; can we navigate our way out of the current messes, helped by new technologies?
The news and prospects are mixed, but assuming we restore basic stability to the Western Enlightenment Experiment… and that is a big assumption… then several technological and social trends may come to fruition in the next five to ten years.
== Potential game-changers ==
– Advances in the cost effectiveness of sustainable energy supplies will be augmented by better storage systems. This will both reduce reliance on fossil fuels and allow cities and homes to be more autonomous.
– Urban farming methods may move to industrial scale, allowing even greater moves toward local autonomy. (Perhaps requiring a full decade or more to show significant impact.) And meat use will decline for several reasons – (a longstanding sci-fi prediction that seems on track sooner than anyone expected) – reducing ecological burdens and ensuring some degree of food security, as well.
– Local, small-scale, on-demand manufacturing may start to show effects by 2025, altering supply chains and reducing their stretched networks.
– If all of the above take hold, there will be surplus oceanic shipping capacity across the planet. Some of it may be applied to ameliorate (not solve) acute water shortages. Innovative uses of such vessels may range all the way from hideaways for the rich to refuges for climate refugees… possibilities I describe in my novels Existence and Earth.
– Full scale diagnostic evaluations of diet, genes and micro-biome will result in micro-biotic therapies and treatments utilizing the kitchen systems of the human gut. Artificial Intelligence (AI) appraisals of other diagnostics will both advance detection of problems and become distributed to hand-held devices cheaply available to even poor clinics.
– Hand-held devices will start to carry detection technologies that can appraise across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, allowing NGOs and even private parties to detect and report environmental problems. Socially, this extension of citizen vision will go beyond the current trend of applying accountability to police and other authorities. Despotisms will be empowered, as predicted in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But democracies will also be empowered, as described in The Transparent Society.
– I give odds that tsunamis of revelation will crack the shields protecting many elites from disclosure of past and present torts and turpitudes. The Panama Papers and Epstein cases — and the more recent FinCEN spill — exhibit how much fear propels some oligarchs to combine efforts at repression. But only a few more cracks may cause the dike to collapse, revealing networks of extortion, cheating and blackmail. This is only partly technologically-driven and hence is not guaranteed.
I assure you, preventing this is the absolute top goal of the combined world oligarchies. If it does happen, there will be dangerous spasms by all sorts of elites, desperate to either retain status or evade consequences. But if the fever runs its course, the more transparent world will be cleaner and better run. And far more just. And vastly better able to handle tomorrow’s challenges.
– Some of those elites have grown aware of the power of 90 years of Hollywood propaganda for individualism, criticism, diversity, suspicion of authority and appreciation of eccentricity. Counter-propaganda pushing older, more traditional approaches to authority and conformity are already emerging and they have the advantage of resonating with ancient human fears. Much will depend upon this meme-war. Which I appraise entertainingly in Vivid Tomorrows: Science Fiction and Hollywood!
Of course much will also depend upon short term resolution of current crises. If our systems remain undermined and sabotaged by incited civil strife and deliberately-stoked distrust of expertise, then all bets are off.
What about the role of technology and technology companies and individuals?
Many fret about the spread of “surveillance technologies that will empower Big Brother.” These fears are well-grounded, but utterly myopic.
– First, ubiquitous cameras and face-recognition are only the beginning. Nothing will stop them and any such thought of “protecting” citizens from being seen by elites is stunningly absurd, as the cameras get smaller, better, faster, cheaper, more mobile and vastly more numerous every month. Moore’s Law to the nth. Safeguarding freedom, safety and privacy will require a change in perspective.
– Yes, despotisms will benefit from this trend. And hence the only thing that matters is to prevent despotism altogether.
– In contrast, a free society will be able to apply the very same burgeoning technologies toward accountability. At this very moment, we are seeing these new tools applied to end centuries of abuse by “bad apple” police who are thugs, while empowering truly professional cops to do their jobs better. Do not be fooled by the failure of juries to convict badd apple officers in trials. That’s an injustice, but at least nearly all of those officers are being fired and blacklisted, and that’s happening entirely because cameras now empower victims to be believed. Moreover, we are fast approaching a point where camera-witnessed crimes will be solved with far lower police staffing. Letting us be more hiring selective. Ignoring the positive aspects of this trend is just as bad as ignoring the very real problems.
I do not guarantee light will be used this way with broad effectiveness. It is an open question whether we citizens will have the gumption to apply “sousveillance” upward at all elites. Only note a historical fact: both Gandhi and ML King were saved by crude technologies of light in their days. And history shows that assertive vision by and for the citizenry is the only method that has ever increased freedom and – yes – some degree of privacy.
Oh, privacy hand wringers are totally right about the problem and the danger presented by surveillance tech! And they are diametrically wrong in the common prescription. Trying to ban technologies and create shadows for citizens to hide within is spectacularly wrongheaded and disastrous. See The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?
== And pandemics? So are we done? ==
Of course not. But it’s too soon to make predictions except:
– Some flaws in resilience will be addressed: better disease intel systems.
Stockpiles repaired and replenished and modernized after Trump eviscerations.
Quicker “emergency” delpoyments of large scale trials of tests and vaccines.
Federal ownership of extra vaccine factories, or else payments to mothball and maintain surge production capacity.
Money for bio research.
Unspoken by pundits. This will lead to annual “flu shots” that are also tuned against at least the coronivirus half of common colds. And possibly a number of nasty buggers may get immunization chokes put around them… maybe Ebola.
And serious efforts to get nations to ban the eating or pet-keeping of wild animals, plus ideally exclusion zones around some bat populations… and better forensic disagnostics of deliberate or inandvertent release modes. Not saying that happened. But better wariness and tracking.
In fact, from a historical perspective, this was a training run for potentially much worse and – despite imbecile obstructions and certainly after they were gone – our resilient capability to deploy science was actually quite formidable and impressive.
Almost as impressive as the prescience of science fiction authors who are now choking down repeated urges to chant “I told you so!”