Captain hindsight is in full swing at the moment. Everyone apparently knew FTX was not solvent, and would obviously crash. Everyone thought lockdowns were a terrible idea that would leave us all paying the bill for a decade. They weren’t all hankering for more restrictions and judging people for having a cup of coffee with a friend.
So just for kicks, I shall write down all the things I think will happen in the next five years, so that I can feel either slightly foolish, or since I have evidence of my thoughts at the time, very smug. Unfortunately, I am a pessimist, so being right would mean regret at not seizing all the fun I could before the world came crashing down. At any rate, the chances are high that I’ll be mostly wrong, so I’ll mostly just feel a bit dumb.
Politically, I think China will remain as it is, with no big regime change. Some sort of scientific consensus will be unearthed about COVID that make an elegant climbdown from zero COVID possible. Tensions with Western nations will continue for a few years, and gradually peter out again. What could change this is competition for lithium or other components required for various tech products.
The war in Ukraine seems unsustainable. I think it will nonetheless rumble on in some form, perhaps confined to eastern Ukraine, where Russia probably will succeed in some gains at least equating to their 2014 land grab, plus Crimea, which clearly they will not give up. They will not deploy nuclear weapons, but the need for deterrent defences will boost the nuclear defence industry in most countries. Russia’s support for Iran is far more dangerous to the world. That is a regime with little to lose and many avenues they may choose to go down to deflect their population’s attention from their own iniquity. I can only hope that the intelligence services know what they’re doing. An Iranian strike on Israel would be an interesting World War 3 scenario. It’s quite possible in such a poor command structure for a missile to be set off in a mistake or misunderstanding.
Corporate fraud and failure is a big worry. People talk currently about Theranos and FTX, but the more forgivable feature of both those companies was the element of novelty in the products they were selling, which explains the higher level of risk investors were willing to take, albeit not the apparent lack of due diligence in working out either where the money was kept, or whether the product worked. Wirecard however was claiming to provide exactly the same payment services as already existed, but somehow making far more money from the same thing. The fact that people wilfully chose to believe this was possible is a bit worrying.
The increasing underwriting of private sector risks by Western governments is not going to be easy to sustain in the long term. State revenues will carry on declining as business activity is outsourced to China. The lack of suitable infrastructure in India for large scale manufacturing is disappointing, but perhaps their focus on the IT services sector will pay off as automation increases. If they can gain the edge in programming, China’s advantage in manufacturing may be less pronounced. Then again India may simply choose to export its IP for China to use in setting up the required physical infrastructure. I don’t really know enough about exactly what is already automated and how the production of electric cars will play out.
The biggest problem richer countries in Europe will face is the huge scale of population migration from countries damaged by resource scarcity, either as a result of climate change, war or corruption. The US will probably also carry on seeing a lot of migration from South America. I don’t really know whether Western populations will carry on declining. People seem to forget that a declining population is only possible in a stable society, as the natural course of events is only prevented by the availability of contraception. All conversations about demographics assume stability, and even when they do talk about disruption through war, they generally say that this would also decrease people’s willingness to have children – yes, I’ve no doubt that nobody actually wants to have a baby in a war, but we forget we are not entirely masters of our bodies.
I don’t know what technology will do for us, how it will bring positive change. Surely it will transform transport most substantially. Electric scooters will become legal soon, people will stop using their cars for journeys under three miles. Self driving cars will change the lives of older people in particular and maybe alleviate some of the pressure on the care sector. If your aging parent can still reach you with ease, the day of needing a care home is a little further off. Hopefully a cure or some sort of panacea for dementia will be found soon. Last-mile delivery logistics will all be done by drones or pavement robots, which does make me wonder what happens to those Mcjobs; perhaps they can all do maintenance work on the machines. I don’t worry about AI, because it is a meaningless term. People label very basic computing functions as AI, and will continue to do so. On the positive side, hopefully human assistance robots will become a thing and can help those who are less able; on the negative side, it is hard to see what the economy will look like in a world where the only jobs that are still required are programming, mining, transport and mechanical maintenance – and all of the latter three will be driven by the former. It will be 20 years before programming jobs themselves start to suffer from any sort of AI ability to adjust its own code, and that is a conscious choice to make.
We will solve the energy crisis, hopefully in the medium term with nuclear, and longer term with fusion and hydrogen power sources. I’m constantly surprised at how little progress fully renewable energy sources seem to have made in decades. Food security will become a much bigger issue, and in theory farming should be a big area of government investment in the UK. Eliza Manningham Buller ‘s statement the other day was disconcerting. We have only 50% domestic food production and rely on imports for the rest. In reality I think politicians seem to have lost the ability to retain the electorate’s confidence in explaining complex tradeoffs, and so no government will address these long term issues in enough depth. Land is in such short supply, but we do benefit from seemingly more benevolent effects of climate change, which could actually increase yield. Meat consumption will continue to decline with private sector investment in various alternative sources of protein. Advances in various technologies based on rhizomes will help. This should alleviate some of the pressure on overall energy intensity of the sector.
I worry a little about how my children will perceive the world, about how they will learn about history. It feels like their lives will be a great deal like Neuromancer, lived entirely online and choosing from a huge range of body modifications. Bodies will be a form of self expression. Like most brilliant sci-fi, it manages to have a reasonably accurate view of some aspects of the future, whilst hilariously also depicting people reading newspapers and using phone boxes. I wonder which developments I am similarly missing.
I can’t really imagine marriage still being a thing in 20 years, but that’s what people also thought 30 years ago. Maybe its definition will change, like having a practical partner for the purposes of housing and children, but not necessarily an expectation of exclusive emotional attachment. My children will keep assuming I know nothing of the world, as I did with my own parents, but of course I believe it is them that know much less than they think they do. People born in 1977 spent their formative years with no technology at all, and their entire adult lives with an exponentially increasing range of tech solutions, whereas my own parents were too old for the pace of change by the time it arrived. Changes will be much slower now than they were in the 90s, when the internet first arrived.
Barring World War 3, I guess I am actually optimistic that it is all solvable, if we can fix environmental destruction first. I feel more optimistic than this guy. If we could just switch off Twitter, that’d probably help humanity.