What’s Next Issue 25

The new issue of my What’s Next trends report has just gone up. Check it out at http://www.nowandnext.com/?action=sector/view

Or, if you don’t have the time, here’s a few of the stories…

Boom time for doom and gloom

According to Hollywood it’s the end of the world and it’s our fault. The film of Cormac McCarthy’s book, The Road, is ample evidence of the misanthropic loathing of human achievement. It is, we are told, a tale of environmental destruction. Avatar, the biggest grossing movie of all time, is similarly about the evils of the human species. Avatar took 140 million globally at the box office in just three days. We are, it seems, engrossed with films about the end of the world as we know it. As the Economist magazine recently pointed out: ‘In the rich world the idea of progress has become impoverished. The popular view is that, although technology and GDP advance, morals and society are treading water or, depending on your choice of newspaper, sinking back into decadence and barbarism.’

So, is it really the end of days? Don’t be ridiculous. First of all, apocalyptic predictions are nothing new. Recent outbreaks of panic have included Y2K, which was going to send us back to the dark ages unless we spent money like there was no tomorrow. We’ve also had (or didn’t) BSE, SARS, DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis) on long-haul flights and Avian Flu, none of which caused anything like the amount of death and destruction many feared.

Global warming is a current concern, although even this fear has been supplanted by global cooling in some quarters. Going a further back we’ve had the Cuban Missile Crisis (1960) and Mutually Assured Destruction (the 1960s and early 1970s). Going further back in time, Honor de Balzac said in the late 19th century: ‘I expect a catastrophe. I really believe in the end of everything’; to which one could add Mohammed’s declaration in 7th Century Arabia that the Last Judgement was nigh. Zoroaster (1,300BC) similarly predicted that The End was around the next corner and Daniel and Revelations declared that all hell was about to break loose. Only it didn’t. What every single one of these predictions has in common is that they were all partially or completely wrong.

We’ve had our ups and downs of course (the Black Death, a couple of World Wars and so on) but we are still here. Life goes on. Moreover, some of these apocalyptic scenarios end rather well. The Book of Daniel ends with the Kingdom of God and The Book of Revelations ends with the Heavenly City. God is in control.

Maybe that’s what’s different now. As the writer Daniel Kalder points out, there is ‘no redemptive framework — no sacred texts’ for many of us nowadays. Hence, the pessimism. Contemporary apocalyptic forecasts are also based upon ‘evidence’ and, while this can be flaky, government policy is influenced and such predictions become a self-actualising reality.

Interestingly, the word ‘apocalypse’ doesn’t mean what we generally think it does. The word derives from the Greek meaning to uncover or reveal, which brings me back to Cormac McCarthy’s book.

I’ve haven’t seen the film yet, but the book it’s based on is a deeply dark and depressing tale. But its ending is, to me at least, upbeat. It is a book about the struggle for survival in a hostile and alien environment, but it is also about a human journey, one where hope, decency and love triumph over evil and despair. It is, in a way, a love story about a father and a child in which the child’s natural naivety and optimism shine through. ‘Are we still the good guys?’ he asks his father at one point. The answer is ‘yes’ and the young child’s empathy and concern for others overrides all else.

But why are these tales of doom and gloom so popular right now? The answer is events. 9/11 was caused by a group that, while not seeking the end of the world per se, did want to destroy a part of it. Recent wild weather and the GFC have also made us rather jittery. According to Dr Richard Landes, an apocalypse expert at Boston University: ‘Our love for the apocalypse is connected with our own sense of our own importance — it appeals to our megalomania.’

Doom and gloom is something we tend to think about when there are not enough real threats present. Landes also makes the point that the West is naturally an apocalyptic culture ever since the days of the Victorian missionaries. Landes goes on, ‘If it [the apocalypse] seems more intense now it’s because modern society is built on the idea of constant change, and so we need to constantly think about the future.’ I think this is true, but I’d add that the level of change is now relentless and we feel that we can’t cope. Furthermore, our faith in familiar frameworks (the church, government, the police, scientists etc) has started to crumble due to other events ranging from Enron and Weapons of Mass Destruction to the recent Climate Change email debacle.

So relax. The fact of the matter is that some issues we worry about (eg, volcanos) do not have a human cause and probably don’t have a human solution. We will have to adapt that’s all. It’s not the end of the world and even if it were, there wouldn’t be anything we could do about it. So we might as well have a nice doomsday.

Rise of the BRICs

If you are trying to explain the future, nothing quite beats an acronym. The acronym BRICs was coined by Jim O’Neil, Chief Economist of Goldman Sachs in London, in a briefing paper issued on 30 November 2001. The briefing (Building Better Economic BRICs) described how four nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), chosen on the basis of population, economic development and attitudes towards globalisation, were reshaping the world in terms of economic power. The briefing note also boldly predicted that by the year 2041 (then revised to 2039) these nations would eclipse the six largest Western nations in terms of economic output. In other words, Russia, Brazil, India and China would soon reshape the world, not only in terms of money but also in terms of influence and ideas.

Critics immediately dismissed the BRIC concept as self-interested Goldman Sachs spin, especially because their figures were based upon a linear extrapolation way out to 2050 and because China had by far the strongest economy. Some critics even tried to respond with acronyms of their own. As a result we saw BRIMCK (adding Mexico), ALBRIMCKS (adding the Arab Region and South Africa), CHIME (China, India, Middle East) and even the CEMENT bloc (Countries Excluded from the Emerging New Terminology). Even Goldman Sachs had a go themselves coining a new acronym, N11, to describe the Next 11 countries (Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam).

However, despite the cynicism, nobody to date has managed to shoot the BRIC tag down. In fact, following the recent GFC, the concept seems stronger than ever. Asian power is still rising and, with the exception of Russia, all of the BRIC nations have emerged from the GFC stronger than their Western counterparts. Goldman now predicts that China will eclipse the US economically by 2027 and that the BRIC bloc will overtake the six leading Western nations by 2031 — ten years sooner than originally predicted.

So where do things stand currently? Globalisation is continuing and Asia (or at least parts of the non-Western world) seems to becoming more powerful. As a result, US and Western values are being challenged like never before. This includes not only Western-inspired global institutions, but also Western belief systems. Moreover, the BRIC concept isn’t a purely intellectual exercise. The BRIC lens is now being used by executives to discuss strategy and a new generation of investment bankers and government policy-makers are using the tag to view future opportunities and threats. For example, if China becomes the world’s leading car market (which it just has) this his implications for demand for Brazilian copper. Thus asset prices can be adjusted. Goldman’s estimate that by 2030 there will be 2 billion new middle-class consumers living on the planet also has dramatic implications for other resources ranging from oil and gas to water and lithium.

So will the BRICs keep growing or could some cracks start to appear in the bloc? Personally I think the most likely outcome is exactly what Goldman says it is. However, I also believe that the bloc is a disparate group and that one or more of the nations could fall over or turn inwards economically. China arguably has a real estate bubble in the making, its financial system is suspect and the imbalance of young males in its population could cause trouble if growth slows and unemployment starts to rise. Russia is a tinderbox politically and Brazil’s prospects seem to rise and fall all the time. Which leaves India. But don’t forget about the likes of the US. The US is probably more resilient than most people realise and even Japan is a case study in ebb and flow and how economic might doesn’t always translate into global muscle.

Scientific Prediction

In the early 1960s, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke formulated three ‘laws’ for prediction, the first of which was that: ‘When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong’. How true. Scientists, like futurists, have a rather checkered history when it comes to prediction. Notable failures include Malthus’s prophecy that overpopulation would lead to the starvation of vast swathes of people (he was right with his population forecasts but got scientific developments around agriculture totally wrong). A few hundred years later, the ecologist Paul Ehrlich got it wrong again by saying: ‘In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death’. We’ve also been over-sold about nuclear annihilation, global pandemics, Y2K and perhaps AIDS (although not in parts of Asia or Africa). So why is it that scientific prediction is so inaccurate? One answer is that predicting anything, especially anything set in the distant future, is damn hard. Unexpected inventions, discoveries and events keep tripping things up. Nevertheless, you’d think that scientists, of all people, might be better at it than most. Sadly not.

Scientists are under pressure from government and media alike to make simplistic statements that can be consequently taken out of context. Moreover, the way that science funding works means that scientists are under pressure to make promises, especially promises that link to economic benefit. No promises, no funding. And this, in a nutshell, is the problem. Making predictions in private is one thing but the moment predictions enter public consciousness they start to influence real world research and policy.

Moreover, predictions invite reaction that runs counter to the reflective deliberation and logic of science. In one way, you can argue that none of this is science’s fault. However, when scientists make predictions that are proven to be way off the mark, the public becomes cynical about science in general and tends to lose interest in future predictions. A good example might be Martin Rees, the President of the Royal Society in the UK. In his book Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning, Rees claims (predicts) that ‘the odds are no better than 50% that are present civilization on Earth will survive the end of the present century’. Big prediction. It is also, to a large extent, a prediction that falls outside his area of expertise (astronomy) and while he claims that this is his personal view (not that of the Royal Society) the connection is already made by many people.

The Future of Photography

When people think about the future of photography it is usually in terms of digitalisation. But there is another, connected, aspect that needs to be considered. In Britain, the most spied-on nation on earth, (current CCTV count circa 4.2 million cameras and rising) it is becoming increasingly difficult for members of the public to freely take photographs in public spaces. In some instances it is actually illegal, thanks in part to the Terrorism Act of 2000, section 44. The Act states that the police have the power to stop and search anyone attempting to photograph certain ‘designated areas’. What are these designated areas? Well that’s the clever bit, the government won’t tell you. Suffice to say that large areas of central London, including all major railway stations, are now off limits. And that’s not all. Photographing children is also becoming difficult, even when the children belong to the person taking the photograph. For example, most schools will now ask you to seek permission before using a camera on school property, while some nursery schools will ask all parents to sign a release form before anyone can photograph their child at any kind of school event. If one parent refuses to sign nobody is allowed to take photographs. Similar restrictions are in place in public swimming pools, shopping malls and parks.

Are we losing sight of common sense here? The first law is designed to deal with terrorism but it is being interpreted so widely that we are in danger of destroying personal memory and public history. Indeed, many of the greatest reportage and street photographs would not be possible nowadays and we risk destroying family photograph albums as well. As for taking photographs in other public places, the issue is related to local council overreaction to the threat of paedophilia and the emerging view that anyone with a digital camera is up to no good. This is partly due to the ease with which images can now be circulated and partly due to the fact that taking photographs no longer involves the informal policing that went along with getting your pictures developed at the local chemist.

But the key point is that little, if any, of this has anything to do with photography. What is developing is a change in the way that individuals relate to one another. We are increasingly losing the ability to negotiate with strangers and this is breeding a society that is becoming paranoid. Moreover, it is indicative of how the state views its citizens. Governments are hiding behind a precautionary principle while pushing for greater legal control. And don’t expect the law to help ordinary citizens anytime soon either. Celebrities are pushing for laws that allow them to hide behind privacy arguments when it suits them but they court the full force of the paparazzi when it doesn’t.

Explaining Susan Boyle

If a futurist had looked into a crystal ball in the year 1979 and predicted that by 2010 the biggest selling pop star in the world would be a middle-aged Scottish spinster singing cover songs, notably show tunes, nobody would have taken much notice. However, Susan Boyle (SuBo) is now one of the biggest selling acts of all time.Her album entered the UK charts at number one and became the biggest selling UK album of 2009. It was also the best selling album ever on Amazon.com in terms of pre-sales, although only 6% of her album sales were downloads. Why?

The reason for SuBo’s success is a tale of our times. She is, as one writer put it recently, ‘the show business personification of Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope and her success is the confluence of a number of media and technology trends. The first trend is the amateur as TV star. Reality has colonised mainstream TV. The second trend is the democratisation of media through the internet. Boyle’s audition on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent in April 2009 was seen more than 310 million times on YouTube and other websites.

The third trend (more of an anti-elitist idea really) is that everyone has an innate talent. But even this list of trends doesn’t quite explain her, certainly not if you’ve listened to the album, which, if it were a colour, would be beige. No. The main reason for Susan Boyle’s meteoric rise is the disconnect between her appearance and her voice. She is the real deal in the sense that she is indeed totally authentic. Her voice is polished but everything else is raw. Moreover, she appeals to an ageing society largely left out in the cold by a youth-obsessed music industry (hence her lack of album downloads). But she is a cultural dead end. She is a one-off but she doesn’t do anything original. As Neil McCormick, writing recently in the Telegraph newspaper put it: ‘Boyle is a thoroughly modern diva, an icon of utter irrelevance’.

New climate of opinion

Some doom merchants would have us all believe that oil is about to run out. They quote frightening statistics such as the one from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that we use 85 million barrels of oil every single day — forecast to be 105 million barrels per day by 2030. Or predictions from the IEA that ‘the output of conventional oil will peak in 2020 if oil demand grows on a business-as-usual basis’. But, as always, there are two sides to every story.

The oil is indeed running out. Some people forecast that peak oil would occur around 2030, others say earlier. However, it all depends on what you mean by ‘oil’ (note the word ‘conventional’ contained within the IEA forecast). My own view is that we are indeed getting very close to peak ‘easy to find’ or peak conventional oil. Demand will almost certainly increase substantially in the years ahead (largely due to rising Asian demand) and there will be an increasingly urgent debate about what will happen next. For example, can the world’s transport and manufacturing system be run using biofuels, hydrogen or energy efficiency machines? The answer is that we don’t know although energy efficiency alone could make a substantial difference. I think it is also fair to say that while renewable sources may make a substantial difference eventually, this is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. So what’s the solution?

The best solution is non-conventional oil. According to the IEA, if you add the amount of non-conventional oil (eg, tar sands, shale oils etc) to conventional supplies the remaining reserves amount to some 9 trillion barrels. That’s nine times the amount the whole of humanity has consumed so far, which is a lot of oil. Canada, for instance, has shale oil reserves second only in size to Saudi Arabia’s crude oil reserves. Of course there are problems. Non-conventional oil is difficult to get at — that’s why it’s still there. It consumes large amounts of energy, water and money to get out of the ground. But the rising price of oil might actually help. According to an energy research firm, Cambridge Energy Associates, higher oil prices will lead to more discoveries both of conventional and non-conventional oil. Thus, a likely scenario is rising but stable prices and a demand curve that undulates along a plateau rather than reaching a steep peak. Moreover, the higher the oil price goes the more incentive there will be to use it wisely and to invent alternatives.

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2 Responses to What’s Next Issue 25

  1. Max Kaehn says:

    What would be interesting is to graph the frequency of near-disasters and look at whether we’re increasing them through global interconnectedness for instance, pandemics wouldn’t be as disastrous if we didn’t spread diseases through air travel, and we wouldn’t have as many spills from oil wells and coal ash ponds if we didn’t use so many fossil fuels. A number of these disasters are ones we’ve managed to take action to mitigate; are we dancing on the edge of a precipice, or does our system have more resiliency than we think? Personally, I’m with Jamais Cascio: we should be engineering more resiliency into the infrastructure of our society.

    Most people who look fondly on the past don’t remember it that well.

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