Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The World in 2200: Part One

I had a thought, on my long and lovely vacation to Ireland, staring at ruins of churches and castles that had been dotting the countryside for hundreds of years, that it might be fun to do a little speculating about our somewhat distant future.

Now, I'm not going to try to make any hard and fast predictions about specific events that will happen, but I thought I could do a brief series that would outline where I think we're going and what it might mean for what it means to be a human being in about 2200. I intend to write three parts: in this first one, I'll identify five drivers that I think will be major shapers of the future. In the second, I'll point out some of the types of things that will happen if my drivers end up being as influential as I think they'll be. And in the third, I'll compose a brief sketch of how a citizen of this 2200 world might perceive his civilization.

To get to it, here are five driving forces I think will profoundly shape our world over the next 190-or-so years:

1) Divergent Demographics

Over the next century, we will see a number of nations (specifically in Western Europe and Japan) continue to accumulate wealth while having fewer and fewer children. These nations will become old, rich, and materialistic. At the same time, there will be a number of nations in the traditional third world that will be young, poor, and spiritual. Will the old nations fight to maintain their dominance over economics and culture? Or will they gracefully hand the world over to the nations with youthful energy? The two exceptions to this trend are, on the one hand, the USA, which will stay rich while remaining relatively young and spiritual, and China, which will rapidly age as a result of its one child policy while the vast majority of its population is still poor.

2) The Limits of Convenience

In the past few decades, wealthy nations have increasingly put their capital and top minds to work on creating products and services that make life more convenient and fun for individuals, rather than investing in exploration, infrastructure, or elite culture (which were traditionally the larger areas of investment). For many decades, science and business will continue to find ways to improve the individuals well-being (think genetic engineering), but this drive to make life more comfortable and pleasurable will generate diminishing returns. There will be a backlash as people demand their lives have more meaning, and a renewed desire among our entrepreneurial elite to make "giant leaps for all mankind."

3) Communities of Choice

The Internet has given us a peak of what happens when we can choose exactly where to get our information. In the next two centuries, we'll be increasingly free to choose every aspect of our environment. I predict in the relatively near future the upper and even middle classes will increasingly country-shop for a nation or community that fits them, and opinions and beliefs will polarize as we increasingly only see and hear what we are predisposed to like. Further out, the desire to live life 'just so' will lead to Pilgrim-style space colonization. Mars won't be settled by a country, it will be settled by religious our scientific dissidents who want to remove themselves from the dominant culture of their day.

4) Techno-Warfare

As societies become more networked and more dependent upon computers (and eventually robots) to make day-to-day life work, they will be increasingly vulnerable to interruptions to their networks and computerized infrastructure. Massive attacks on the technological underpinnings of a nation will serve the role of saturation bombing in World War II: an attempt to sap an enemy's will and ability to fight. Only in this case, an increasing squeamishness about taking life (especially in low-birthrate nations) will mean this form of warfare exists somewhat independently of bullets and bombs. Victory truly may not require a shot.

5) Terrorism as Leveler

Of course, the above only applies if you fall into the old, rich and materialistic side of the demographic divide outlined in item one. If you are a younger, poorer and more spiritual nation (or ideological organization, as you might see form based on item three), a loss of life may be more than justifiable. Expect terrorism to evolve from a dramatic act with limited political payoff to a dramatic, focused activity directly linked to achievable political goals. In other words, we can expect a war to be won with terrorism as a primary weapon. The 'old' nations will negotiate with terrorists as a means to preserve their comfortable lives before they fade into history.

All of these trends are visible in nascent form today, but I think we can expect them to accelerate and mix in the coming decades. What that may look like is the subject of Part Two.

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