Monday, April 12, 2010

The World in 2200: Part Two

In my last installment of this brief series, I attempted to identify some driving trends that could exert significant influence over our next two centuries. (Full disclosure: I somewhat arbitrarily picked that amount of time.) In this post, I will attempt to outline some representative events you could expect to observe if I am correct. These specific events are highly unlikely to happen, of course, but the point of the exercise is not to make a prediction, but to model what the rough shape of our future might be.

1) The great Indo-Chinese war:

Every prognosticator likes to line up two combatants for a big battle over the future. If you forced me to pick my two adversaries, this is where I would look, though I wouldn't expect it all that soon. As I mentioned in my last, China doesn't quite fit into either the rich/old/materialist or the poor/young/spiritual camp. I believe, in the words of Mark Steyn, that China will get old before it gets rich. Its government trades authoritarian control for a rising standard of living, and as they catch up with the West on the one hand, while trying to support a more geriatric population on the other, their economy will slow. This will put pressure on the government and make it more belligerent. India, meanwhile, has the potential to be more vital due to its growing population and open political system. It will also likely be allied to some degree with the US, making it feel secure. As it grows powerful and affluent, it may become economically dominant in areas China once controlled. The competing spheres of influence may force war, although it will probably bear little resemblance to the battles of the 20th century, as robotics and digital warfare will play a major roll. In general, any young, growing nation that can organize its economy to allow growth will clash with the entrenched interests of the old, rich nations trying to hold on to their inherited advantages.

2) Extreme political affiliation:

We might feel like we're already there, but I assure you that politics could get a lot uglier. As the Internet allows each individual to choose the information that most conforms to their view of the world, it becomes ever easier to avoid reading or hearing anything that contradicts your opinion. Eventually, this will lead to such a radical divergence of opinion that some groups will find it impossible to live with another. A trend that will start as families moving to more agreeable towns will accelerate so that colonies (whether under the oceans or off the planet) will be founded for like-minded people, and powerful nations will be under strain to break up as those with wildly divergent viewpoints cluster together and reject the compromises of diverse democracies.

3) The new energy

In my last post, I speculate that we will hit the limits of 'convenience-focused innovation', or products and services that are targeted at individual welfare and happiness. To expand on the thought, I think we will hit a natural limit of how much further we can innovate without a fundamental transformation in the power that drives all our stuff, and how we transmit and store it. First, the major advances of the future will probably require exponentially more energy than the incremental advances of our current technology base (which I would define as being based on the microchip and the internal combustion engine.) When we develop a power source (I still think fusion makes the most sense, but we've been working on that for a long time with no great results) that can generate much more energy (and, secondarily, better battery technology that can store that energy better and deploy it in a wide range of stuff), new vistas of innovation will open. But until that happens, we will start to see diminishing returns as more and more expensive innovations deliver more and more marginal improvements in our quality of life.

4) We will negotiate with terrorists

Terrorism stinks as a strategy against an enemy in about the same circumstances as you: you are losing your most dedicated soldiers and inflamming your opponent with your cruelty. And it doesn't make much sense against a ruthless enemy, because the amoral response to terrorism is to wipe out the people that are supporting and supplying the terrorism. But it is great as a strategy against a much richer and more powerful enemy with a lot to lose, if your goal is to get marginal concessions. In a way, the model isn't Islamic terrorism, it is the Irish terrorism of the 1970's and 1980's. Your goal can't be to destroy your enemy, but get them to give you something you value much more than them. And then have a 'terrorist' wing distinct from a 'political' wing. Ideally, you ensure there is no obvious connection between the two, so the enemy can negotiate with the political wing without giving the impression that they are responding to the terrorism. As the western nations grow old, they will be ripe targets for this type of approach, as they will be living off the accumulated wealth of the past and thus prefer a slightly dishonorable peace to seeing their (relatively few) children sent off to fight. The only problem is that their enemies will keep nibbling, with each outbreak of terrorism getting slightly bigger concessions. The balancing act is to go far enough that the terrorism threatens to disrupt the enemy's happy life, but not so far that the people get outraged enough to fight back. Expect to see the strategies of terrorism refined over this century.

So, what might it be like to live in this world? I'll cover that in my final 2200 post later this week.

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