THE WORLD IN 2020
by Sam North
(Sam reports on the World in 2020 Series - London Seminar)
There are many issues to be discussed in contemplating the world in the
year 2020 but judging from the attendees at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in
Londons South Bank on October 3rd, few of those who turned up were
Alright, I might be biased, I was one of the few who actually paid to
attend. I know this because the line for press tickets and
freebies was a mile long. Basing it on that, then naturally boring them
all to death with a two hour display of Internet hawkers in the lobby
was a mistake. Another mistake was piling everyone into the hall at 7pm
and telling the speakers (all interesting people with a lot to say about
the future that they had ten minutes each to tell all). Perhaps the organizers
had a train to catch, certainly the people who came for free had. They
began running for the exit as the first speaker began and by the time
the last of the three speakers had gotten through their ten minutes there
was a stampede for the exit. Literally half the audience left before the
debate began and all through it, people left, hardly any had any questions
and essentially, what could have been a really interesting evening turned
into a rout and nothing was achieved. Perhaps an American audience is
more interested in the future than a British one? Perhaps that is why
we are falling behind the rest of Europe in Web development? Indifference
can kill an economy. Perhaps the UK press and media are only interested
in property prices and mortgages. The future will take care of itself.
Who was there?
Dan Farber of ZDNet the sponsor hosted the road show. He talked about
this being a forum scientists and business minds to meet. Well next time
limit it to those who pay and perhaps some useful discussion will emerge.
Hire a hall suitable for the ten or so who are keen to part with $38 bucks
and lets get down to it. Also showcasing their ideas were Dr Gabrielle
Walker PhD who is the Features Editor of the New Scientist, Peter Cochrane
who somehow has started with the GPO (Post Office) and has slowly risen
to hold the Collier Chair for the Public Understanding of Science and
Technology at the University of Bristol as well as holding many Honorary
Doctorates. Lastly there was the American author David Bodanis, author
of E+mc2. A futurist and mini-scenario developer for companies
like General Motors.
So what was discussed?
Gabrielle Walker believes that the future will still contain jet travel
and tourism, that women, like here will only ever have one outfit an electronic
wrap that will assume the shape of a business suit, bikini, whatever you
want. (She did not mention whether the electric field generated around
your body would be good or bad for you.
Peter Cochrane believes that major companies will migrate to wherever
the tax regime is least aggressive. That job security will cease to exist.
That technology will come down to a home server that will operate everything
in your home and your life, manage your tax affairs, and a telecom mobile
that will as the phone does now, but act as a prompt for all your activities.
It will be your office and you will be able to access any software, do
business anywhere using it. He also believes that AI will be the biggest
change, that at some point, very soon, artificial intelligence will appear
spontaneously and it will not a: regard us with any respect :b: may not
be interested in Asimovs Laws of Robotics.
David Bodanis seemed to be more interested in the laws of Christianity
than a technological future. He questions whether the future will be so
technology driven and whether the age-old problems of man,
religion, faith, and morality will loom larger.
Indeed, in the few questions that arose, morality was a key query. In
a time of genetically modified crops and babies, how far down the road
do we go before we realize that we have created multiple problems for
Sadly the question and answer period was brief, marred by the onrush of
people fleeing the hall.
So was anything achieved? Perhaps the greatest impact was made by Business
2.0 and Red Herring Magazines, given away to the conference delegates.
Not only is the content of these magazines more focused on future than
the conference, but also they address the now and signpost a pretty immediate
future, one we can almost touch.
Examining and postulating about 2020, we are not just guessing, extrapolating
what we know now, but the further away we have to guess, the more likely
we shall get it all wrong. William Gibson correctly identified a future
virtual world and gave us the language to recognize it, but even ten years
ago who called it right about the massive penetration of mobile phones
into European life? Finland has 100 percent of its population hooked up
to a mobile phone. The UK has sixty percent of the population hooked up,
but almost 100 percent of the all important and spending 15-35 age group.
Being mobile not only speeds life up, but also it removes the fixed point.
I am not sure how youd care to define freedom in the
West, but in retrospect, I believe that being mobile is the greatest advantage
in individual freedom since the car and a lot more accessible.
We must now think, as Peter Cochrane suggested going beyond this and imagining
a world where nothing is fixed. Relationships, companies, homes, kids.
We may not realize this, but we are in the process of unraveling the very
foundations of Western civilization. Along with this notion came the other
idea from the 2020 Series, the idea that privacy is gone forever.
We know people can listen in, that is not the point. Privacy has only
been a historical blip. Prior to the 19th century private home explosion,
privacy at work, in the home or in your love life was just near impossible.
Read any 18th century French novel, or study rooming and eating arrangements
on the 14th century or 9th century and you will realize that everyone
knew everyones business and what they didnt know they made
up. We are returning to that world. *Take a city like Cadiz in Spain,
or Seville. Tight medieval walled communities, very narrow streets, raise
your voice at home or in the office here and you can be heard anywhere.
Privacy in Cadiz isn't even a notion now, let alone in the future.
Right now software will record your every keystroke at work and cameras
follow you at work, on the street, webcams can watch you having sex (should
you be interested in that kind of thing). Orwell dreamt of a paranoid
world of 'Big Government' evil. Little did he realize that we have invited
this into our lives. And as privacy disappears, so too has trust and loyalty.
The world of 2020 will be highly dysfunctional by our standards now; they
will probably use predictive software to read your mind. (Something that
Philip k Dick predicted way back in 59).
In a society that only has casual relationships with partners, the kids
that accidentally spring from the union, temporary links with companies
that use you and lose you, the finance companies will have to reinvent
themselves so that, like South Africa, the mortgage stays with the house,
not the buyer. If you can afford to take on the bond, fine, but when you
move on, the house stays put. It will be better than renting, but my guess
is that the world of 2020 will favor a renters world and few people will
have stable lives enough to pay mortgages. This may be a harsh world,
but maybe not. Freed from 25 years of financial planning, the young of
2020 will know that they have marketable skills they can take wherever
and as long as you have something to offer, some software will do the
paperwork. It's the rest who will have problems and no one is talking
about them. Unskilled? Too old to train at 40? Perhaps mercenary
will be attractive. Or community work? Either way, you will have to work
for your dole. That future is certain anyway you slice it.
It is a pity that the 2020 Conference was so packaged and intellect
lite. Some meaningful discussion could have come about with a smaller,
paying audience; but one wonders about the British media representatives.
If they dont have the patience to discuss the future, will it all
catch them off guard?
© Sam North. 2000
For an update on the next meeting:
< Back to Index
< About the Author
< Reply to this Article