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Imagining The World In 2020 from the Year 2000
• by Sam North
(Reporting 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 London’s South Bank on October 3rd 2000, few of those who turned up were interested.

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 just 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 kept leaving, 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 her 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 Asimov’s Law’s 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 ourselves?

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 you’d 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 everyone’s business and what they didn’t 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 don’t have the patience to discuss the future, will it all catch them off guard?

© Sam North. 2000

Editor at
author of Magenta

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