Alternative Worlds

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Here’s some interesting reading.  The US National Intelligence Council has released its Global Trends 2030 report, which you can get as a free pdf download here (the pdf via link is the one you want).  It’s a chunky document – 160 odd pages – but full of interesting odds and ends to feed the imagination.

To be honest, it’s full of not especially interesting qualifications and statements of the fairly obvious, too, but that’s because 2030 isn’t actually all that far away so to a certain extent they’re predicting the continuation of trends that are already well underway. Still, it’s interesting to see someone trying to pull everything together and reach some sort of consensus on what the big shapers of the short-term future are going to be (clue: the word ‘China’ crops up a lot).

There’s so much stuff that I could pick out for mulling over that it’s far too much for one post, so we’ll call this Part 1 and see if I ever get round to coming up with a Part 2 or more.  Maybe I will, maybe I won’t

So, to start with:

There’s a good deal of talk about the potential effects of NEW TECHNOLOGIES in various fields. The track record of anyone predicting with any real accuracy the exact nature and – even more so – the social and cultural effects of new technologies, even on a relatively short timespan, is not great, so all this kind of stuff is really just thought experiment.

But the thing I thought most interesting is a (slightly subtextual) theme running through some of those discussions in the report: that developing countries might well stand to benefit more than developed countries from even quite dramatic technological innovations (like 3D printing, for example). Although the initial benefits are in the places rich enough to be early adopters, the real game-changing transformation (with truly global effects) wrought by these technologies might be elsewhere, slightly later.  I think there’s already an example of this kind of thing: mobile phones have had a huge impact in the rich world, but in truth I think that impact is rather superficial and incremental; whereas in Africa it might be genuinely transformational of society and economy.  And if you transform Africa’s society and economy, you inevitably get globally transformational results.

The exception to that thing about new techonologies is shale gas extraction, combined with improved ability to access tricky-to-get-at oil, in the US.  I think many of us Brits aren’t fully aware of quite what a big deal this is in the States (maybe lots of Americans aren’t either?), although it’s starting over here too.  Anyway, I was struck but just how potentially pivotal a moment the authors of this report think it might have been when some bright spark said ‘Hmmm, I think I might have an idea how to get that gas out of there … let’s call it fracking.’

The flood of oil and gas that innovative production techniques has unleashed in the USA could have dramatic and far-reaching effects, according to this report, and other commentators.  Imagine the geopolitical ramifications of a world in which it’s not the US but China that relies on Middle Eastern oil; or the environmental and economic effects of plunging oil prices.  Incidentally, I get the impression that the folks behind this report think massive exploitation of the USA’s domestic energy reserves of this sort is pretty much the only plausible driving factor for continuing USA economic prosperity, expansion and dominance of the sort that characterised the second half of the 20th century; without it, they seem to be anticipating continuous and probably accelerating comparative US decline of the sort that’s arguably been underway for quite a few years now.

And one last sidenote on technology: there’s no talk in here at all, unless I missed it, of space technology or exploration.  No colonising missions to Mars, no asteroid mining, no transformational effects of Asian space programmes.  Which strikes me as a pretty accurate prediction.  Amazing how the optimism and ambition for space-related stuff of just a few decades back has been extinguished to the extent that it’s not worth even mentioning in the context of 2030.

The most fun bit of the report, especially for science fiction fans, is the bit where they talk about BLACK SWAN EVENTS that could throw everything up in the air at almost any point.  Although, to be honest, they’re a little bit predictable and unexciting as black swan events go.  Which suggests, if nothing else, that if such an event does show up, it’s as likely to be something they haven’t thought of … that being kind of the definition of a black swan event, really.

Global pandemic – yeah, don’t suppose anyone would leave that off such a list these days.  Nuclear war – sadly not something you could pretend isn’t possible, even if it’s unlikely to be a globally destructive one these days.  Solar geomagnetic storms – well, technically could happen, so fair enough to include it I guess (but no catastrophic asteroid strike?  Less likely, I know, but always fun – in the loosest sense of the word – to ponder).

And also not showing up in the list: NASA discovers life on another planet.  Which I guess wouldn’t have sufficiently massive impact or effects to qualify as a black swan of the sort they’re listing, but still: fits in with the pattern of space-stuff just ain’t that big a deal, even if it has profound scientific or philosophical implications.

Then you get to … faster climate change.  And oh, don’t get me started on the subject of climate change.  All I’ll say is: faster climate change is, I’d guess, an order of magnitude more likely than any other of the supposedly ‘black swan’ events listed in this report.  I don’t think it remotely qualifies as a black swan.  Indeed it’d be so unsurprising to me if it turned out to be the case that I’d call it a white swan with maybe just a hint of grey about a few of its feathers.

And that’s probably enough for now.  Plenty more to talk about (including the stuff that strikes me as the most potentially significant determiners of our 2030 future) if I ever do get around to Part 2 …


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