Beyond 2012: Reasons to Be Fearful – Or Not
2012 is shaping up to be a year of fear. To many people it feels more uncertain and dangerous than any before it.
Like many media gluttons, I have spent some time over the recent holidays reading reviews of 2011 in the print and online media. The great, the good and the wise have not been short on gloomy predictions for the year we’ve just entered.
I’m not great, good nor particularly wise. So I’m not about to bore you with a specific set of punts about the next twelve months. I’m much more interested in the continuum – about longer term trends, questions that need to be answered, issues that need to be resolved.
Most of us – especially those who have feel they have little ability to influence events and trends – look at the future through emotional lenses. We’re afraid, we’re angry, we’re happy, we’re sad, we’re confident or we just don’t care.
In this post I’ve provided a series of personal thoughts on aspects of our future that I care deeply about. Some reflect mainstream opinion among people who, like me, raised and educated in the West. Some don’t. There is no deep analysis here, but some of the subjects I have covered in greater depth in earlier posts. It’s a set of snapshots, if you like, of concerns and questions about where the road we’re currently travelling on is likely to take us. And in each area, I humbly offer a few reasons to be cautiously optimistic.
I’ve called this post “Reasons to be Fearful – Or Not”, because we can all find reasons to be afraid or to be confident. Fear and confidence are both individual and collective emotions. They are contagious and not necessarily rational and logical. We wake up with them one day, and without them the next. The interesting thing about our species is that emotions are herd instincts. Logic and rationality are not. Therein lies our problem, as Mr Spock would be quick to point out.
E-Books to replace paper books: a paper book is a thing of beauty and utility that can survive for centuries, and sometimes millennia. Do we really want to replace this elegant device with a set of ones and zeros that can vanish in an electromagnetic pulse? Do we want to restrict access to wisdom and knowledge to those who can afford a computer? Will those who don’t own a Kindle or an iPad have to rely on mediated knowledge because they cannot access the source? We are by no means at this point yet, but this is the road we appear to be travelling down.
IP theft of music, TV, film and image: There is hardly a work of music, a movie, TV programme or an image that can’t be grabbed and downloaded from the internet for free. When the majority of internet users come to believe that all content is free, will artists be left with only a short window of exclusivity in which to profit from their work? If so, who will invest in creative work? And will we be left with nothing but news, reality TV and low-budget soaps?
Fine art: decreasing public subsidies of painting and sculpture make it harder for artists to establish themselves. Are we moving back to an age when the only successful artists are those with wealthy patrons, each with their own agenda? And will governments that continue to subsidise art only do so in order to further and approved ideological agenda? Remember the suppression of “bourgeois” art under Stalin, and “degenerate” art under Hitler.
Do it yourself: it’s getting easier all the time to make a name for yourself through the internet without a commercial gatekeeper of dubious taste to tell you that your work won’t sell. You can self-publish a book without the prohibitive cost of an initial print run. You can sell your music directly through the internet. You can get a million hits on YouTube with your viral video. You might not make much money, but hey, whatever happened to art for art’s sake?
Who needs subsidies? If we need to move to the survival of the fittest as an alternative to mediocre art subsidised by professional arts administrators armed with government grants, so be it. We are only reverting to a state that existed for the entire history of humanity before the last century. Cave painters, Greek sculptors, Renaissance painters, Elizabethan playwrights and baroque composers did not have government grants or lottery funding to help them along. My one reservation would be that governments should continue to fund museums. They are repositories of human wisdom and creativity, and they are too important to be entrusted to philanthropists.
The human mind: the internet is moulding the attention span of the young. Short means simple, broad brush, easily digested. It can also mean unsubtle, ambiguous and untrue. Will the next generations be incapable of reading a book, or concentrating on anything – apart from a video game – for more than three minutes? Will they be easier to manipulate because they have never learned to see both sides of an argument?
Dumbing-down of language: we don’t write letters any more. We express our feelings through emoticons. We text and tweet. Are we starting to think in 140 characters? Are we losing the power of language to the fast food of slogans, clichés, acronyms and symbols?
Infrastructure degradation: as most of us in the western world become used to fiscal austerity, will we also become used to a creeping degradation of infrastructure – roads, buildings, social services, health care? Will the minimum level of “universally-available” infrastructure in the West eventually pass that of the developing world on the other side of the highway of progress? Are the Western nations reverting to two-tier societies, in which there is no baseline of expectations, no safety net, to which the state will commit, and in which survival and prosperity is entirely in the hands of individuals and the social tribes to which they belong?
Surveillance: Phone intercepts, CCTV, drones, social media, government databases. Is there any government – democratic or otherwise – that would not succumb to the temptation in extremis to use the vast amounts of digital data to erode the civil liberties of its citizens rather than to uphold the rule of law? Is not individual privacy at least as precious as national sovereignty?
Corruption: is both a source of and a response to inequality. It is everywhere in the world. As citizens lose confidence in the impartiality of declining, cash-strapped institutions, will corruption in the West become as pervasive as it is in other parts of the world?
Free speech: there is still a window of opportunity for people in countries that do not encourage free speech or free association to communicate via the social media. And by the time governments get round to routinely monitoring Facebook, Twitter, IM and so forth, some bright spark will have figured out a new avenue inaccessible to conventional power. For better or for worse.
Free movement: however oppressive a government, it’s harder than ever for them to stop their people travelling. Be it for business, tourism or education, people are having the opportunity to see “the other” for themselves rather than having to rely on orthodox opinion in their own societies.
Decline of liberal arts: as funding decreases for any learning other than that required to get people into work, and we focus on professional, technical and vocational education, will we miss our historians, anthropologists, philosophers and creative writers? Are we entering an era in which all education is tactical? In which the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is confined to a smattering of well-endowed institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge?
Anachronistic teaching: for a hundred years our educational models have been based on teacher and pupil, with rapidly expanding ratios between the two. In many parts of the world, learning is still primarily by rote. Has the classroom reached the end of its useful life? How many educational systems encourage learning by doing? Group work? And how many countries have alternative systems to help the underprivileged to find their own way out of the daily struggle for survival? Of what use is a university degree to a nomad or a subsistence farmer?
Elitism: as university fees increase, will the financial barriers to obtaining a top quality education lead to increasing inequality of opportunity? If young people no longer have easy ways to earn money in order to support their education, and parents no longer have the financial means to support their children, will we move backwards to an era in which the very best education is only available to the offspring of the rich and powerful? Or are we largely there already?
You can’t channel curiosity. Even if state education systems are crushing upholders of ancient orthodoxy, there is nothing to stop you from becoming an auto-didact. In fact, the internet is the surest path towards life-long learning, provided you use it as a signpost rather than a destination. You don’t need a university degree to change the world. And you never did!
Isolationism: with the crisis in the Eurozone and the financial downturn in the United States, are we moving towards a new age of aggressive self-protection, where nations and blocs of nations declare every man for himself? Will the US mount trade barriers against China? Will the US call a plague on all our houses and retract from its self-appointed role as the world’s policeman? Who will fill the power vacuum? Ron Paul probably has the answers to all these questions. Will his views become as acceptable to mainstream US public opinion as they appear to be to the voters of Iowa?
Extremism: extremism is on the rise. Not just religious extremism exemplified by the Taliban, the ultra–conservative fringe of the Jewish orthodox faith, elements of the religious right in the United States and Hindu nationalists in India, each of which are dictating political and social agendas out of proportion to the numbers of their adherents. Secular extremism of the far right, as exemplified by Anders Breivik in Norway, and ultra-nationalism of the kind being tapped by Vladimir Putin in Russia, are eroding civil liberties, either through the policies of authoritarian leaders or in response to perceived threats to society. Outlawed extremists punch beyond their weight because they no longer need the weapons of the state to pursue their ends. Asymmetric warfare, use of the internet and lack of regard for human life are all hard to combat. Will cyber-attacks join suicide bombing as a standard weapon against the “soft and decadent” democracies of the West?
Commodity wars: China controls 90% of the world’s identified reserves of rare earths – those metals increasingly used in computer and communications technology. Russia has more than once cut off its gas supply to neighbouring Ukraine. Iran has threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz in order to choke off the supply of oil and gas to the Gulf States’ customers in Europe and elsewhere. Commodity wars are nothing new, but at a time of global economic uncertainty they are a potent weapon, even if they turn out ultimately to be self-destructive. Will the next wars be about water, food and raw materials?
Secrets: thanks to the pervasiveness of the internet and mobile communications, it’s getting much harder for nasty dictators to hide their misdeeds. Whether or not they are called to account is another matter, but at least we know what we’re dealing with. What surprises me is that exposing corruption by the same techniques – video and phone technology – has not yet caught on among ordinary citizens. Government officials, watch out….
Time: the powerful eventually depart, whether by natural causes or otherwise. The more powerful they are, the greater the opportunity for positive change. The demise of Mao and Brezhnev kicked off big changes in China and Russia. What of North Korea after Kim Jong Il? Of Iran after Ali Khamenei? It doesn’t always take revolution or invasion for economic and social conditions to turn around, though change is a double-edged sword, as the people of Iraq and Afghanistan will testify.
Lack of predictability: Most businesses need clear visibility of at least the near future in order to thrive. Right now, who can predict beyond the next couple of months with any clarity? The Eurozone and Iran are perhaps the major question marks facing the world economy. Who would bet on other uncertainties raising their heads over the next couple of years? The bursting of the Chinese housing bubble, perhaps.
Corporate greed: there is a saying – sanitised for this blog – that goes: “why does a dog lick its tail? Because it can.” The practice by large companies such as Google of minimising tax liabilities by skipping from one tax haven to the next is at best amoral. The same goes for high net worth individuals. When will these supra-national tribes realise that austerity is not just for “other people”?
Institutional short-termism: even if they wanted to, it is extremely difficult for listed companies to take long-term decisions because they are in thrall to institutional investors whose managers depend for their jobs on short-term performance. Warren Buffett is an honourable exception, perhaps because age has given him wisdom lacking in the younger fund managers. Will CEOs ever again be able to build for the long term without having their legs chopped off by the knee-jerk reactions of institutional shareholders and fund managers?
Opportunities in adversity: downturns have their upsides. Many great businesses are born in recessions. They are leaner, more flexible, more fit for purpose. During the UK recession of 1991 my business partner and I started a business that ten years later was in eight countries and employed over 400 people. The additional challenge today is to do so in an era of tight credit. I believe that there are many opportunities for companies that are built to last, rather than fattened up by speculative investment and designed for sale or IPO like a force-fed turkey being readied for Christmas. Lack of credit can mean slower growth, but if you build firm foundations you can create a business with longevity and real worth.
The cloud: businesses in increasing numbers are entrusting their data to third parties. Whatever savings they may make by hitching a ride on the internet cloud, they run three risks: cyber-espionage, denial of service and degradation of service. The first two could come directly from government-sponsored actors. The third is a potential outcome of progressive deterioration of infrastructure. Satellite failure and subsea cable damage might not put them out of business, but can dramatically slow down their transactions, thus degrading their businesses.
Cybercrime: Fraud and industrial espionage on the wane? Unlikely. Entrepreneurs from the dark side will always be one step ahead of legitimate business because they are creating the threats. It’s fine for security teams in large companies to “think like criminals” in order to avert threats. But there are many more would-be bad guys out there than people out to stop them. As the terrorist would say, “you need to stop us every time – we only need to succeed once”.
Cheap Telecoms: Skype has transformed international telecommunications. To be able to make a free video call to someone halfway across the world is something that we take for granted today. Thirty years ago it was the stuff of dreams. We are only at the beginning of this revolution.
“Unconventional” oil and gas: when it comes down to it, very few countries will take seriously the environmental consequences of extracting shale oil and gas. No international treaty or convention will get in the way of a country transforming itself into a Qatar or a Saudi Arabia to avoid a few minor earthquakes, exploding tap water or worse. They will look for technical fixes. If they are not feasible, they will hide the damage until it is too late. They will speak of a trade-off between environmental damage and the well-being of their populations. Get used to it. It will happen. It will produce cheaper energy and transform the balance of economic power throughout the world. Not yet, but soon enough. What will be the consequences for economies that rely mainly on exports of oil and gas?
Global warming: it will take something truly dramatic to induce governments to respond to a global threat. Doom-laden statistics, educated guesses, evidence from icecaps, the odd island disappearing and a few million poor souls being flooded away will not be enough. The trouble is that when that dramatic event occurs, it will probably be too late to avoid further even more dramatic events. Human beings have never before been faced with a real threat to our existence. As a global species, we are no more capable of acting in concert than any other species. Every other environmental crisis, from the Pacific Gyres full of plastic detritus to the exhaustion of fish stocks, has shown us that individual, tribal and national interest will always trump the interest of the species. Will our redemption will come through luck, technology and palliative measures that might give us more time to develop solutions?
We’re not impotent: we may not be able to solve the big problems, but we can save species, we can reduce atmospheric pollution, and we can develop cleaner energy sources. Environmental entertainment (such as The Frozen Planet, the Blue Planet et al) is reaching wider audiences. Easy access to environmental content over the internet is increasing awareness of the issues. And don’t bet against technological fixes to the big issues. We’re not done for yet.
And a final thought for the pessimists. A few days ago, the eminent astrophysicist Professor Stephen Hawking celebrated his 70th birthday. This was a man given a few years to live when diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 25. For much of his life, he has been incapable of speech and movement beyond the twitching of a facial muscle that has allowed him to communicate through a computer. His disability has not stopped him from contributing hugely to our understanding of the universe, both by his theoretical work and through his best-selling book A Brief History of Time.
45 years on, even though his physical condition has declined to the point that he is incapable of communicating more than a word per minute, he and his medical support team are still hopeful that they can find other ways to help him write more quickly.
He is an example to all of us of the power of the human spirit. His life sends us a simple message: don’t give up.