Last week, I blogged about the top ten stories that are likely to shape global politics in 2010. Starting this week, I’m going to try something more ambitious and write about the big trends that will shape the next decade.In doing that I’ve made a conscious decision not to write about the fates of specific countries. What China, India, the United States and a number of other countries do or don’t do during the next decade will clearly affect world events, but that’s not my subject here. Instead of the fate of individual nations I want to look at the background factors that affect all countries, at the transnational and global trends that will affect many countries and set the agenda for powers great and small around the world.The bottom line? The world is going to be a more tumultuous and challenging place over the next decade. The political and social systems of many countries will be tested –to the breaking point in some cases. History isn’t over; it’s going into overdrive. My advice to one and all: fasten your seat belts. It’s likely going to be a bumpy ride.These are revolutionary times. The world is changing faster than ever before; frighteningly, our institutions, our ideas and our politics can’t keep up.Change isn’t a bad thing; it’s necessary and desirable. Billions of people don’t have what they need — whether measured in material goods, access to education and health care, or political, social and religious freedom. That needs to change, and the faster the better. Industrial society is poisoning the air and the water around us; this too must change. The dangers and costs of war continue to grow, but both civil and international conflict looks more likely today than it did in the halcyon years when the Cold War ended and history was supposed to be over. Those trends, too, need to change.But while change on the whole is a good thing and is badly needed, the world today faces a cascade of accelerating change so dynamic, so multifaceted, so profound and so overwhelming that it will transform our personal lives even as it transforms the international order and drives the world into one crisis after another. The accelerating pace of change is the most important trend shaping the decade ahead.People say that time is like a river; these days, that river is speeding up. Most of the time history used to flow like a leisurely stream; empires like Egypt and Rome rose and fell over long periods of time. Culture, technology, politics religion: these changed only slowly as generation followed generation along the well worn traditional paths. Slowly we learned new and better ways of chipping flints; somebody figured out how to tame fire; somebody else made the first clay pots. This slow accumulation of ideas, techniques and social patterns took us a long way, but it also took us a long time. Change came slowly, gradually; the human race drifted gently down a long lazy river of time.These days we move faster. The current is picking up, white water is foaming against the rocks, and nobody quite knows what comes next.People have noticed for some time that the pace of change was picking up. Henry Adams, whose memories stretched back to the 1840’s when his grandfather John Quincy Adams used to walk him to school, was struck by the palpable acceleration of change during his lifetime. Adams could remember a world of isolated rural communities where slavery was common, navies used wooden ships, and all the machines in his home town worked on human or animal muscle power. He lived well into the age of the electric generating station and the automobile, went to the movies, and lived through World War One.This all made him think. In the early twentieth century he began to calculate the rate of increase in the power and energy that the human race could command as new inventions and technologies came on line. In the Middle Ages that was mostly muscle power: people, horses, oxen, sail power and a few machines like windmills. But by the 18th century humanity was beginning to control steam power and new technologies allowed it to make better use of other sources. In the 19th century, measured in horsepower (the amount of power a horse produces or the energy to move 550 pounds by one foot in one second), the amount of power humans controlled shot up. Locomotives, electric generators, huge steam engines, the first industrial use of oil: huge new power sources were coming on line all during the century.As Adams charted this power, he found that he was getting a graph that looked curved sharply upward: an exponential curve. What would happen if technological progress continued to increase at this rate, Adams wondered. He projected the curve forward in time and found that the rate of increase continued to accelerate until the curve was essentially pointing straight up: the rate of increase in human control over mechanical power approached infinity. I’ve written about Adams’ work in God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World, and increasingly today Adams is seen as the first ‘singularity theorist,’ a student of technology who believes that the accelerating rate of technological change will change human society beyond recognition one of these days.For Adams, this was never just about mechanical power. One of America’s most distinguished historians, Adams had watched while American and world society were repeatedly transformed over his long lifetime as technological advances drove economic, social and political changes. The increasing rate of technological change, Adams believed, meant that the increasing rate of change in all these other dimensions would also speed up. Adams believed we were headed into an era of unimaginable and revolutionary cultural and political change that would result by around 2025 in a world that would be almost totally different from his own.Adams’ historical projections did not get a lot of attention in his own lifetime, but as both technological and social change followed the path he predicted during the twentieth century, his work came in for another look. As ‘singularity theorists’ have gotten to work, they’ve found more and more graphs of progress that look like Henry Adam’s power chart. In particular, charts of the amount of computer processing power available and of the amount of data that human beings can move at a given speed show dramatic and exponential rates of increase (see above graph). There are other signs that the world is headed toward an “Adams moment”. The speed at which new inventions get out into the market and change the world is accelerating. No invention in world history has moved as quickly as the internet — and few inventions have had anything like the internet’s potential to foster social, political and economic change.
Ray Kurzweil (author of The Singularity is Near) believe that the singularity will come when technological progress brings fundamental change to the human condition — and the dates they suggest for the singularity are often pretty close to Adams’ estimate of 2025. (more…)