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.
Maybe the supercomputers of the 2020s or 2030s, with capacities we can only guess at today, will become self-aware and use their super-intelligence to make themselves even smarter and more powerful at an accelerating rate. (If so, let’s hope they are sentimentally grateful to the dull meat puppets who gave them their start.) Maybe we’ll learn how to upload our consciousness into machines so that individual consciousness can live forever, perhaps transferred from body to body so we can all be eternally young and good looking. Or maybe we’ll just have a nuclear war and wipe ourselves out. Or we’ll wreck the planet in a hyperbolic bout of global warming. The point is that singularity theorists look at the accelerating speed of the river of history and predict that we are headed for some kind of waterfall.
A humble blogger like myself can hardly be expected to make predictions this grand — and anyway we learned in divination class back at Pundit High (it’s a little like Hogwarts but the food isn’t as good) that while it’s always good to give a date and always good to give a number, it’s never good to give a date and a number. So I’m neither predicting a singularity nor saying the singularity won’t happen. If the world is headed over Niagara Falls, we’ll find that out soon enough.
For practical purposes, speculating on the singularity is a lot less important than looking at the implications of the accelerating pace of change for the next ten years. Whether or not the singularity is lurking in the long term future, short term we are going to have a lot of change on our hands. Niagara Falls may or may not be around the next bend, but for now the current is running faster and rapids are beginning to form.
This isn’t going to change. The tendency to accelerate progress is hardwired into science and capitalism–the two most powerful forces shaping our modern world.As human beings have gotten better at making scientific discoveries and applying them to the business of daily life over the last few hundred years, both the economy and society have been changing at an accelerating rate. Science isn’t just knowledge, disturbing as that can sometimes be; it’s the source of new technologies and in a capitalist world system those technologies get converted into new products, new techniques and new industries that bring revolutionary changes to our lives.
When George Washington traveled to New York to take the oath of office as the first president in 1789, he used pretty much the same methods of travel that Julius Caesar took to get home from Gaul. Abraham Lincoln took the train from Illinois. FDR flew to the Democratic National Convention to accept his party’s nomination in 1932.
The 1800s saw technologies like the railroad, the telegraph, and the intercontinental undersea cable knit the human race together in the first instantaneous worldwide web of instantaneous information and rapid travel. The pace of technological innovation speeded up throughout the twentieth century: airplanes in 1903, moonwalks by 1969, atom bombs, computers, cell phones, the internet. The list of world shaking inventions goes on, and they are spreading faster than ever as time goes by. It took 100 years for the first one billion people to get telephone landlines; it took ten years to distribute the first one billion cell phones.
These inventions and their rapid adoption change the way the world economy works and they change domestic and international politics, society and culture. Think of the ways that inventions like the automobile and television affected everything from the international economy and politics to family life. The shift from farm labor to factory and office work made more equal opportunity for women necessary as well as just; economic independence for women has changed the structure of the American family profoundly in just the last thirty years.
As Henry Adams knew from personal experience, the closer it gets to our times, the faster the river of history runs. The 1700s saw the American and French Revolutions. The 1800s saw the rise of nationalism and socialism transform European politics and culture – while European great powers, armed with the superior weapons and economic might that the Industrial Revolution gave them, went out and colonized the world. In America the invention of the cotton gin turned slavery from a dying system into a horrifyingly powerful and aggressive political force that could only be destroyed through a great civil war. In the 1900s the clock of change sped up again. Communism, Fascism and democracy battled to control the future. Populations exploded, first in the advanced world and then in developing countries. The two most destructive wars in world history and the murderous Chinese and Russian revolutions killed something like a hundred million people, uprooted scores of millions more, and radically changed the lives of people all over the world. By the end of the century, yet another ideology–radical Islam–was on the march, with consequences we are still just beginning to discover.
This process of accelerating change is very much with us today; if the 1800s were faster than the 1700s and the 1900s were faster than the 1800s, the twenty-first century will be the twentieth century on steroids.
There are more scientists alive than ever before; they have bigger budgets, more effective theories, better equipped labs, more journals and e-journals to read, and faster and smarter computers using more powerful mathematical models than ever before in world history. Working with them are more entrepreneurs, financiers and inventors than ever before, more eager than ever before to turn new discoveries into new products and new techniques. Beyond them there are more consumers than ever before; they are hungry for new products, desperate to raise their standards of living, and better informed about new discoveries, new products and new ideas than ever before.
The change won’t be all bad; some of it will be great. There will be medical breakthroughs; it’s likely that we will find new and more efficient ways to use energy. More and more people will have access to more and more information as communication costs come down and the internet becomes an even richer source of information and entertainment than it is now.
But the speed at which change comes will test us; those exponential curves mean that history isn’t just accelerating–it’s accelerating at an accelerating rate. The acceleration used to be visible on a scale of centuries; now it is increasingly visible on the scale of decades. Since the 1970s each succeeding decade has been more disruptive, more disorderly and seen more innovation than the one before. Think about the financial crises. We had the oil shocks in the 1970s, inflation shocks and the Third World Debt Crisis in the 1980s, the Mexican meltdown and the great Asian Financial Crisis of 1997–and then in the 2000s we had the Dotcom Bust and the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-9. Decade by decade the crises get bigger and more complicated; it doesn’t take a genius to see what this could mean in the 2010s.
If you thought the 1990s or the 2000s were unpredictable and wild, hold on tight. You ain’t seen nothing yet.
For the rest of the week I’ll be blogging on the ten global trends that will shape the new decade. Then next week we’ll shift from the global scale to the United States and look at the issues and challenges that will be driving the teens.
We are going to be living through interesting times.