Manifesto for the Future - Part One

Manifesto for the Future - Part One

What does the future hold for me?

To answer that, I must first ask how long might I expect to live?

I am in good health, well-nourished, and with an excellent constitution. My parents, both in their eighties, are living full and healthy lives. Barring mishaps, I will probably do the same–or probably better. Buckminster Fuller remarked how he had lived through his own life expectancy three times. When he was child average life expectancy was 45 years. When he was 45 it was 65 years. When he was 65, it was 75, He died at 82, as vibrant as ever. By the time I am 80 life expectancy may well be a hundred. And by the time I am a hundred, even longer. I see no reason why I should not live to be a hundred and seventeen. That’s sixty more years. It is possible that in the coming decades biotechnology will unlock the secrets of cellular aging. We may be the last generation to have a biological life expectancy. Impossible to imagine? So was jet travel a century ago. Or the World Wide Web a couple of decades ago.

Some calamity could of course befall me. The most dangerous thing most of us do is get into a car. Or I may be killed in some other way, or contract a fatal disease. Today we face additional dangers. The growing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, combined with our much greater ease of travel, make some new epidemic or plague more likely. There might be some bioengineering mishap. Nuclear hostilities are still possible. Global warming is now close to certainty, and no one knows how far its repercussions will stretch. It will almost certainly change our world and our society in ways we cannot imagine. So the question is not how long is my biological life expectancy, but how long is my social life expectancy?

A few years back Peter Schwartz and colleagues were putting forward the notion of a "long boom," arguing that the economic, technological, and social circumstances were right for an unprecedented 25-year economic boom. They ended their optimistic report on the future with the proviso that this was, of course, assuming that some calamity did not befall us. The dangers they then listed appeared possible–nuclear meltdown, social revolution, plague, environmental disaster–but none on their own seemed sufficiently likely to doubt that a long boom was probable. However, adding their probabilities together, presents a very different picture. I assigned to each of their possible dangers a probability–and kept it pretty conservative. There were ten percents, five percents, some much less, and a few a bit more. Then I did the combined probability calculation and found that the chances of one or other of these events occurring was about 97 out of a 100.

Other work I have done on future scenarios comes to similar conclusions. Even the most conservative estimates of individual probabilities led to a cumulative probability of 80 per cent that at least one disastrous scenario would occur.

So I have to face the ironical fact that despite unprecedented life expectancy, the chances of me living to a ripe old age in the style to which I am accustomed are not high. More likely I will see major upheaval of one form or another, with who knows what consequences.


Twenty-First Century Protest

If, or when, things do start to fall apart, people will begin to protest. Indeed they already are. We’re seeing the pollution of our water supplies, new diseases appearing in our foods, nuclear accidents, countries going bankrupt. Naturally, people then look at where to put the blame. Many will see it to be institutions that are the cause–governments and large corporations, especially. And they will rebel against them–as they already are. The peace movement, the Vietnam protests, the environmental movement, and today the anti-globalization protests have each rebelled against one or other facet of government or big business. It is the age-old battle between the rulers and the ruled. But it is a new game, a game played out on entirely new field, with different tools and different rules.

Many times we’ve played the game with sword, cannon, and tank, Today hardware is not so important. In our high-tech world information is power. Well aware of this, the rulers have techniques of surveillance undreamed of a century ago, and are storing this data to use as needed. But those being ruled also have new tools–hackers, webcams, software viruses. These will have a significant impact on the course of history.

Indeed, they already have. The Berlin Wall fell because East Germans could watch the television of the West, and they knew the iron curtain was down in Hungary. The students in Tiennamen Square used fax to great effect. The protesters in Genoa used email to instantly alert the world to their plight. People cannot be kept in the dark so easily. Secrets are becoming harder to keep. And the network itself is vulnerable, as several cyber-mishaps have demonstrated.

How this new game is going to be played out, no one knows. Nor what other unanticipated developments we are going to meet. Whatever happens between now and my reaching 117, is unpredictable. We are going to see totally unexpected events with equally unexpected impacts and consequences. The only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty. We do not know what lies ahead.

Yet we continue as if the most likely scenario were business as normal. We are like the characters in Emile Zola's novel The Beast in Man. who sit aboard a runaway train playing cards and singing totally unaware that they could crash at any moment. We too are heading into unknown dangers. We do not know what form they may take, or what impact they will have upon our world, or when we will meet them, but it seems very likely that some or other major obstacles lie ahead. Yet, even though we are aware of the dangers, we continue playing our games–gambling on the stockmarkets, playing with our computers, whiling away our time as if this world will go on forever.

Perhaps the only thing we can be certain is that the totally unpredictable will happen. However much we may try to control things, sooner or later the unexpected will out.


I wrote the above on the evening of September 10, 2001. It was getting late, so I decided to go to sleep and continue the following day.

The next morning I was awoken by a voice on my answering machine saying that both towers of the World Trade Center were down, and they've hit the Pentagon.

The unexpected had arrived. A little sooner than expected.

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