Archive for February, 2010

Rip Van Winkle – Thinking about the future

February 10, 2010

One way to illustrate how difficult it is to predict the future is to imagine that you fell asleep the day you were born and woke up in 2010. You then review the changes which had taken place in the intervening years. In my case that year would have been 1934. Anyone born more than ten years ago can perform a similar exercise to illustrate the pace and nature of change.

The world in 1934

What did the world look like in 1934? Since the turn of the century in 1900, there had been a period of peace in Europe ending in 1914 with a world war in which 16 million people died. The main combatants were the UK, France and Russia on one side and Germany, Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria on the other. The Paris peace conference led to the Treaty of Versailles at which the boundaries of many European and other countries were set.

In 1917 a revolution in Russia brought the communists to power and a period of civil war. Although the world war ended in the west in 1918, there was still fighting on the eastern front as the new Russian government tried to settle its boundaries with Poland.

Postwar recovery was slow in Germany and the depressed economic times gave rise to political instability, the rise of Hitler and Nazism. Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, and in the month I was born in 1934 he arranged for the assassination of over 80 supporters (brownshirts) of his own party.

In 1929, there was a stock market crash followed by an economic depression in both Europe and North America. World population was about 1.6bn in 1900 rising to 2.5bn in 1935. (Population doubled from 1bn to 2bn between 1850 and 1950 and then doubled again in the next 40 years to 1990; in 2008 it is estimated to be 6.7bn). World GDP was about $2tn in 1900 rising to $3tn in 1934. (By 2009, world GDP was estimated to be $70tn.)

The automobile, telegraph, telephone, radio and television were all invented prior to 1934. A sample of inventions which came afterwards is listed below.

Waking in 2010

In the 75 years prior to 2010, there had been a second world war between Russia, the US and the UK on one side and Germany and Japan on the other. (The twenty years from 1919 to 1939 turned out to be a cease fire in the previous war in Europe. Some suggest that there was just one world war in the 20th century including this cease fire period). The second world war was fought mainly in Europe and the Pacific and involved greater participation by both the Americans and Russians.

A number of regional wars took place including Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Cold War reflecting nuclear deterrence between the communist countries and the west. After 1989, the USSR and the communist bloc dissolved and countries of eastern Europe as well as parts of the former Soviet Union became independent. East Germany which had become split from West Germany after the war was reunited in 1990.

The US became the sole economic superpower during the 50s, but by 2010 was being challenged by China as that country went from a developing country until the 1970s and then experienced rapid economic growth. The European Union was formed in 1957 starting with six countries and growing to 27. By 2010 it was showing internal frictions, and was battered by a world financial crisis that started in 2008.

From 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US became the sole military superpower but after the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001 it was faced, as was the west, with new security challenges not easily dealt with by traditional military means. Many of these challenges emanated from Middle Eastern countries including Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. North Korea also posed problems to world security.

In Africa and elsewhere, European colonialism ended. British, Dutch, French and Belgian colonies received their independence. Most former British colonies became members of the British Commonwealth, a loose knit association that recognized the Queen as its head. In South Africa the policy of apartheid ended with the release from prison after 27 years of Nelson Mandela and his election in 1994 as President of South Africa.

The United Nations was formed in 1945 with 45 signatory countries. It now has over 190 member states. Agencies of the UN deal with matters like health, food and agriculture, culture and education and economic matters. Human rights and environmental issues are prominent on the current global agenda.

A list of inventions from 1934 to 2010 is extensive. One place to start is . The following examples are taken from this source:

1930s Jet engine, computer and xerography
1940s Nuclear reactor and weapons, the transistor
1950s High speed rail, the credit card and the electronic calculator
1960s Space flight, the automatic teller machine
1970s Mobile telephone, Sony Walkman
1980s Compact discs, digital camera
1990s World wide web, plasma TV
2000s Human genome

During these 76 years, the way we live in developed countries has changed dramatically in the home, at school and in the workplace. A sharp economic divide remains between developed and developing countries. While developed countries have provided social security nets for their own citizens, this is extended imperfectly to developing countries where many live on under a dollar a day. There is an extensive aid community but inadequate knowledge of how to assist these countries economically and politically. Waking in 2010, this global economic divide raises not only moral issues but questions about whether it becomes a threat to livelihoods in the high income countries and elsewhere.

One question is how will the combination of weapons technology and information technology impact on economic, social and political developments within and between countries. From past experience, it is likely (certain?) that predictions will remain unreliable and unexpected events occur.