What will the next decade bring? Bryan Appleyard asks leading philosophers, politicians, professors and thinkers.
The 1920s were the Roaring Twenties. The First World War was over, economies were growing and, across Europe and America, people felt free to have fun. In the near future lay the Great Depression and then yet another world war but, for now, this was the Jazz Age or, as the French put it, the Crazy Years.
Fast forward to now and two hard decades are ending. They were marked by 9/11 in 2001, the banking crash in 2008, a global recession, terrorism, the continuing chaos of the Middle East, the emergence of a gangster regime in Russia, the rise of autocratic China and, in the West, a rise in populism and political crises that threatened the stability and alliances of the democratic postwar world. So, after all that, will the 2020s roar?
Prediction is a risky business. Go back to the future fantasies of the early 20th century about the next 100 years and they are all comically wrong. Interplanetary and even interstellar travel were confidently expected by now, flying cars were going to be everywhere, robots would be doing all the work and a world government would be keeping the peace.
The big mistake is to think that the future will simply be an extension of the present. As the author of The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, points out with his idea of "negative forecasting", it is almost certain that the most recent developments are the most likely to fail. They have not been tested by time. The iPhone in your pocket still seems like modern magic, but so did the lowly iPod not that long ago. For centuries the ordinary lives of ordinary people changed little. Now they are routinely transformed by a bright idea in California, a super-factory in Shenzhen or rising sea levels in the Pacific.
But, paradoxically, the difficulty of forecasting makes it more necessary than ever. The blood-lettings of the 20th century showed us that political systems can turn evil with astonishing rapidity and that accelerating technology can, through ever more seductive social media, leave our most cherished values in ruins. We also know that the price of our current carbon-emitting comforts may be future catastrophe. We need to know at least something so that we can prevent or prepare.
What is clear is that, barring climate or military disasters, the next 10 years will be dominated by ever more subtle and personal technology. Artificial intelligence is already around us; soon it will penetrate our working and home lives. The AI-managed internet will not be something we use, it will be something we are. Exactly how that will happen is uncertain, but that it will happen is as clear as anything we can now imagine.
I have asked a group of the most prominent thinkers in the world for their forecasts for the next decade. They cover medicine, society, politics, race, gender, the environment, economics, art, space travel and many other aspects of our near future. Will the 2020s roar, will they be the crazy years? We don't know. But there are more good omens here than bad ones. So happy new decade, and let's hope it's a vast improvement on the past two.
Migration, extremism and nukes
John Gray - Political philosopher and author of Black Mass
Population growth will re-emerge as a serious issue. Though science has enabled the world to be fed and populations are falling in some countries, it's an uneven picture. In Nigeria and Egypt, the numbers are set to double. There could be mass immigration from Africa to Europe.
The rise of the far right and the more broad development of polarisation in European politics is going to continue. But it will be paralleled by possibly a rise of the far left in Europe. In the Middle East I can see two things happening. One is instability because oil is getting less and less important in economies that are almost continually dependent on oil. So I'd expect instability in Saudi Arabia, some sort of regime collapse. The second thing is nuclearisation. Countries can buy nuclear weapons off the shelf, maybe from North Korea or even China.
The other thing is that eventually in the US there will be an unprecedentedly left-wing president, though not necessarily at the next election. The American culture war is intractable, it shapes politics there and the Democrats have already swung pretty far left. A far-left presidency — far left at least by US standards — looks almost inevitable over the medium term.
Stop shouting, start listening, be generous
Trevor Phillips - Former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission
If one of the things we could do over the next decade is get rid of identity virtue signalling, I would be absolutely delighted. There is a whole swathe of people who are only interested in identity questions so they can pose as being on the side of the underdog and show everyone how righteous they are. Take Boris Johnson's comments on burqas. Lots of people are more worried about something someone wrote in a newspaper than about the fact that British Asians are at the bottom of the earnings league. Everyone wonders why year after year nothing changes for minorities, but that is why. We are posturing ourselves as progressive while ignoring the real issues.
What should we do? First, stop shouting and start listening. Second, everyone can be a bit more generous with their neighbours. If someone uses a word you feel uncomfortable with, don't yell, just tell them how you feel and accept that you don't have a priestly veto over everybody else's language.
I think that once the mechanics of Brexit are out of the way, there will be a dialling down of hostile identity arguments and a return to a traditional British muddling along. I'm not particularly optimistic about the US when it comes to racial integration, because I don't think it cares much itself. It's a country founded on a frontier myth. My expectations of Britain, however, are high. This is the only country in the world where a sizeable mixed-race population has come about as a consequence of love rather than coercion and slavery.
Our country is a huge, wonderful experiment. What I hope for the next 10 years is that we'll be able to show the world that this sort of mixing doesn't have to reduce the country to a featureless, characterless, brown-vanilla blob. Actually, the kind of integration that we're pioneering, which is volunteered and born of love, is something special that can be taken on by the rest of the world.
The curse of hyperconnectivity
Brene Brown - Professor of social work, author of The Power of Vulnerability TED talk
We're overly connected, but we're lonelier than ever. We've lost our sense of agency about how to change our own lives and our family's lives. This hypercommunication of social media is new and shiny, it kind of numbs the pain. It takes us away from the immediacy of our own loneliness.
So I think we will slow down in the next 10 years. We will always care about what's going on across the world, because we need to. But we won't do it in lieu of actually changing what's happening in our homes and our communities.
If we move slower and closer we'll find that looking people in the eye, not hyperconnectivity, is a cure for loneliness. I also hope that in addition to a more organic move from further and faster to slower and closer, we'll see it in approaches to mental health wellbeing, medicine, science and space … As we slow down and make an effort to connect more genuinely with ourselves and each other, we'll lean more into paradox and straddle the tensions of what it means to be human.
Old tech survives; the new is replaced by the newera
Nassim Nicholas Taleb - Author of The Black Swan
You want to write a book that survives at least two or three decades? The instinct is to write something that is geared to the future. No. Make sure the contents are relevant both today and at some well-defined point in the past — say 30 years ago. The book is thus likely to be relevant in 30 years. Conversely, if you want the book to die, make sure it would have been of no interest to someone in the past.
This trick applies to institutions, ideas, theories, technologies and other non-perishable things: old technologies survive, largely because the new will be replaced by the newer. Time is both a detector and a producer of fragility: what has survived has some resistance to random events.
Now, this simple trick about time allows us to do negative forecasting. What is fragile will eventually break under the weight of time. Hence, collapse is much easier to predict than emergence: innovation is likely to attack the new and spare the old. Accordingly, some recent modernistic items will be displaced, we just can't figure out by what — except that the newer will replace the (shaky) new and the old (eg, books) will be spared. So here is a list of fragile and new things that are likely to break within the decade.
They are all modernistic, highly fragile and exposed to challenges, so expect four to eight out of the list to end up breaking: Seed (such as sunflower) oils; statins; fiat (state-issued) money; the Saudi Arabian regime; the desktop computer; national airline companies; the neo-atheism movement; behavioural economics/nudge theories; CNN; modern non-fractal architecture (dominated by straight lines); large Kafkian centralisation units such as Whitehall and Brussels; "elite" undergraduate education; and, finally, genetically modified crops and most psychiatric drugs.
Will identity politics trump free speech?
Camille Paglia - Professor of humanities and media studies
A fierce battle will be waged during the 2020s for the soul of a rising generation. Will young people, blinded by their own admirable idealism, sacrifice free thought and free speech to pay lip service to the platitudes of identity politics, which have already tragically backfired by intensifying bitter divisiveness among competing groups? Or will the young finally realise that the highest principle and agency of history is human consciousness, whose vast expansiveness and mercurial mobility must be protected and defended at all costs?
The humanities lie in ruins and once great universities in North America and the UK have degenerated to bureaucratic shells, run by swollen staffs spouting pieties of oppressive neo-Victorian sanctimony. When will the young rebel at the manipulation and fraud that has been practised upon them? Ruthless, ethically desensitised activists, obsessively worshipping partisan politics, have persuaded them that their subjective "feelings" matter more than objective observation and reason, and that a painless world of universal happiness is possible.
Dynamic new leaders of broader vision will surely emerge, escaping our stagnant slough of despond to inspire this generation exactly as John F Kennedy did my own baby-boom generation, stifled by the paternalistic conformism and censorship of the Eisenhower years. Let the future begin!
Robots will build solar energy collectors in space
Lord Martin Rees - Astrophysicist and astronomer royal
It's 50 years since Neil Armstrong made his "one small step" onto the moon. Hundreds more have ventured into space in the ensuing decades, but, anticlimactically, they have done no more than circle the Earth in low orbit. The hiatus in manned spaceflight exemplifies that when there's no economic or political demand, there's a big lag between what is actually done and what could be achieved.
In the near future, the entire solar system — planets, moons and asteroids — will be explored and mapped by fleets of tiny automated probes, interacting with each other like a flock of birds. Giant robotic fabricators will be able to construct, in space, solar energy collectors and other giant lightweight structures. The Hubble telescope's successors, with oversize mirrors assembled in zero gravity, will further expand our vision of exoplanets, stars, galaxies and the wider cosmos. The next step would be space mining and fabrication.
As robotics advance, the practical case for sending people into space gets weaker. Manned spaceflight should be left to privately funded adventurers, prepared to participate in a cut-price programme far riskier than western nations could impose on publicly supported civilians. SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, or the rival effort Blue Origin, bankrolled by Jeff Bezos, will soon offer orbital flights to paying customers. The phrase "space tourism" should be avoided. It lulls people into believing that such ventures are routine and low-risk. Instead they must be "sold" as dangerous sports or intrepid exploration.
Later this century, thrill-seekers may establish "bases" independent from the Earth. But don't ever expect mass emigration. It's a dangerous delusion to think space offers an escape from Earth's problems. We have to solve these here. Coping with climate change may seem daunting, but it's a doddle compared with terraforming Mars. No place in our solar system offers an environment as clement as even the Antarctic or the top of Everest. There's no "Planet B" for ordinary risk-averse people.
The 2020s have dazzling potential
Jesse Norman - MP for Hereford and author of Compassionate Conservatism
The roaring 1920s were a time of political and economic instability, of failed authority and a frantic search for novelty and pleasure — just think of Weimar Germany, the America of Prohibition and the Great Crash, or the flappers, Bright Young Things and the general strike of Great Britain.
It's easy to be apocalyptic a century later. We live in a surge world, driven by instant global information, spreading wealth and falling patience. A world of mass migration, shifting investment and swinging votes in which people, money and power can tip balances and unseat politicians with extraordinary speed.
Look closer and it gets worse: economic weakness, fading productivity, entrenched indebtedness and sluggish investment. There is an escalating potential for conflict, as the clash between America and insurgent China disguises regional imbalances across the Middle East and southern Asia. Social insecurity will be made worse by the advance of robotics and social media-driven egoism. There will be some progress, but nothing like enough, in addressing environmental challenges.
But look again. The 1920s were also a time of astonishing innovation: of jazz and psychoanalysis, Bauhaus, modernism and mass production. The 2020s have dazzling potential. But to manage it we will need a collective moral consciousness orientated away from the individual ego and the present moment and towards others, our common wellbeing and the longer term. That's a very tall order.
Cell science will make new plants...
Sir Paul Nurse - Nobel laureate, director of the Francis Crick Institute
The next decade will be an exciting time for the cell. It is life's atom, the simplest entity that exhibits the core characteristics of life. Everything that is alive on the planet is either a cell or made up of a collection of cells, and all of us started life as a single-celled fertilised egg. Understanding how cells work brings us closer to understanding the nature of life.
Biological scientists can now describe in great detail the extraordinary range of molecular processes going on in cells. We can make cellular components coloured and observe them in living cells under the microscope, charting how they move and where they go. We know the genome sequences of a wide range of different cells, identifying their genes and describing what they might do. We can manipulate cellular processes allowing the activities of specific genes and proteins to be linked to particular cell behaviours and outcomes.
And most critically, we are now able to fit all of this together as a whole, by considering the cell in terms of information management. This involves monitoring, processing and integrating informational inputs from inside and outside the cell, the short- and long-term storage of information, and the use of this information to bring about purposeful behaviours needed for the maintenance, growth and reproduction of cells. It is the chemistry of the cell meeting information in the cell.
This will lead to profound advances. Many diseases can be traced back to malfunctions in cells, so knowing how cells work will lead to new ways of correcting disease. One example is stem cell therapy, manipulating cells to repair damaged or degenerating tissues.
It will also be possible to genetically manipulate plant cells with great precision, creating new types of plants that can make better sustainable use of marginal environments or produce more food to support the world's population.
... and genetic therapies will combat disease
Emma Walmsley - Chief executive, GlaxoSmithKline
The next decade will witness significant acceleration in the discovery, development and delivery of transformational medicines. This has the potential to provide patients with access to more tailored treatments for diseases that today don't have effective solutions. This progress will be powered by a combination of advances in science and rapid changes in technology. Currently,fewer than 10% of investigational drugs that undergo clinical testing become medicines. However, the harnessing of genetics is helping us understand how and why certain people get different diseases. A prospective drug backed by this kind of genetic validation is approximately twice as likely to become a medicine.
At GSK, the quantity of research data we generate is now doubling every year through such advances. Because of the rapid pace at which we can now gather and analyse this data — especially by applying cutting-edge artificial intelligence and machine learning — insights and ideas will be generated that we could never have imagined possible before. Together these advances will transform what and how we think of medicines — from traditional pills and capsules to also include therapeutic vaccines and cell and gene therapies that harness the body's own cells to combat, and maybe even cure, disease.
We face a moral emergency over climate change
James Lovelock - Scientist and originator of the Gaia hypothesis
Summer now has a grim meaning. It reminds us that we are at the mercy of the sun as its heat grows intolerable. We have been warned: stop buying and burning carbon fuel. We must stop telling lies about the dangers of nuclear fuel and use it to empower us. There is little doubt about the future of the Earth and the sun that warms it.
There are vast numbers of stars like our sun and all observations show that such stars grow hotter as they age until the closer planets can no longer carry life. There is no reason to believe that our planet's fate is any different. What is uncertain is when it will happen. Were we still animals, it would take longer before the fatal overheating happened. But now almost all of us are adding to the overheating by burning carbon fuels. We do not face a climate emergency — climate change is natural. What we face is a moral emergency. Do we have the courage to give up burning fossil fuel?
US partners may seek new alliances
Sir Lawrence Freedman - Emeritus professor of war studies
The large question for the coming decade is whether the system of American alliances and partnerships can survive and, if not, what takes its place. As confidence in US security guarantees declines, countries that have relied upon them for decades will start to make other arrangements. The re-election of President Trump would accelerate this trend, but it is likely to continue without him. It is already well under way in the Middle East, where Turkey, Russia, Iran and Israel will vie for influence against a backdrop of continuing tensions within Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
In Asia, China will continue to flex its muscles, with Taiwan a likely flashpoint. North Korea will continue to mock Trump's hopes of denuclearisation, while the American allies South Korea and Japan consider whether they need their own nuclear weapons. A war between India and Pakistan will pose the greatest risk of nuclear use and could also drag in China. Meanwhile, in Europe, France, Germany and the UK will explore alternatives to Nato and seek to persuade President Putin to abandon the separatists in eastern Ukraine as a precondition for a new partnership.
Feminism versus the backlash
Caroline Criado-Perez - Author of Invisible Women
There are two opposing things happening in the gender debate right now. The next decade will be about which side prevails.
On one hand, there are more women than ever in parliament and in boardrooms. Feminism has been proven as a positive economic asset. It makes everyone's lives richer and more productive. On the other, there is a massive backlash to feminism, fuelled by the internet. Social media companies are not getting a grip on the young men being radicalised into misogynistic groups, which is terrifying for women in public life. Women's rights are also being rolled back. Just look at anti-abortion groups in America and the sexually abusive men who are in power.
When it comes to sex, we've gone backwards. When I was younger, feminism was a dirty word. Now it's spoken about much more freely, but young women are having terrible, demeaning sex that is all about pleasing men. It is caused by internet pornography. All we can do is educate young people, letting them know that different sorts of sexual relationships exist.
Am I optimistic for the 2020s? Not really. I feel hopeless about the legal system — we've seen a huge decrease in the rate at which rape is prosecuted — and I'm worried about women's human rights.
How do we shift from a culture of 'I' to one of 'we'?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - Moral philosopher and author
Over the next decade, liberal democracy will be tested as never before. Technological change of unprecedented pace and power is transforming everything from politics to personal relationships, while institutions are lagging far behind. We have nation states, but our most serious problems — inequality, international corporations, climate change, mass migration, data manipulation and surveillance — are global. Governments are weak in the face of these forces and few visionary statespeople have emerged. Europe was destabilised for two centuries after the invention of printing, and today's innovations are yet more disruptive. Expect a volatile decade.
One of the biggest challenges now facing democratic freedom is moral. We live in the most individualistic age of all time. How do we move beyond the self towards a renewed commitment to collective responsibility and the common good? How do we shift from a culture of "I" to one of "we"? How do we renew our moral bonds, strengthen civil society, restore morals to markets, accept responsibility for the future of the planet and re-establish the social contract between government and people? A free society is a moral achievement. Forget that and we will lose our liberty. In the next decade the future of freedom will be at stake.
It's not implausible that we move to fascism
Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee - Nobel economists
One thing that could go right would be a continuation of the improvement in the conditions of the poor that has happened over the past 30 years. That should now spread to Africa. Also western democracy in Europe and the US needs to wake up from this political nightmare and go back to a more civilised conversation about the biggest things they have to grapple with — climate change and equality.
What could go wrong is that politicians refuse to pay attention to what economists are saying. What has happened in the UK and in America could easily spread to France, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Spain. The Russians are willing to undermine anything that can be undermined.
It's not an implausible outcome that we move much closer to proper, full-grown fascism. As for poverty, what could go wrong is that growth in India and China slows down and they decide to fix it by slashing social support. That would stop the improvement in the lives of the poor that we have seen over the past 30 years. The poor live in such fragile conditions, it doesn't take very much to go from living OK to a complete disaster.
Written by: Bryan Appleyard
© The Times of London