A decade in review

A Decade of High-Frequency Change

2020 is a new year and a new decade (if you ignore that entire ‘there’s no year zero’ discussion) and a new time to take stock of how the near future is shaping up. The last ten years were some of the most chaotic years of the world when considering the number and speed of technological developments and how they’ve shaped the world. British futurist Tom Cheeswright describes the current era as having ‘high frequency, low amplitude’ change (as compared to last century, which had high amplitude change with several large wars and the geopolitical turmoil wrought from them).

The computer revolution and dot-com boom-bust-and boom again of 1995-2005 finally gave rise to the perfect storm of powerful personal computing that was highly mobile (fits in your pocket), incredibly easy to use (2-year olds can use it), and connected almost anyone anywhere in the world to anyone else. We now have access to the entirety of human knowledge throughout all of human history. So, of course, we trash-talk, sh*t-post and use it to destroy people’s lives.

More Communication has Resulted in Less Understanding

As science fiction author and member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Cory Doctorow is fond of noting, while we are good at predicting first-degree effects of technology on society, second and third-degree effects are difficult, if not impossible. As an example from the 1960s/70s, he likes to site the effects of a booming motor industry on the sex-life of teenage boys.

In a similar, but much more insidious, manner the last decade has seen pervasive social media resulting in:

  • the creation of ideological echo chambers
  • friendships destroyed over social media discussions
  • protest groups becoming more organized and rapidly adaptable allowing them to penetrate Western society to a much greater depth than previously
  • a massive widening of the political gap as communication actually breaks down.

One result of the increasing chaos has been the rise of authoritarian politicians and the creation of actual thought police in the UK and other parts of Europe, a reshaping of the workplace to the point where individual are hired by race and fired for bad jokes, and the rise of authoritarian governments.

Although there is signs that this round of political correctness is beginning to wane, given the pervasiveness of its penetration into society, including universities, business, and government, along with the highly interconnected nature of the modern world, should it fade, it is unlikely to stay dormant long. The rise of even faster, more everpresent technology (see next month: 5 Communication Changing Technologies for the New Decade) means even more powerful, more deeply entrenched echo chambers and greater ideological divide.

Entertainment is being transformed

This new technology has also had a significant effect on much of the entertainment industry.

E-Sports

While e-sports have been around since approximately 1999, they took off in the last decade. The rise of e-sports as big-money contests has brought professional video gamers into the spotlight and kicked off a social divide similar to what happened when professional traditional sports became viable career choice.

Both Fortnite and League of Legends have had high-profile, high-money championship with League of Legends boasting more viewers than the World Series baseball final, the Superbowl, and the Stanely Cup combined.

Not only has big money now made e-sports a viable career for certain youth, but it has transformed the community that once surrounded the games. Fans once made parody videos of the games they loved, they streamed their own commentaries, they hosted their own quirky gaming competitions online. Most of that has now disappeared as corporate interests feed the direction of growth they favour while starving indie competition through abuse of the copyright system.

Hollywood

The movie industry now boasts not only the ability to create a life-like version of any person or creature on screen, but they have convincingly demonstrated the ability to de-age actors for movies set in the past (e.g. Disney’s Captain Marvel) and recently even used a dead actress in a movie (with de-aged, CG scenes cut with previously recorded footage – Disney’s The Rise of Skywalker).

Moving forward, e-sports will be here to stay barring an infrastructure collapse, as it’s such a huge industry. What it will look like, which games and companies will survive the long term remains to be seen as we are still in the infancy of this industry.

As predicted in the early 2000’s, movies will soon no longer need the actor at all, as any person at any age in their life could be digitally recreated on screen. We may even see the resurgence of new movies featuring popular actors from the distant past of film history. If there is a will and a demand, all that would remain would be negotiating with the estate of the departed actor. If this doesn’t happen officially, it will likely happen initially with fan-made films using DeepFake technology.

Artificial Intelligence Changes Everything

As we closed out the decade, artificial intelligence has been increasingly in the news as heuristic algorithms and new machine learning techniques have been developed that not only allowed computers to surpass humans in games (importantly, even games where the player has to make decisions from incomplete data) but they began surpassing some of our best work to date in the sciences – notably with the protein-folding problem. As we move into the 2020’s AI is being turned to a vast number of challenges from governance in Indonesia, to space exploration, and everything in between.

The Current Cyberwar

While the 2016 American election triggered a presidential term-long witch-hunt by the left-leaning media, those less ideologically biassed realized the truth. That election marked the first time that outside powers had the ability to directly interfere in an American election by targetting the populace. While there was quite clearly no collusion between president-elect and other countries, there was:

  • directed advertising via social media that targetting individual voters based on their voting position
  • mis-information targetting both sides of the political divide posted by individuals or groups from foreign countries – apparently with the intent to sew chaos
  • an increase in cyber warfare between powerful nations in what some have termed a new cold war (and some have already called the silent WWIII)

While the training of an AI is currently a hardware-intensive prospect, running an AI requires no more than a standard laptop. This suggests one thing we will see more of in the coming years is

Employment

As Artificial Intelligence becomes more capable, it will become absurdly cheap to use in any type of data-management job. Not only does this suggest accounting will be massively downsized very quickly, but even jobs such as doctors will face intense pressure to upgrade and in the case of less financially-viable areas they may replace doctors almost entirely for diagnostic purposes.

Scientists have already been facing a similar downsizing for decades as automation in some areas has meant a single technician can run an entire laboratory. It is difficult, however, to predict just how AI will change science as it would seem humans will still be needed, for the foreseeable future, to make sense of the data and to design and implement the experiments to test their hypotheses.

Somewhat ironically, however, the last jobs that could be seen to be impacted would be vocational jobs. Builders, electricians, plumbers, painters, carpeters, these would require an even further advance in technology before their jobs would be threatened.

In Conclusion

The last several decades truly have seen high frequency change and that doesn’t look ready to change in the next few decades as we race toward a technological singularity — a point beyond which human society will be so radically altered that we may not even recognize ourselves.

The irony when looking too far ahead, however, is that the undiscovered and dangerous country that is the future becomes just another comfortable neighbourhood as we get nearer. Adaptation is the nature and strength of humanity and adaptation is why we will continue to survive and thrive even though the future sometimes looks unbearably frightening.

Insight and Longevity

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