Fast Company

The Future is a Mixed Bag

With every downside, there is a corresponding upside: Get an expert's take on how technology, connectedness, globalization and ageing will affect us in the future.

Is life getting better or worse? Reading between the lines in my local bookstore, there certainly seems to be a new sense of doom and gloom in the air. Bitterness is the new black as they say.

But is it really so? Reading magazines like Fast Company and Wired makes me feel like anything is possible -- or rather that nothing can't happen. So here are four things to cheer us all up and four corresponding things we should be worried about.

Technology

The Good: If you can dream about it, you will increasingly be able to do it in the future. Think of self-driving cars, space hotels, 500GB memory sticks, child-care robots, sleep surrogates, memory pills, artificial eyes, self-building buildings and full immersion virtual reality suits. What's more, apart from being widely available, many of these innovations will be super-cheap.

The Bad: Technologically speaking, privacy is dead. In the future, governments and corporations will know who you are, where you are and what you are doing all the time. They may even know what you are thinking. Getting lost or not knowing where you are going (sometimes a good thing) will be almost impossible, as will anonymity -- due to digital payments and various embedded tracking technologies. Faster technology will also force life to accelerate in a manner that will have knock on effects in terms of attention spans, relationships, understanding and accidents.

Connectedness

The Good: Thanks to the Internet, everything (not just people) will be connected to everything else in the future. Thanks to precise locational information, we'll know exactly where everyone and everything is all of the time. Low cost travel will also mean that we'll be able to go anywhere in person. This should facilitate cross cultural understanding and in turn create a new ethically based, transparent culture where secrets are harder to keep. Benefits could include customer empowerment and better corporate governance.

The Bad: Because it will be so easy to instantly find out what everyone thinks in the future, a collectivist online majority mind could trample on the thoughts and needs of the minority. Anonymous Internet aggregation could ensure that might is always right and there is a danger that big may always be equated with best. This is particularly dangerous because it's difficult to bring an anonymous idea or source to account. Connectedness plus speed will also mean that localised biases and faults will spread more easily and a type of groupthink will develop at the expense of rigorous individual thought and eccentricity.

Globalisation

The Good: Distances and boundaries will both be dead. In the future you will be able to have whatever you want whenever you want it. You already can in many places. This means a global melting pot of cultures, experiences and ideas. You will be able to live or work in whatever country you want, or sell your own wares from your own home-based mini multinational, thanks to the Internet's ability to find and connect like minded individuals and groups. Shopping will be globalized too, with easy access to whatever you want anywhere on the planet thanks to digital delivery and low-cost transportation. A free agent and small business owner's dream come true.

The Bad: The opportunities are global but so too are the risks. Failure will be networked so that local disasters will cascade globally. This means that pandemics will travel almost instantaneously and local economic difficulties will cause ripple effects internationally. If China collapses it will take the US with it and vice versa. The future will also be a less colourful place in the sense that we will all be wearing the same clothes, listening to the same music, watching the same movies and eating the same food, which cannot be good for originality, creativity and original thought. However, due to impending resource scarcity and nationalism there is every possibility that globalisation will come to an abrupt end leaving people yearning for low interest rates, long-haul foreign holidays and cheap goods from China.

Ageing

The Good: What do you want for your hundredth birthday? How about a party with your parents? In the future you will live longer and look and feel younger for longer too. And imagine what an extra thirty years of practice could do for your golf handicap! From a business opportunity point of view, older people not only have time on their hands, they will increasingly have more money too, thanks to booming real estate values and soaring stock markets around the world. If all this doesn't sound impressive enough, how about living forever inside a machine?

The Bad: Living until you are one hundred is all very well but how are you going to pay for it? Equally, retirement has meaning when it follows a long period of work. Its fleeting nature makes it feel special. But what if retirement went on for forty or fifty years? What would you do all day? What if older politicians and business leaders simply refused to go away blocking younger people with newer and better ideas? What if the Rolling Stones never give up touring or you lived with your parents forever?

So what's the takeaway here? To my mind the key point to remember is that there isn't just one future. There will be many conflicting and contrasting futures depending on who you are and how you think. Crucially, never underestimate the power of positive thinking -- whichever future you believe in will probably come true.

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