Archives for posts with tag: future

It’s hopeless. There is no hope.

It’s hopeless imagining that white people will be the only people at the table, that other races will go back to doffing their caps to their supposed betters. That women will know their place and stay quiet behind their male superiors. That church authorities will rule over their wombs and their life choices. That love’s province must return exclusively to male with female.

There is no hope whatsoever that these days will return.

There is no hope that oil and coal will continue to power our lives and choke our lungs. No hope that we can persist in a myth of continuing to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and our oceans with no consequences. No hope that polluters will not be judged harshly by history.

Those days are gone. They will never come back.

There is no hope that the young will simply fall silently in line with the edicts of a dying generation. There is no hope that the eager and educated across the world will remain content with second best. No hope that the way to compete with all this is to withdraw behind a high wall.

We are entering a new world. A world of racial and sexual equality. A world that increasingly sees itself as a single group of people, utterly dependent on the environment around them. When I look at teams of old rich religious white men wanting to set back the clocks, I see despair in their eyes. They are a minority of a minority of a minority of a minority, and they know it. Their only answer now is division, authoritarianism and bloody war. It’s pathetic. A futile attempt to turn back time.

I don’t know what the future will bring. I know that some nasty twists await as this story plays itself out. War, extremism, violence, repression, terrorism. It’s all there. It’s all possible. It’s not going to go smoothly.

But I know this. We’re not going back to the way it once was. It’s impossible. There’s not a hope in the world.

This is the second part of my overview of QED 2016. The first part is here.

The Future, Jim, but not as we know it.

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Mark Stevenson is a futurologist, a term he himself is not particularly happy with.

The only qualification for futurologist is to write something with future in the title.

Mark runs a network of thinkers and gives talks and insights to different people and corporations around the world. While none of us can predict the future, it’s likely to be an interesting place. Mark’s presentation was furious, frenetic and content heavy, presenting about one new idea every 3 minutes. Every idea could have been a whole topic in itself. It was almost impossible to keep up with what was a massive stream of possibilities and directions, many of which may not come to pass, others of which might happen in an unexpected way, and others that might literally change the world.

He quoted Douglas Adams, who himself was massively future-orientated.

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Douglas Adams

We were shown a car, rushing around an obstacle course, with a screaming passenger inside. The passenger was screaming because the car had no driver. The technology  maturing rapidly.

Here’s the video, by the way

He talked about the 3 million truck drivers who’s livelihoods might be at stake and the insurance companies who might need to rethink their business models.

He talked about bionic limbs and Olympic games. He talked about genome sequencing advances outstripping Moore’s law. He talked about cells that never die, and how ageing might be reversed.

If people say to me “ban all GMOs”, then what do we say to diabetics?

He talked about genetically modified products that eat crude oil. He talked about extracting carbon directly from the air. He talked about the end of the oil age, the solar power revolution and a “complete solar” economy in twenty five years time. Even today, Saudi Arabia is turning its attention to solar power as the wealth generator of the future.

The Stone Age did not end for the lack of stones.

Sheikh Zaki Yamani

He talked about blockchain: an “unhackable currency”and questioned the purpose of banks.

He talked about 3-D printing at a macro and nano level and forecasted the first 3-D printed 3-D printers.

He talked about the changing definition of wealth and the extreme wastefulness of current methods of farming and food management.

The environment is starting to send back invoices.

He talked about an “Enernet”, like an internet for Energy. He talked about open-sourced drug discovery. He talked about trucks being driven on liquid air.

Then he ran out of time.

Whew!

Where do you even start? The only thing he left out was the Singularity. The future might well be a scary place because of the inadequacy of our institutions and governments to keep pace with technology. He is optimistic, but there are real dangers, particularly where new technologies drive more and more wealth into fewer hands, while potentially rendering millions of unskilled workers redundant. This has been a refrain for two hundred years, but I wonder if we are moving into new realms here.

Here’s a video in the same vein featuring Mark Stevenson.

Paleo-diet eating climate deniers with chickenpox!

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Next up was Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, or just Dr. Karl, one of Australia’s best known science personalities. Dr Karl gave a talk on some of science’s greatest achievements starting off with some videos and pictures of his trips to the Antarctic and the Australian Outback. (Ireland and the UK look teeny tiny compared to the Australian continent – don’t rub it in, please).

The talk was wide-ranging to say the least, covering everything from vaccines to global warming to science illiteracy to the paleo-diet.

On vaccines, he had a lot to say. Australia seems to have a comprehensive program against chickenpox, whereas we are still in the dark ages on this side of the globe. While adverse effects of chickenpox are rare, they can be very serious. Stroke is a side effect, as are congenital defects when it hits pregnant women. I also didn’t realise how many people contract shingles in their lifetime – a result of chickenpox in childhood. Our governments should be doing more.

Everything, no matter how boring, always looks better under an electron microscope.

He did a great job dismissing the claims of the paleo-diet people. Some people believe that all the ills of our world, the cancer, the diabetes, the heart problems, all stem from a change in our diets around 10,000 years ago, when our species started to move away from hunter-gatherer type diets to more wheat-based diets. He discussed how this is such a simplification – different hunter gatherer groups have wildly different diets even today, and when most hunter gatherers were dead before 40 anyway, diseases of ageing would have been something of a minor problem to them. Dietitians, he says, have voted the Paleo-diet the joint worst diet of them all.

He also spoke about global warming deniers – a crafty lot indeed. They’ll take a warming curve, then select a piece of data from a larger data set that seems to suggest that warming is going down, then clap themselves on their backs for their cleverness.

Dr Karl also spoke about how IQ is getting higher each year (and no-one knows why). He also briefly discussed Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, where civilised behaviour seems to be on an upward curve. Long may it continue.

For many in the audience, we would have come these topics before, but nevertheless these are really interesting areas of discussion and activism, very well recounted by Dr. Karl.

Here’s Dr. Karl’s YouTube video “Great Moments in Science”.

Now on to Part 3

Among the things I think about sometimes is how we got here as a species, and where we’re going.

We tend to think of ourselves as a young species, having only discovered writing (and with it, history itself) in the past 5,000 years, and civilisation (with its permanent monuments) 5,000 years before that. Earlier than this, our history as a race of humans goes quite dark. Archaeology tells us a few things, but the further back we go, all we have are fragments from our past. We can quite easily forget that we are a very old creature indeed. How long ago was it since we discovered language, since we started singing, since we started praying, since we discovered a sense of humour? It’s hard to say, yet it’s quite probable that such traits predate homo sapiens, going back through multiple ancestral species. Were we to travel back a couple of million years, maybe we would still see ourselves in our austrolopithical forebears.

I remember reading a book some time ago, that one group of our ancestors (or possibly close cousins) spent over a million years fashioning an early stone tool with practically no development in all that time. That’s tens of thousands of generations just hammering away with little sense of innovation. They were rooted in the animal world – lives full of fury, struggle and passion, but not one given to legacy or creative accomplishment. Maybe there were stirrings there. Maybe, every so often, one of them came up with an idea, but they were quickly hit over the head, or eaten by a lioness, before that idea (or their genes) had a chance to spread. 

I ask myself if that’s where we’re ultimately going back to. If anything has been successful in the long term on this planet, it’s been that patient toiling away with little progress through the generations. Among all the animals, a sense of constructive wonder seems to be selected against. In the single case where it has succeeded, it’s lead to an exponential increase in technological development, resulting in a potentially untenable situation full of nuclear weapons, over-population, resource depletion, multi-species extinction and the prospect of disastrous climate change. Maybe our ultimate fate (if we survive this time at all) is a return back to the animal realm. Maybe, 90,000 generations hence, our distant children will be back in the trees, or scurrying around in holes, or hammering again on rocks with little thought for art and music. 

I think about the last person in that line, looking around at her species and wondering about it all, before death finally takes her away and the universe once again becomes dim and distant to humanity.

I had a brief chat with my son this evening. He told me that there was some kind of initiative going on where kids were going to learn politics as part of their final year exams. At first I thought it was a dumb idea. Surely, kids could learn about that by picking up a newspaper or watching the news on TV?

But when I thought about it some more, I changed my mind. And it’s not just because of the obvious question: I mean, what kid reads newspapers or watches TV news these days?

Here’s the real problem: our generation and the generation before us have made a complete balls of looking after the world. We have all these really serious issues, like climate change, poverty, inequality, radicalisation, racism, sexism, terrorism, access to medicines and drinking water, overuse of antibiotics, biodiversity decline and ocean acidification, to name but a few. Huge problems. And who have we chosen to solve these problems for us? In the main, a bunch of space cadets.

Our generations, when given a chance, have blown it, choosing instead to elect populist dickheads again and again and again and yet again. Instead of electing someone who might know a thing or two about managing complex problems, we’ve gone repeatedly for the political equivalent of the drug pusher. Yeah man, Pop this Pill and All your Worries will be Gone. The Problem is Not You; It’s Them.

I despair for the future if our kids grow up with no interest in politics, because we’ve left their generation in the invidious position of having to clean up after us. They are the ones who’ll be left with no fish in the seas. They are the people who’ll need to deal with all the carbon dioxide in the air and the oceans. They are the ones who will need to tackle youth unemployment and unrest and desperate social inequality. And all because the incompetents we elected did precisely nothing about it when they had the chance to. In fact, they did worse than nothing: they made these bad situations even more abysmal than they were.

If the next generation grow up in our footsteps, apathetic about the world they live in, they won’t even have the language to tackle the problems we’ve left them with. Instead, if they vote at all, they’ll be left voting for blowhards in the footsteps of Berlusconi and Trump, only because nobody in their right minds would enter politics in a fit. Imagine this: George W Bush is now considered by many commentators to be a moderate. A moderate. My god.

I have one caveat about giving the next generation a sense of political awareness. If they ever realise what our lot did on our watch, they’ll immediately have us all locked up. But then again, it’s nothing more than we deserve.

If I were to make a speculative prediction, it would be that we are heading towards an all-seeing future. Every event of our lives will be recorded and available to us (and possibly others) for instantaneous playback. The Cloud will become the repository of all information, recorded in high-definition video, possibly from multiple angles, for us all to dip into as we see fit.  Maps, street views and the insides of many buildings will be available to us in real time. An army of cameras, satellites and other sensors will provide continuous streaming information to those that can afford it.

Allied to data, there will be a whole chain of semantic processes working in the background, making sense of this data: a bit like the way tags work on YouTube videos or blogs. Through this approach, recall can work correctly.

We won’t need to type in information. We can talk to the Cloud whenever we want. Perhaps it will even be able to anticipate our needs, as it takes control over areas of our lives, such as driving to work.

There would be no need for eyewitness testimony. We’ll see things as they happened. There would be no need for memory: you just set the pointer at a particular date and time, and press play. Perhaps contracts, even money, will be obsolete: since we can play back agreements as they happen.

Such change will not come overnight. Privacy, security, copyright, evidence, equality, democracy: all will need massive in the face of ever improving technology and visibility into our daily lives. Heated arguments about the State’s rights to our information will continue to rage.

It might sound crazy, if we were not three-quarters of the way there already.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

– Arthur C. Clarke

A few days ago, I watched the Harry Potter finale with my kids in the cinema. After the film, one of my children asked me if I believed in magic; being a sceptical sort of person I admitted I didn’t. Magic is a relatively loosely defined term, but my bottom line is that “supernatural” phenomena have never been conclusively demonstrated or proven. Unless a compelling argument can be made, it appears that all objects in this universe act in accordance with natural laws.

Image by Don Solo (Flickr - CC Licensed)

The wizards and witches in Harry Potter have powers that certainly seem magical to us. They can “apparate” instantaneously from one place to another. They perceive memories from far-off times. They are armed with a variety of spells to disable opponents. Everything seems to have some sort of sentience. The magic in JK Rowling’s world is particularly appealing to us 21st Century folks. It is device based, utilitarian, networked. It mixes the physical universe with the virtual world of the Internet and gaming; strong reasons, in my mind, for the astonishing success of the books and movies.

Perhaps I am being a bit too harsh in not believing in magic, because to a medieval person, or a person who lived in Roman times, we live in truly extraordinary times. To them, we would all be wizards and witches. We can watch events and interact with people in other parts of the world. We move in metal carriages that require no oxen or horses. The greatest of these carriages fly above us and can even sail at incredible speeds above the sky itself. We have at our disposal wonderful materials – plastics, composites, semiconductors – that would be unimaginable by the medieval mind. Simple pills can be taken to cure what would have once been common ailments. We have created weapons of unimaginable strength and brutality. I could go on.

We don’t call this magic. We call it science. We call it engineering. We call it technology. It’s not magic because it is simply the laws of physics, chemistry and (increasingly) biology, applied in interesting ways to different challenges. The tools of the trade are not incantations but experimentation, imagination, analysis, criticism and frequent failure. The magical language is mathematics. Chemistry is our Potions class, Biology replaces Herbology and Computer Science supplants Divination.

Perhaps, in 500 years time, Harry Potter will be more akin to a documentary than to a fictional work. It may be possible to render oneself invisible, to flit in an instant through time and space or to backup one’s consciousness into safer, more robust objects; thereby achieving a kind of immortality. The people of that era would seem breathtakingly magical to us. That’s the wonder of science. The hard work of scientists today will pave the way to the magic of tomorrow.

Oh, and WordPress informs me that this is my 300th post since I began blogging in 2007. How did I ever manage that?

Art credit – Don Solo (Flickr, CC Licensed)

It’s beautiful

If you go out on a dark moonless night, you will immediately know what I mean. The Milky Way, stretching its jagged course across the heavens, is quite a sight to behold. The constellations, particularly the winter constellations, have an elegance and familiarity to them. The Moon is also an appealing object, with its ever changing phases and frequent conjunctions with other planets in the sky. Through a small telescope, planetary disks, galaxies, nebulae and open clusters come into view, often startling in their majesty.

Of course, the beauty of the universe is not limited to what is immediately visible to our eyes. Deep space objects, seen through the largest of telescopes, are candidates for some of the most beautiful things ever seen by human eyes. Who could not fail to be impressed by the wonderful Hubble photos of the Crab and Eagle nebulas, or the views of the outer planets and moons from space probes such as Voyager and Cassini? To see for yourself, each day NASA publishes it’s Astronomy Picture of the Day. Few images ever fail to impress.

It’s extreme.

Nothing can be taken for granted about space. Most of it is unimaginably cold, interspersed occasionally by blisteringly hot stars with coronal temperatures of millions of degrees. Almost everything is racing around at breakneck speed: barreling through space at velocities of hundreds or thousands of kilometers a second relative to us. That’s enough to cause quite an impact if we were to get in their way. All around us catastrophic convulsions are taking place, with vast explosions and unconscionably high energies. This is a Universe of supernovas, neutron stars, magnetars, pulsars and Gamma Ray Bursts – beams of high energy radiation that would eliminate all life on our planet in an instant were our Earth unfortunate enough to stray too close. Black holes exist that can compress the mass of whole stars into volumes a few kilometers wide, creating gravitational fields that nothing, not even light itself, can escape from.

This is the stuff of childhood fantasies. Superpowers. Forcefields. Instantaneous death. The destruction of worlds. It is no wonder that space features so prominently in the minds of the young.

It ignites our curiosity.

Astronomy confronts us with some of the biggest and most challenging problems about the nature of ourselves and the fabric of reality. As a science, it has lead the way in overturning ancient notions of how nature should behave. At one time we believed ourselves to be at the centre of the Universe, with all objects, including the Sun, revolving around the Earth. Astronomers through the ages slowly revealed a different truth. Our star and our home planet are among countless billions in a very ancient Universe. Everything we do ultimately only affects an infinitesimally small piece of real-estate in the cosmos. This discovery, while deeply humbling, is enlightening. It tells us that we will never know everything. Our quest for knowledge is unlimited. We are ants in a cathedral, and what a cathedral it is.

The study of the stars and planets has pushed out the frontiers of knowledge in every direction. It’s contribution to science and mathematics cannot be underestimated. Without astronomy, the modern world as we know it would not exist. Astronomy continues to confound us and guide us right to this day. Gigantic accelerators are busy smashing sub-atomic particles into smithereens to gain greater insights into the nature of matter because objects in space do not always behave the way our current scientific models expect them to. Astronomy has revolutionised our understanding of nature and it will continue to do so.

It tells us about our past.

When you look into space, at any star you care to mention, you are looking into history. You are not seeing the star as it is now, but as it was when the photons of light left its photosphere many years ago. If you can find the Andromeda Galaxy in the sky, you are getting a picture of how it looked two million years ago, long before humans ever roamed our planet. The largest telescopes can see back billions of years ago, to galaxies in their infancy, still in the process of being formed.

History is about ourselves, how we got here, why things are how they are. Astronomy opens history even further by explaining the origins of our planet, our sun, our galaxy – even providing insights into our Universe and how it all started some 13 odd billion years ago.

Astronomy is fascinating even when applied to our own modest human story. We have had an intense relationship with the stars and planets for thousands of years. It guided the ancient cycles of sowing and harvesting. It provided the raw material for belief systems, rituals and religions. It contributed to our language. It assisted with navigation and discovery. In living memory, we have witnessed men walking on the Moon and robot probes being flung out of the solar system – events likely to be celebrated for millennia to come. Our relationship with the stars has shaped the culture of today.

It’s our future.

Astronomy is important to our future, from the short term to the distant long term. Over the coming decades, private companies will take over much of the heavy lifting formerly associated with government agencies such as NASA and ESA. This will create new jobs and new wealth. Bigger telescopes and better equipment will provide insights into reality that will stretch our technological capabilities. Over the coming centuries perhaps we will explore and colonise deep space for ourselves, using technologies yet undreamt of. In the end, billions of years from now, our sun will expand, frying everything on this planet before diminishing in size itself, its fuel spent, its job done.

Perhaps there is a large asteroid or comet out there in space with our name on it. Perhaps our planet will eventually turn against us, forcing us to find a new home. Perhaps we will find a way to cross the enormous gulfs separating us from other stars in our galaxy. All of these possibilities lead us to the conclusion that the stars will feature prominently in the future of the human race.

Astronomy is available to all, from the small child with his toy rocketship, to the octogenarian peering through her telescope at a crater on the Moon. Few endeavours are so wide in scope, so rich in detail, or so marvelous in implication. I invite you to join in.

Friday 10, 2020. Many people will wake up to the alarm clock, listen to the latest news as they get their breakfast ready, drive to work and put in a good 8 to 10 hours in either front of their computer, serving customers or in long, drawn out meetings. They will then drive home to their families, have dinner, get their kids ready for bed, surf the Net, and relax in front of the TV. Later on, a few brave souls may head down to the pub for a drink before they finally call it a day.

This is likely to be the most accurate prediction you can make about life ten years from now. In other words, 2020 will be pretty much the same as it is today*. If we look back to the turn of the Millennium, many of us had mobile phones, Internet access, TV dinners, recycling bins and telephone conferencing. The world is as it was then, with the addition of a few new gadgets, a better Internet experience, text messaging and wireless broadband. The world today is 2000 with more toys, in other words. Most change, when it comes to the inexorable rise of technology in our lifestyles, comes along slowly. When making predictions about everyday life in the next 10 years, it is imperative that we keep this glacially slow pace of technology adoption in mind. Many of the changes that will made the difference in ten year time are probably already around us in one form or another, but it will take most of the decade to make them widespread.

But life will not stay still, so here are my guesses as to the big changes over the next ten years.

-:-

Internet everywhere.

By 2020 most gadgets you will buy – TV’s, radios, music centres, cars, cameras, domestic appliances and many children’s toys – will be Internet enabled in one form or another. Bandwidth will have improved greatly and most content will be in the “cloud”, i.e. stored and managed remotely.  Connectivity will be wireless and largely invisible to the user. Most of the stuff we watch and listen to: videos, music, TV programmes, etc. will be downloaded digitally and instantaneously.

It’s likely that the Internet will also have changed. While it will more ubiquitous, it will also be more subtle. The central access point to the Internet – the web browser – will still be there, but there will be multiple other ways of interacting with the Net. The Internet will be centrally involved in feeding multiple different applications and devices, presenting information relevant to the experience expected from those technologies. Doing business on the Internet will not be as simple as getting a web-page together, as customers will expect information in a variety of different ways.

A new way to shop.

I think RFID – Radio Frequency ID tags – will come into their own in the next decade. Bar codes will disappear, to be replaced by tags that will identify themselves wirelessly at the checkout. With this, supermarkets will change dramatically. You simply pick what you want, put it into a trolley, pass a radio scanner and instantly collect the receipt. No more checkouts, no more queues. Just pick, pay and pack. This technology has been around for ages, but it remains expensive for widespread retail use. We should expect this barrier to be overcome in the next few years, resulting in a transformation of the shopping experience.

The rise and rise of Touch

One of the coolest technologies to gain prominence in the last decade has been touch sensitive surfaces. So far, the smartphone is the greatest beneficiary of this technology but we should expect it to expand rapidly beyond these bounds before the decade is out. The real benefit of touch technology is that it makes more use of limited or wasted “real estate” within any hardware product. With Touch, the keyboard becomes a writing or drawing pad, while enclosures begin to resemble skin (think of the applications for kids toys).

Electric cars

I expect that the next decade will be a big one for green technology generally and for electric cars in particular. There will be a noticeable transition from petrol to electricity, probably towards the end of the decade once the infrastructure becomes more commonplace. Some governments (Israel and Denmark, for example) have already committed funds to a suitable infrastructure, carbon credits already in force in many countries will make electric cars an increasingly attractive proposition and car manufacturers are beginning to roll out new electric cars. This could be the most noticeable achievement of the Teen decade.

Space travel

For some, this might be the lost decade for space travel. The Space Shuttles are to be moth-balled later this year and the world will need to wait five to seven years before NASA is ready to launch replacement craft. However more countries than the USA are capable of throwing large payloads into space, so progress will continue steadily throughout the next ten years with the Chinese and Indians joining the space race in earnest. An area to watch closely is private space travel. I don’t foresee mass transportation on private space vehicles this decade, but the 2020’s are a different story. It’s entirely feasible that people will routinely travel from London to Beijing in less than an hour aboard hypersonic jets skimming above the atmosphere. As for the Moon and Mars? We need a few decades more.

Geno and Nano

I’m going to stick my head well inside my shell and opine that the next decade will not be the decade where we see designer babies,  gray goo or a clone slave underclass appear. There will be progress – lots and lots of progress – but regulatory issues and public pressure might significantly delay mainstream adoption. Where I do see progress is in medicine. I think that there are going to be some big breakthroughs in the treatment of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. We should also see big advances in the growing and transplanting of replacement tissues from stem cells and some modest yet important improvements in cancer therapies.

The black swans

In 1960, few would have predicted that men would be walking on the Moon by the end of the decade. In 1990, mention of the Internet would have been met with blank stares from most people. It’s likely that, sometime during the next ten years, new inventions that none of us are thinking about will capture our imagination and dominate public discourse. Like any new technology, the hype will greatly exceed any immediate benefits, but whatever the effect, it is likely that we will be much more concerned about these in 2020 in the same way that Twitter and Facebook are today.

-:-

So, these are a sample of my predictions for the next decade. Will they come true? Well, at the very least, it will be fun to open up my Internet reader on Friday 10th 2020 and guffaw at my naive speculations from ten years before. What do you think? Am I missing something obvious that you believe will be huge in the next decade?

* Apocalyptic predictions not withstanding..

(Photo by SanFranAnnie)

This is the last of my 2019 time capsule postings, where I look at how the stories of 2009 might pan out in the next decade. This entry looks at two successful companies, and asks if they will still be around in 10 years time.

Google

From out of nowhere, Google became one of the great corporate success stories of the noughties. Originating as the first search engine that actually worked properly, it went on to corner internet advertising and to deliver such gems as YouTube and GMail free of charge to the rest of us. In the process it became a very rich company indeed. The first of it’s kind to profit hugely from the new economics of the Internet. The word “google” is even a verb, for heaven’s sake! But will they be so powerful ten years from now? Will they end up fighting endless court battles over privacy or copyright or abuse of a dominant position like Microsoft? Or might new technology from left-field beat them at their own game? It’s really hard at this remove to see any threats to their reign, but monopolies (even the good ones) rarely live forever.

Ryanair

Ryanair is the airline we Europeans all love to hate, and yet despite it all, we keep flying with them. Originating in Ireland in the 1980’s it has since gone on to become one of the biggest airlines in the world by passenger numbers. The secret? An obsessive attention to low airfares resulting in full flights all the time. To their credit, they shook up a stagnant airline industry and brought huge efficiencies into air travel. More people than ever are flying routinely thanks to the likes of Ryanair. However the branding and advertising stinks of the brash Celtic Tiger “up yours” mentality, and customer service is a joke. And it’s not such a cheap way to travel anymore, with extra costs being charged for everything except breathing and going to the bathroom (no, wait)… So what is the prognosis? Will they go from strength to strength, or is there a possibility that passengers will abandon them en-masse should a half-decent alternative jump onto the stage? Well, it hasn’t happened yet despite numerous predictions to the contrary. One thing is for sure: Ryanair is lead by some very clever people and they will not give up their position readily.

This was meant to be the last entry in my 2019 time capsule series, looking at current world issues and how they might develop over the next 10 years, but I think I will add an extra posting tomorrow, and then I’m done. Today I look at some of the after-effects from the Bush era wars.

Iraq

iraq-warIn 2003, George Bush and Tony Blair marched into Iraq on a wing and a prayer. It was arguably one of the greatest and most avoidable foreign policy blunders in decades. Iraq was a tinder box under the rule of Saddam Hussein, and the first year of occupation was an object lesson in how not to invade a country. By 2005, the “coalition of the willing” were stuck in the middle of a vicious civil war between Sunnis and Shias. Now in 2009, the US is starting to think about pulling its troops out and leaving the region for good. The big question is whether Iraq will manage on its own once the Americans have left, or whether the warring tribes will pick up where they left off. My bet is that it will do just fine. Ten years should tell a lot.

Afghanistan.

talibanIn 2009, Afghanistan is as close as you will get to witnessing hell on Earth. Afghanistan is the archetypal failed state. Divided up by tribal leaders, it resembles the world as it was back in the 14th Century. It took a bunch of religious madmen – the Taliban – to create a semblance of order in the place until they backed the wrong horse and got ousted by NATO after the 9/11 attacks. Now they are on the resurgence, fed by hordes of uneducated boys crossing over from Pakistan, and whole areas are now back under Taliban control. It is likely that a very large troop increase will be required to establish any sort of security in the country. My guess is that Afghanistan, like Somalia and the Sudan, is a generational problem, and that the militaries of many nations will be based there for decades to come. Reinvigorating failed states could well be one of the most important political and economic challenges of the century.

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