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Glimpses of the Future April 2018

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DNA Data Is Now Becoming Much More Predictive of Health

After the human genome was first analysed in 2001, doctors expected to rapidly discover which genes caused which diseases and which genes could predict specific illnesses.  That didn’t happen.

It turned out that most diseases and conditions had multiple genetic factors involved.  Researchers were downhearted and until very recently most doctors have proclaimed that data from DNA tests is almost worthless as a predictor of future health.

But suddenly this prospect is changing.  There’s never been data available on as many people’s genes as there is today. And that wealth of information is allowing researchers to guess at any person’s chance of getting common diseases like diabetes, arthritis, clogged arteries, and depression.

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The Trends of 2017

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The most noticeable short-term trends of 2017 will be continued disruption in the politics of Western nations, the probable retrenchment of the Eurozone and the possible beginning of a reformation of the European Union itself. The wild card of the year, the joker in the pack is, of course, the presidency of Donald Trump.

As the great futurist Alvin Toffler predicted in his eponymous 1970 book, the peoples of the developed world are suffering from “Future Shock” – more or less on the timeline he predicted 47 years ago.

For many adult voters, the future is now coming at them too fast and too hard. Although few of those feeling discomfited would identify the forces of exponential technology development (and the rapid globalization that it produces) as the cause of their resentment at their own lack of social mobility and the increasing loss of low-skilled jobs, these long-term trends are the underlying causes of their unhappiness.

The reaction produced by Future Shock is the rise of so-called “populist” politics in Western societies which led to the UK’s unwise vote for Brexit, the hate-filled politics of the USA which led to the even more unwise election of Donald Trump and the rise of both right and left-wing populist movements across Europe. I am afraid that additional social damage is likely to follow as more working people feel unsettled, displaced and undervalued as the arrival of A.I. and automation reduces opportunities for human employment and advancement still further.

In both the UK and the USA the percentage of adults who have attended university or college is about one third; most of this group are in work and are socially mobile, at least for now.

But the less-skilled two thirds of the population that did not benefit from further education find employment either unrewarding or impossible to find. Those working are mostly stuck in jobs that pay little more than the minimum wage, have few opportunities for promotion and are faced with competition for their jobs from keen, lowly-paid immigrants or automation. This two-thirds of the population also votes, and it is their dissatisfaction, their reaction to Future Shock, that is now disrupting domestic politics.

Alvin Toffler suggested that a new form of governance would be needed for this period; he called it “anticipatory democracy”. His hope was that informed governments of the 21st Century would anticipate the social changes wrought by technological disruption and would plan social alleviations and solutions accordingly.

But the governments he imagined – advised by social scientists, futurologists and technologists – have not materialised. If anything, I regard most of today’s western governments as more technophobic, incompetent and short-sighted than they were when Alvin Toffler was writing his prescient masterpiece. Having been an advisor to Western governments on future planning, I am sad to report that very few politicians care about any issues with implications further ahead than their own next elections. It may be that our current form of democracy is unsuited to the fast-moving technological future.

I therefore think it likely that 2017 will see a continued rise in the reactionary politics of hate and resentment. I think it likely that under these forces the heroic attempt being made by the EU to keep the Euro alive across all 19 nations of the Eurozone is likely to fail – domestic politics in the core nations will deny continuing financial support for the ailing southern-European members. By 2018 Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal may no longer be using the Euro as their national currency.

The same reactionary forces are also likely to force a rethink of the federalist aims of the European Union itself. I am sure a union of sorts will continue, but even before the UK arrives at the point of actually leaving the EU, I suspect that the union will have reformed itself to become a smaller pro-federalist core within a much larger common trading area – a European Association, if you like – of which Britain will be happy to remain a member.