Horizon scanning is a method futures researchers use to expand their personal awareness of weak signals of change that are emerging around them every day, of which they were not previously aware. William Gibson is often quoted as saying “the future is already here, but it’s just not evenly distributed.” Less often quoted, he goes on to point out that it (the future) “is arriving constantly, in bits and pieces.” In other words, the future isn’t here full cloth, but the threads are here, from which the future will be woven. Other people have pointed out the human brain is a “prediction machine,” constantly turning out predictions, mostly subconsciously, scanning for threats, food, sex, money, power, and so forth. Most of these predictions, for better or worse, never happen and our minds quickly dispense with them. Many people feel the same about the predictions of futurists.
Wernher von Braun once said that research is what he was doing when he didn’t know what he was doing. Scanning is what I am looking for, when I don’t know what I am looking for. Nonetheless, the more aware we are of potential new situations, the better able we are to anticipate and prepare for them. We know from the past that previously unconnected events, people, and entities will converge to change current trends into new events. Scanning is a creative process of connecting previously unconnected dots into clusters that are worth monitoring. I sometimes refer to this as creating conspiracy theories about the future.
As I was flipping through my daily newspaper (Financial Times, 20 February 2023), I felt like I was finding a scanning items on every page. For the past few hundred years, European and American military and economic models have dominated the global model. As the chinks in the system have appeared in the past few years, I wonder what certain news items might mean for a future system of values not led
by Western nations.
In “Global south deaf to western pleas on Ukraine” (page 2), Laura Pitel and Guy Chazan report from the international Munich Security Conference that many nations in Africa, South America, and Southern Asia do not see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a war against them as well and, in fact, it is a distraction from other economic issues that are more important to them. China has put itself into a leadership role in ‘the global South’ by offering to broker a peace in Ukraine.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is warning that Fox-style journalism, in which commentators broadcast personal opinions and misleading information as news, which then spreads exponentially over social media platforms, is being taken up globally. Unesco estimates “85% of the world’s population experienced a decline in press freedom… between 2016 and 2021,” according to the editorial, “India’s creeping clampdown on free expression”.
Chinese high-tech startups (computer chips, robotics, artificial intelligence, in particular), are turning to Chinese funding and listing their public offerings on Shanghai, Shenzen, or Bejing stock exchanges (“Renminbi pivot by China start-ups as international funding ebbs,” by Ryan McMorrow, Sun Yu, and Demetri Sevatopulo).
Politicians in Nigeria, ahead of elections on February 25, are vowing to help out its high-tech sector, in order to create jobs for young people (“Nigerian ‘democracy generation’ urged to make its voice heard as polling day draws near,” by Aanu Adeoye). Only 35% of registered voters turned out in 2019. Two-thirds of young people are “unemployed or underemployed.” [At 218 million, Nigeria is the 6 th most populous country in the world. Over 40% are 14 years of age or younger.] Bright Simons, a policy analyst with Imani, a think tank based in Accra (Ghana) estimates that African countries having the largest amounts of foreign debt now owe more than 70 percent of it to domestic creditors, pension funds, and trade unions, or to countries like China, India, and Turkey, rather than to rich countries and international institutions “Old arguments for debt cancellation in Africa no longer apply.” The same issue of the FT had articles on the misuse of economic data to justify monopolies in Western economies, the misuse of bankruptcy in the United States (the “Texas two-step”) to avoid paying damages to consumers harmed by products, arguments over the true effectiveness of the B Corp (socially beneficial corporation tax status), a Scottish B Corp that is setting up beer brewing in China, clothing brands that are shifting some of their manufacturing from China to Turkey, protests in Moldova against the West and in favor of Russia, further steps toward authoritarianism in Hungary, and concerns over biotechnology that will make it possible for terrorists to launch biological weapon attacks. Funneling all these trends into one story takes some real creativity. I don’t think climate change was actually mentioned.
If China leads the way in funding development in the most populous countries of the world, it might also influence how the technology, infrastructure, and social norms evolve. In purchasing power parity, China is already the world’s biggest economy. Some observers think that China will allow researchers to pursue research in artificial intelligence (AI) or biotechnology that Western countries will ban or restrict. As China continues to push its Belt and Road strategy of development across Central and Southern Asia, into Europe and Africa, how will countries in its path accept or reject certain things? Governments might use AI for surveillance and restriction of some personal activities, but might also develop AI or genetic technologies that enhance personal or economic performance, such as in food production, work productivity, athletic performance, or war fighting. Citizens in many countries might be willing to give up a few personal and journalistic freedoms, in exchange for economic freedoms and wealth. If the renminbi were to become the world’s preferred reserve currency, and the US dollar declined, the United States could lose control over its own inflation and economic freedom and become a less than desirable destination for emigrants. The long-touted technological singularity might begin in China, rather than in the West.