Hello, World of 2020

By Johannes Ernst


Exactly 10 years ago, in January 2010, I started a new blog. In my first post, I said I wanted to explore:

What’s the next decade going to be like in technology?

So I started to publish at upon2020.com.

But that stated reason wasn’t the entire reason. At the time, I was quite uneasy about the state of technology. Uncomfortable where it seemed to be going. And where the world at large was going — a world 18 years after the end of history, supposedly. I could imagine so much potential for good things to happen, but somehow everybody’s motivations seemed to be focused on other objectives. Doing good for the many didn’t seem to factor into it much, all public declarations about not being evil, putting people back to work with a short dose of zero interest rates, connecting all the world’s people and the like notwithstanding.

I didn’t feel I could comprehensibly articulate my unease, so I didn’t talk about that. But setting up upon2020.com was a sign of bewilderment on my part. I was hoping that by writing about what was happening in the decade to 2020, I could make sense of it and be less bewildered.

Now, it’s 2020, and the good news is that my bewilderment has passed. (So it is time to retire the upon2020.com blog, and I will do that shortly.)

Unfortunately, the bewilderment from 10 years ago has given way to a clarity that shows many things I’d rather not see. Where do I start? Let’s just pick three:

  • The political system is broken. In the US, in the UK, in many other places. Regardless of where you stand politically, when did you last time feel it is getting better, fairly and sustainably? Bipartisanship for the good of everybody will re-emerge just as soon as …? It’s hard to even imagine. The same is happening on an international level. This means our ability to decisively act is declining just as we have unprecedented global problems. Not a good combination.

  • Technology is in a bad place. Just take the term “Silicon Valley”. It used to stand for amazing new inventions that are good for everybody. That would change the world into something much more awesome, one Comdex at a time. Now it means the unaccountable monopolies of a handful of trillion-dollar-class companies that screw you and me and most other people on the planet every day, 24 hours a day, in public and in our most private lives, by surveilling us, doing things behind our back we don’t know and wouldn’t approve, by extracting much of the economic surplus leaving an economic wasteland in many places, throwing terms of service at us that are abusive, and so forth. Opinion surveys now have mainstream majorities for opinions such as “risks of new technology outweigh the benefits”. What happened? How do we undo that? Can we?

  • And the climate/environment. This past year, finally, the knowledge that the planet is in bad shape has arrived in mainstream discussion everywhere. However, much of the discussion so far is either in the earlier stages of grief (denial, bargaining), or fatally incompetent in the understanding of exponential functions, a.k.a positive feedback loops. There will be a second stage of reckoning when that becomes apparent. Just how do you eat if most insects are gone, for example?

(Yes, there are positive trends, too. But the suicide statistics tell us where the balance is to be found.)

So Hello World in 2020, all my unease in 2010 did not prepare me for you.

So what now?

Personally, I believe this is an All Hands On Deck situation. We have dug a hole, and need to stop what we’ve been doing, back up, and focus on getting ourselves out. We have overshot, and need to reverse back to what’s sustainable. We need to get out of our complacency, reject what is clearly not leading us into a desirable future, and work like hell to put stuff in place that will.

I think of it as a Reboot: just like what you do when your computer acts up and you’ve had it because you actually need to get stuff done.

So this what I want to do with this blog: write about stuff that we need to stop doing, and in particular, what we can do instead. Much will be from a technology point of view, because I’m a geek after all. But almost all the problems we have are an inertwringled mess of technological, economic, social/political, and now environmental challenges, and cannot be addressed effectively piece-meal. First rule of engineering: understand the whole system; you will need to eventually, anyway, otherwise you can’t get anything to work reliably. So it won’t be just tech.

Fortunately, many answers are actually known, just very unevenly distributed. I am hoping I can help surface them, and collaborate with many people to grow them, and nurture them, and make them the normal, good, fair, sustainable thing that everybody does instead. And focus on how we get ourselves reb00ted!

So Hello, World in 2020, let’s go!