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Futurist Richard Watson's predictions for 2010

31st December 2009

Richard Watson, futurist and speaker has predicted the trends for 2010. The man who predicted the credit crunch has forecast that a nation battered by the recession will lower its expectations and settle for smaller cars, smaller houses and appreciate all things local. The British future trends advisor who lives in Sydney looked into the future for times2 a year ago and proved spot on when he foresaw a year dominated by loathsome bankers, contempt for high-earning CEOs and campaigns to protect local businesses.

He sees a sombre 2010 where loneliness and depression become preoccupying issues. Richard argues that prediction is about interpreting and illuminating the present. Some trends, he says, endure, not least the instinct to protect ourselves when we feel threatened and the extreme reaction to this — the rise of right-wing politics.

Constant partial stupidity

When you’re constantly scanning mobile phones and computer screens, your attention is so fragmented that you can’t concentrate on one thing. That’s known as constant partial attention. The next stage is that you’ll start forgetting things, missing important pieces of information and making mistakes, and you’ll never get around to quality thinking.

This matters at work where you’re scanning masses of fast-moving information, you’re under pressure to react quickly and you’re rushing. At home you have so many passwords in your head that you forget your pin number and can’t get money out, then you phone your bank and can’t remember that password.

Research will confirm that multitasking is a myth, we’ll see phrases such as slow media emerge as people realise that if you read things on paper you are more relaxed, you register more, you reflect and see the big picture. This is why paper is not dead and why, while news will be mostly delivered online, serious comment and analysis and novels will largely stay on paper.

Digital isolation

One of the ironies of digitalisation is that the more we are connected, the more we become isolated. We can get instant news and tweets throughout the day but we don’t know our neighbours’ names. Twitter is successful because it creates a connection and allows people to stick up their hands and say “I exist”. Otherwise they feel unconnected and lonely.

We’ve traded intimacy for familiarity. We know lots of people but we don’t know them well, and we know few people with whom we could discuss a problem. In the UK 5.4 million people work at home. This is why Starbucks does so well — they want somewhere to go. Even in offices people don’t communicate, they stare at screens all day. Lunchtime has gone, the dining room has gone, the family sitting around one television has gone. Loneliness and depression will become even bigger issues.

Hunger for shared experiences

We’re working alone, interacting with people through e-mail, customer service is online and the travelling public are attached to individual iPods. Yet human beings are inherently social creatures. They like being in groups, they enjoy the sense of security that comes from sharing experiences. Hence the popularity of family meals, communal tables at restaurants, literary festivals, live music and all the other events that are held in aircraft hangar-sized sheds that accommodate more than 10,000 people. You can watch a series of comedy sketches on a screen in a massive stadium, you already know the jokes because you’ve seen them on television, but what makes it work is 15,000 people cracking up with laughter. It’s the group experience that matters.

Flight to the physical

If virtual connection can never match its physical equivalent, this is partly because we associate digital with speed, being disposable and therefore of low value, and partly because we like to hold and touch real things. When you’re living in a world that is volatile and uncertain, people seek the safety and security of something tangible. They don’t want shares in a software company, they want gold. Downloading a video is easy and efficient, but it’s a soulless experience compared with going to a good video shop, having a chat with a movie buff, and looking at row upon row of illustrated titles.

The public library, feared moribund in recent years, is in its element because it’s about much more than books. It’s a quiet and safe community space, an experience that enables you to access expertise from commercially uncorrupt resources, and that’s both ethical and resource-friendly.

Expecting less

Now that we know that resources are finite and, in theory, we’ve shifted from greed to simplicity, from me to we, from bling to frugality, we’re starting to think that everyone should have a slice of the pie. That means that those who used to have more will have to make do with less. So we’ll get used to having smaller cars, having fewer cars, having smaller houses, walking more. We’ll switch things off, when they break we’ll try and fix them, we’ll do without some things. We’ll have more modest expectations, and if you don’t expect much, you’re less likely to be disappointed. Too much choice is confusing, less choice is easier, more comfortable. That said, can we really be sure that greed is dead? Or is it just resting?

Conspicuous non-consumption

Two years ago people boasted about how much they’d paid for something: “It’s Harvey Nichols, they only had one.” Now you’ll flaunt your eco credentials by boasting about how little you paid for something: “I got it in a sale/at a clothing swap/charity shop/made it myself.”

This is showing off in just the same way as bragging about a blingy watch — it comes from a need to be seen as better than other people. It’s not about living modestly and being in tune with the environment, it’s about ramming your skill in doing this down people’s throats. The adoption of the Toyota Prius by celebrities is part of this — they want to be clocked in their eco car.

But if being frugal and sustainable is a fashion statement, we also know that fashions change and these people are flighty. The stage beyond this is that manufacturers will realise that they can charge more for less.

Unsupervised adults

First it was unsupervised children who were thought to be at risk. Now that we are collectively frightened of the unknown, adults — mainly men — will be regarded as predatory until proved innocent. They can’t be trusted and need supervision.

Last summer, at an outdoor pool in Gloucestershire with my young sons, a lifeguard asked me to move from a row of chairs a few feet away from them to a chair at the other end of the pool. There were no other children there. Why did I have to move? Because I might be a paedophile.

This means that men won’t be able to photograph sports day, or go on school premises unless they have been risk-assessed. It’s sexist and insane. What next? Compulsory video monitoring inside every home? I can see George Orwell turning in his grave with my government-approved webcam.

Localism

It’s likely that the global economy will get back on track and we’ll see rising inflation, higher interest rates, higher food prices and higher oil prices — everything will cost more.

The instinct will be to protect ourselves economically, which will mean not being dependent on other economies — and protecting local jobs. But while focusing on local communities encourages a sense of belonging and pride, there’s a nasty side to this. If local is good then, as the far Right would put it, foreign is bad. An increase in nationalism will mean that the extreme Right is in the ascendancy with its overt racism and xenophobia. Expect flashes of anger in the streets.

Re-sourcing

Ten or 20 years ago companies cut costs by contracting out to developing countries. People wanted cheap and didn’t care how goods were made. Now that there’s increasing interest in where things are from — and in the ethical and environmental stories behind them — there’s a move to bring these jobs back. So we have re-sourcing.

People have woken up to the notion that low price can have a high cost, that we don’t want an item that’s eradicated a rainforest or been made by exploited workers. We want the information that you get on a wine bottle — where something was made, when, how and by whom. If the manufacturers won’t tell us, we’ll google them and find out anyway. Ideally, you’ll want goods made on your doorstep, where you have more control, and where you’d like to safeguard jobs.

Fear fatigue

Fed up with being anxious or afraid? You’re probably not alone. We’ve had so many apocalyptic warnings — not least the end of capitalism and the death of millions from swine flu — that people have become jumpy. At some point they will either decide that things are so bad that they can’t get any worse, or they’ll start to become cynical about scaremongering. Either way they’ll think: “Whatever’s going to happen, bring it on, I’m not going to worry about other people’s threats.”

This means that people will calm down, which is healthy. Just as the hysteria around health and safety has created an exaggerated idea of perceived risk, so it’s unhelpful to worry about a threat rather than a fact. The downside is that when a real crisis hits, we might be so determined to wait for proof of its existence that we ignore it until it’s too late.

Ten things on the way out

Dining rooms
Letter writing on paper
Paper statements and bills
Optimism about the future
Individual responsibility
Intimacy
Humility
Concentration
Retirement
Privacy

A revised edition of Future Files, A Brief History of the Next 50 Years, by Richard Watson, will be published by Nicholas Brealey, on January 4.

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