Richard Worzel is a Toronto-based futurist. Author of Facing the Future: The Seven Forces Revolutionizing Our Lives (Stoddard, 1994) he is a well-respected prognosticator, and consults to a long list of corporate and public sector clients. In this book, he examines the next twenty years (i.e. from now until the year 2017), and describes how various aspects of economic and social change will affect our lives.
"The purpose of this book is to make you aware of some of the changes likely to roll toward you in the next 20 years so that you can think about them and start to prepare." (p. ix)
One of the most fundamental developments that Worzel predicts twenty years hence is that many of us will have personal 'genies' - miniature but very powerful computer aides that we will carry around with us in the form of wearable jewelry or accessories. These computer genies will act as our communication devices for connecting with the outside world; they will monitor our bodies continuously for signs of stress or disease; and they will act as our agents to gather and interpret information on anything from a simple comparison of grocery prices at nearby stores to complex research projects for business or educational purposes. These gizmos will seem to have 'personalities' and will become familiar with our individual preferences and habits by monitoring and learning our reactions to various situations over time. We will give them names and come to think of them as being servants, associates, and perhaps even friends.
Worzel makes extensive use of vignettes to convey a sense of what the future holds for us. For example, to describe what it might be like living with such a computer genie, he writes:
"Tama's computer butler, Alfred, awakens her by gently calling her name, and gradually raising the lighting level in the room. She sits up, rubs her eyes, and calls to him that she's awake. Once she's finished with the washroom, she gets back into bed and puts on her "Looking Glasses", which look like a pair of eyeglasses but have transparent liquid crystal diode (LCD) panels instead of lenses. The Looking Glasses act as her computer monitor and let Alfred display information for her: graphs, pictures, videos, even live images of people she's talking to on the phone. They're also ground to her prescription, so they act as eyeglasses when no data is on display...
Right now, Alfred is reviewing her day's agenda with her. He informs her he's made a hair appointment at 10:00 a.m., as she asked him to do five weeks ago following her last appointment; that she has to finish the next chapter of the book she is writing on the history of English drama if she is to stay on schedule; and that she has a committee report due on child labour before 9:00 p.m...." (p. 1-3)
Using this storytelling technique, Worzel examines several areas of life in the future: communications; employment and unemployment; financial planning; marketing and consumer behaviour; health care; learning and education; and, finally, something that he calls 'the state of our souls'. What he has to say in each of these areas is interesting and insightful.
In the communications arena, Worzel predicts a change or two, even beyond the computer 'genies' mentioned above. He sees the telecommunications industry as going through a major restructuring period over the next few years, eventually sorting itself into two types of players: those who develop packages of information (content), and those who deliver them. The delivery industries will find that their service has become a commodity, and they will become increasingly competitive with one another. The content providers, on the other hand, will be faced with multiple delivery options, and they can thus concentrate on providing content. Coupled with this, he predicts a dramatic decline in the cost of communications brought about by the continuing rapid development of both hardware and software. This will lead to "...major corporate casualties in the communications field, huge losses in the value of communication companies now traded on the world's stock markets, and a new crop of billionaires among those who find ways to exploit the communications revolution.." (p. 40) The end result of all this will be an increase in supply of programming and thus competition for the attention of the audience, which will include higher-quality programs and information being made available on the one hand, but also more extreme forms of entertainment on the other. (Worzel speaks disturbingly of live "snuff" shows, suicide competitions, gladiator battles to the death, and so on.)
Worzel predicts another gloomy scenario with respect to the workforce and unemployment. Agreeing in large measure with Jeremy Rifkin's thesis in The End of Work (G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1995) he sees two great forces - globalization and technological change - as having a significant impact on the demand for work. Both factors conspire to reduce the number of jobs available in Canada (and the USA), and in effect, up the ante in terms of the basic qualifications required for those jobs that will be available. He disagrees with Rifkin that the solution to these difficulties (in North America) will be job sharing and a reduced work week - primarily because he feels that these adjustments will not enable us to be any more competitive in the global workplace, and thus will not help in the long run.
Like so many others, expects that the working environment of the future will hold more contract employment that will require greater flexibility and responsiveness on the part of workers. Accordingly, he predicts a significant increase in the number of home-based businesses, and foresees that those of us fortunate enough to have steady work will require on-going training and skills upgrading (those computer genies will have their work cut out for them).
Turning to marketing and consumer behaviour, he foresees the rise of what he terms "assassin marketing". This is the inevitable result of marketing approaches to ever-narrower market segments, ultimately to the point where individuals are being targeted by campaigns uniquely designed for them alone. "The next logical step is to be able to aim a message at a specific individual, about whom the advertiser knows such things as how often be buys the product, how frequently, and at what price. Assassin marketers will hunt for specific individuals, one at a time, and aim a message at them with a sniper scope so they don't miss." (p.128)
He makes an interesting point that in the next twenty years, businesses and organizations must shift their focus beyond quality, to other criteria that customers and clients have. 'Quality' in a product or service will simply become a 'given' - a prerequisite that is necessary in order to compete in the global marketplace. Quality by itself will no longer be a distinguishing characteristic or differentiating competitive advantage of companies that are around in the next twenty years. He believes that in this coming era of heightened quality, customers will judge a supplier on the basis of the worst experience that they have had with the company, and in terms of how that company responds to them in times of adversity.
In his chapter on financial planning, Worzel suggests that how you manage your money over the next 10 years will determine how affluent you will be during the remainder of your life. Like other authors (David Foot in Boom, Bust and Echo; David Cork and Susan Lightstone in The Pig and the Python) he sees that, due largely to demographic trends, more people will be saving rather than borrowing over the next twenty years. Accordingly, the demand for money will not be as high as in past decades, and interest rates will remain relatively low. To fund their retirements, people will thus turn to other forms of investment that, while offering higher risk, have the potential for greater return. The 'inevitable' result? The stock market will boom, continuing its broad upward rise that we have seen over the past few years. Of course, Worzel points out that the peaks and valleys inherent in the market will continue, and that fortunes will continue to be won and lost on the basis of the performance of individual companies, world events, etc. (Worzel's analyses do not, incidentally show a stock market crash after the year 2017, when the boomers start to retire in droves and cash out - he predicts that there will still be enough money coming into the market from other sources to sustain it.)
He does foresee significant generational conflict over financial matters, particularly in the area of pensions: "...it is a certainty that today's young people and the succeeding generations will pay more towards the pensions of older generations than those generations will contribute for themselves. At the same time, younger generations will experience higher levels of taxation, lower levels of government services, especially in such areas as day care and education, and will get lower pensions at the end of their careers as a legacy of our greed." (p.163)
Regarding health care, he anticipates that there will be great advances made as a result of a better understanding of the genetic basis of disease (through initiatives such as the Human Genome Project) as well as improved diagnostic technologies (such as the continuing development of positron emission tomography, CAT scanning technologies, etc.). And, of course, those computer genies monitoring our bodies all the time will give us much earlier warning of any signs of stress or illness. With all of this, Worzel suggests that we should have the capability to live to 120 or maybe even longer. The limiting factor, at least within the next twenty years, will be the cost of health care, much of which will be the responsibility of the individual. Worzel ends the discussion rather ominously by suggesting that we will have the capacity to live "as long as our money holds out".
In the critical area of learning and education, Worzel suggests an interesting future. He sees the potential for a wonderful educational system, utilizing but not driven by computer technology, where children have access to computers and can learn at their own pace using various computer-assisted technologies. In this vision, they are assisted by teachers who are knowledgeable about these technologies and can help students use them to best advantage. He talks about the use of education credits that would guarantee students access to a minimum level of educational resources and a broad range of choices. (For example, children who opted to work at home for a significant part of the school term - thus reducing the need for classroom space - might be entitled to the use of a home workstation.) To help bring this about, he sees a great potential for synergy between the commercial training industry and the formal educational system, not to train students as an industrial workforce, but to adapt the successful techniques of the former industry to the needs of the latter.
Despite this glowing possibility, Worzel admits that he doesn't think that this situation is realistic. He discusses the tremendous power of the teacher's unions, which he feels will block the directions suggested by the above as it would be seen to be a threat to vested interests. He also raises the question of money - he thinks that this will be seen as simply being too expensive and futuristic by decision-makers who will be resistant to exploring the available options. "...I expect that, over the next twenty years, we will spend billions of public education dollars reinventing technologies piecemeal that commercial training firms could provide off-the-shelf right now. It seems to me that there's an obvious fit here - but I'll bet the public sector will work hard at ignoring it." (p. 238)
In the penultimate chapter (sombrely entitled 'The Soul Under Siege') Worzel paints a depressing picture of a world torn apart as various interest groups, brought together through their ability to find one another through the Internet and held by common bonds of ideology or fanaticism, battle it out in the media or whatever other public forum offers itself. Others will withdraw from the world, amusing themselves to death through virtual reality games or meaningless television programs.
Offsetting these more bleaker trends, Worzel does see some positive changes. The continuing devolution of power to women, the increasing acceptance of minorities such as gays and lesbians, and a return (as a response to the sorts of threats that he has outlined elsewhere in the book) to a kind of community, are equally harbingers of the world to come in the next two decades.
In closing, Worzel leaves us with an ambivalent message: "Our future lies in a patchwork society, with lots of diversity and more extremes. The point to remember is that you can have a lot of influence on what parts of it happen in your life. You can work to prevent the erosion of the social values you cherish, the isolation of individuals, the marginalization of a permanent underclass, the addictive enslavement of our minds, and the danger to our souls. What it takes is thought, action, commitment - and compassion.
It's your life. It's your society. It's your future." (p.264)
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