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The Future Is Not What It Used To Be

Rear Admiral Bill Rowley

April 1995

When I was growing up in the 1950's we all knew what the 1990's would be like. It would be a time of great prosperity. We would live in big homes in the suburbs. There would be many labor-saving conveniences for the homemaker, and robots would do the hard chores. We would commute to work in our own helicopters. The short workweek would mean lots of leisure time that families (mom, dad and the two kids) would enjoy as "quality time" together. Space travel would be common with people living on other planets. Everyone would be happy living a fulfilling life in a peaceful world.

Things sure did not turn out that way. In some cases we could not have predicted the full effects of new technology. Robots are not running around the house, but instead, we have computer chips in our toasters. Our dreams in some cases would have become nightmares. Can you imagine five hundred thousand people commuting to work in Washington in their own helicopters? We were very naive about the ways of economics and human nature. The Future is not what it used to be!

It is hard to predict the future. Seventy-three prominent Americans in 1893 were asked to predict what 1993 would be like. Most forecasts turned out to be hilariously wrong. They thought we would travel by fast trains and balloons. (This is because they did not appreciate the impact of that obnoxious new invention called the automobile, and of course, there were no aeroplanes in 1893.) Government would set up colleges to train servants, and factory workers would work only 3 hours a day. Houses were to be made out of aluminum because most forests had already been cut down. Laws were going to be so simple that there would be little need for lawyers, and crime would be rare because criminals would be prevented from breeding. Unemployment would disappear, poverty fade, and people would be handsomer, healthier (live 120 years) and happier. The future is not what it used to be.

We are living during a period of time when more change will occur than during any previous era in history. These turbulent times will be soon considered "the good old days" because the pace of change will only increase. Already during your lifetime, science learned more about how nature works than was learned in the 5,000 years before you were born. If you completely read the New York Times once, you will absorb more information than the average person did in a lifetime during the time of the Revolutionary War in the 1770's. The total amount of information in the world is now doubling every 18 months.

Another way to illustrate the speed of change is to look at the major transitions of human history. The first modern humans appeared about 5 million years ago and this was followed 500,000 years ago by Homo sapiens. The beginning of the age of agriculture began 50,000 years ago as hunter-gatherers began tilling the land. Five thousand years ago humans first moved into towns and cities. At about this time writing developed as did commerce and government. As you can see there is a relationship between each era with the subsequent one being about one-tenth as long. Also each new era is associated with a much higher level of information. The dawn of the industrial revolution occurred about five hundred years ago, coinciding with the invention of the printing press. We are now experiencing the present era, the information age, which started only 25 years ago. If this relationship of the length of succeeding eras holds, the information age will last only 50 years. We may already be half way through the most information explosive era in human history! What will happen next?

I hope I have impressed upon you that it is not "business as usual." Watching what has happened to the Soviet Union (and even General Motors or IBM), we realize that change has no conscience. It does not play favorites, and it can ruthlessly destroy an organization if its culture refuses to adapt. What is going to happen during the next 30 years? How can we prepare ourselves? What can we do to shape the future and make our world a better place? These are important issues. After all, we are going to spend the rest of our lives in the future.

For this presentation I am going to focus on three major forces that are changing our lives: (1) the free-market global economy, (2) technological advances, especially the information era, and (3) the population explosion. I will also touch upon four areas of major concern: (1) energy supplies, (2) food supplies, (3) natural resources and the (4) environment. Because we are part of the Navy Medical Department, I will mention a couple interesting trends in warfare and medicine.


America's economy took off after World War II and those in Europe and Asia eventually followed, creating prosperity and a large middle class. Further growth required exports and imports so national economies evolved into a global economy. The flexibility and incentives of capitalist societies overwhelmed the centrally controlled information and production of totalitarian governments resulting in the collapse of communism.

The free market global economy now means we are all interdependent and sovereignties are no longer in control. An American company can design a product in India, manufacture it in Mexico using parts imported from around the world, and sell it to Canadians through a British distributor using financial backing arranged in Hong Kong. The whole deal might have been created by a Bangladeshi entrepreneur over a cellular telephone. The large multinational company is becoming less attached to the particular interests and values of its country of origin and does not feel responsible for solving demographic, environmental or regional problems. There is also a separation of financial flows from trade resulting from the deregulation of world money markets. Foreign exchange flows amount to about one trillion dollars daily - several hundred times larger than the value of traded goods. Businesses have many ways around government controls designed to protect local interests. Displeased international investors can instantly transfer billions of dollars, racking havoc on a country's economy. Globalization has weakened the ability of the nation-state to organize its domestic and external affairs, and has almost made national borders meaningless. There is the danger that a regional financial instability could lead to a global financial "meltdown."

In spite of potential dangers, the world economy is progressively growing and trade barriers are being reduced. The major economies are converging into at least three large regional trade blocks - European Community, North America and Asia-Pacific. China, with economic growth of nine to thirteen percent per year, is now the world's third largest economy (behind the U.S. and Japan) and it could be number one by 2010.

Alvin Toffler says we are making a transition from the INDUSTRIAL AGE to the INFORMATION AGE. The machine is a good model for the industrial age. It is a mechanical system with standardized, interchangeable parts. It was built in a factory assembly line where work was simplified as repetitive tasks rigidly controlled by a hierarchical management. Projects were accomplished through a series of sequential processes (the product was designed then manufactured, marketed and sold). The pace was slow with long transitions between new products. Mass output was the norm for everything - mass production, mass markets, mass advertising, mass consumption, mass media, mass education, mass movements and mass religion.

In the emerging information age we are taking a more holistic view in which relationships among parts are important. A web of relationships enhances the flow of information throughout the organization using sophisticated computer systems. Leaders give vision rather than rigid rules, and empowered employees work with customers and suppliers. Speed and flexibility are important to beat the competition. There is compressed product development time as teams of employees from all departments work together. Products are customized to customer requirements, and automated machines can be programmed to make each item unique with near-instantaneous delivery. Success comes from precision, constant innovation and speed.


The total amount of information in the world is doubling every 18 months. Computing power is now increasing 4000 times per decade for a given unit of price. That means a personal computer purchased in 2000 will be 4000 times more powerful than one bought in 1990. Author George Gilder estimates it will be possible to buy a computer microprocessing chip containing one billion transistors (equivalent to the central processing units of 16 Cray supercomputers) for under 100 dollars by the end of the decade. Likewise, communications transmission speed is increasing about 40 percent a year. By the year 2000 there may be 1.5 billion users of the Internet. All communications - voice, text, data, image and video - can be digitized and sent through the telephone system anywhere in the world.

Packard Bell sells a multimedia personal computer that also is a TV set so you can watch television or videotapes on the full screen or in a window at the corner. Of course it also has CD ROM and a modem so that you can receive phone messages or faxes, play stereo CDS, pay bills, shop, send e-mail or tap into bulletin boards over Internet, and do ordinary computer things like word processing and playing multimedia games. Add a small video camera attachment and it becomes a TeleVideo. Some new laser printers also work as a copier, scanner and fax machine. Soon computers will be able to recognize voice, synthesize voice, and translate written and verbal foreign languages.

The information revolution is changing our lives. Rather than just talking on the telephone we can now see each other and exchange text, data and pictures at the same time. A few TV channels with poor programming are being replaced by digital data banks of thousands of video programs. films, art exhibits and courseware on demand with the ability to interact with the program. Small wireless "personal digital assistants," which could be as small as a watch, will recognize speech, decipher notes on a scratchpad, synthesize voice, know the location by global positioning satellite and interface with the phone system, TV and computer networks. Approximately 45 million Americans who spend their time on the road could use these as a personal communicator, mailbox, fax machine, notebook, electronic secretary, road map, and link to the company's mainframe computer.

Time and space will collapse as we are linked to one another by a web of communications networks and intelligent integrated office appliances. Here is how it is changing our world:

THE VIRTUAL ORGANIZATION - using integrated computer and communication technologies, corporations will increasingly be defined not by a physical space, but by the collaborative network of hundreds of employees working together from all over. These "virtual workers" could live in Bombay or Singapore as well as Cincinnati. On the horizon is the Corporate Virtual Workspace that would be something like this: An engineer at home puts on customized computer clothing and logs in on the fiber-optic network. He steps into a "virtual" company building of interconnected hallways and goes down one to his office to work. Later he goes down the hall to a colleague's office to discuss something. They may both, in reality, be hundreds of miles away, but they appear to be together talking to each other's computer generated image. The real question will be, what is reality?

THE CORPORATION OF THE FUTURE - the bigger the world economy, the more powerful will be the smaller players. This is because they are more flexible, faster and more economical - not burdened by layers of bureaucracy. Computers and telecommunications, now affordable to small companies, allow them to compete globally, and deregulation and globalization of financial markets gives them access to capital. Computer-driven technology also makes it possible to produce small runs of customized "higher value-added" products aimed at niche markets. Products produced "just in time" save money on inventory, and they can be quickly improved to compete with rapidly changing technology and tastes. Big companies will break up into confederations of small, entrepreneurial units. Small interacting firms will form themselves into temporary mosaics to be more adaptive and productive.

KNOWLEDGE IS THE RESOURCE OF THE FUTURE - land, natural resources, factories and workers are no longer the measure of a country's wealth because multinational businesses can easily obtain these things anywhere in the world. It is the APPLICATION OF KNOWLEDGE that now offers the competitive advantage in the world economy. The KNOWLEDGE WORKER is the true asset because of the knowledge and abilities he or she possesses. In the twenty-first century at least 35 percent of the workforce will be knowledge workers. They must have formal education, possess specific knowledge and skills, have the ability to acquire and apply theoretical and analytical knowledge, and continue to learn throughout their lives. They will work in teams because no one person can know enough to do it all. Because they are the true assets and are highly mobile, companies will work hard to keep them.

NEW TRIBALISM - the more universal we become the more we will cling to groups of similar people defined by ethnicity, language, culture, religion or profession. E-mail is one medium bringing the "tribe" together.

WEAKENING OF THE NATION-STATE - some predict we will see a breakup of large nation-states into as many as 1000 new countries (there are about 200 now). It has already happened in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Nations are weakened by their lack of control over global corporations and international finances. Information easily crosses borders and knowledge workers have more individual power. Governments have been ineffective in solving societies complex problems and borders created after the end of colonialism did not match ethnic groups. Tribalism is dividing these unnatural nations as ethnic groups want self rule. The new, smaller states will be more homogeneous and much more efficient and manageable.

CREATION OF THE SUPER-NATIONAL AGENCIES AND DE-MASSIFICATION - Traditionally power has been concentrated in nation-states. However, as nations find it harder to control their economies and regulate global corporations there are attempts to shift power to super-agencies like the European Community which is trying to create a single integrated market, currency and central bank. Also regional instabilities and threats to the environment that affect everybody will renew support for the United Nations to act as global peacekeepers.

Alvin Toffler writes the information revolution also causes "de-massification." Power is rapidly diffusing downward to individuals and bypassing traditional hierarchies such as family, business and government. It is facilitating all sorts of transnational enterprises - not just production, markets and finances, but also factionalism and terrorism. It is eroding the traditional national sovereignties

DIRECT DEMOCRACY - Citizens only get to vote for their elected representatives every few years. They have little control over these representatives who are much more influenced by special interest groups. Citizens are now well educated and equally qualified to make public decisions. The information explosion offers the opportunity to become very knowledgeable on the issues. Citizens could become directly involved through ballot referendums and electronic town meetings, both of which could use electronic home voting. Democracy could also be mediated through interactive multimedia and independent "media agents" who provide objective information about candidates and issues. These and other ideas make government more responsive to the people.

NEW RULES OF CONDUCT - The theme of George Orwell's book, 1984, was that "Big Brother" (the government) would soon be monitoring and controlling our lives. Just the opposite has happened. Instantaneous global communications have given everyone a window on the world so we can see what is going on. Individuals and organizations are increasingly voicing concern and taking action against behavior that is harmful to the environment or jeopardizes human rights. We have seen the downfall of politicians and governments and changes in behavior of companies because of this information.


Picture in your mind a teenager. He or she is at that awkward age of self- consciousness, struggling with emotions of idealism, ambition, sexuality and rebellion. Now try to imagine two billion global teenagers. That's how many there will be in six years - they are already born. Think of the impact we 40 million baby boomers had on America over the past 30 years. Could any other demographic force be more powerful then the impact of these teenagers over the next few decades?

These kids listen to their walkmans and watch MTV all over the world. They will become more interconnected through Internet and eventually TeleVideo. They will know multiple languages and establish international friendships through e-mail. Although they will understand and respect other cultures, they will homogenize the world. Their hunger for fresh ideas - music, fashions, images - will greatly influence culture and the market place. They will be cost conscious consumers who are aware of high technology, spend a lot on entertainment, and want to travel.

Will the world economy be able to support these teenagers with good educations and millions of new jobs a year? The alternative is undernourished, uneducated, unemployed young people feeling cynicism and hopelessness. Right now one-half of Mexicans are under 20 years old, and over the next two decades Mexico's population will grow from 88 to 140 million. There will be tremendous pressures for them to immigrate to the United States unless they find more opportunities at home than are now available..

It took thousands of years for the world's population to reach one billion in 1825. Over the next 100 years it doubled and then in 50 years it doubled again to four billion in 1976. Now there are about 5.4 billion people in the world. Although the fertility rate has dropped, growth will continue to an estimated 8.5 billion people in 2025. Its growth will finally slow to a stable population of between 10 and 15 billion during the later half of the next century. Ninety-five percent of this growth is in the underdeveloped "third world" of Africa, Asia and Latin America. This rapid growth is due to better health resulting in a markedly decreased infant mortality rate and cultural values (such as rural farmers wanting to enhance their family's labor force). The migration of these people from rural areas is resulting in megacities with all the social problems of massive unemployment and slums. The population explosion could have severe negative effects on the environment, immigration and global political stability for the foreseeable future.

As can be seen in the following graphs, America's ethnic diversity is changing and soon whites will be in the minority in some areas of the country such as Southern California.


Our dependence on foreign oil, talk of decreasing world oil reserves and expected sharp increases in energy consumption by developing nations naturally lead to fears of a global energy shortage. Oil currently supplies 40 percent of the world's energy and this will increase into the twenty-first century. Energy conservation measures and advances in energy-efficient technology in America have actually stabilized our consumption. Over the next 50 years energy sources will shift to solar cells, wind power, geothermal, natural gas and biofuels created from crops and wastes. Although safer nuclear power plants have been designed, it is unclear whether the public will accept nuclear power as a major component of energy production. Nuclear fusion and other exotic energy sources may become feasible. It is estimated that energy consumption in advanced nations could shrink by one-third by 2025, but consumption in developing nations will increase by 160 percent as they catch up economically. The transition away from oil and coal will not be accomplished without turmoil and possibly slowed economic growth, but the long term future looks bright.

It is possible to make an automobile with current technology that can get 300 miles per gallon. It utilizes lightweight composite material construction and a hybrid power system of a small gasoline engine generating electricity for motors in the wheels. Rapid development of superconductive materials will someday lead to small and much more energy efficient electrical machinery. High speed levitated trains will then become a reality.


During your lifetime mankind used up half the known supply of some of our most important natural resources. Yet, the world will not run out of raw materials because new supplies will be found, materials will be utilized more efficiently, they will be recycled and new substitute materials will be created. Computational chemists are on the verge of creating materials on demand that have specific properties such as strength, flexibility, durability and corrosion resistance. Examples are alloys made by layering specific atoms, ceramics, superconductivity materials, and smart materials that have "nerves" and "muscles" that give them memory to respond to stress. Increasingly, the most important high-tech material is sand which makes fiber-optic cable and silicon computer chips.


There is concern because of the population explosion. Can we double the world's food supply over the next 50 years? Farmers should continue to harvest more food than is needed for some time, but inefficient delivery systems and politics will prevent it from reaching the hungry in some places. This will result in one billion chronically malnourished people in the world. Biotechnology will create new forms of plants and animals that are resistant to diseases, grow under adverse conditions and even improve health (genetically altered cows can produce medicine in their milk).


The combined effects of the waste produced by industrial societies and the population explosion are so great that they are threatening the fundamental systems of nature that sustain human life. Concerns are:

1. The hole in the ozone layer lets too much damaging ultraviolet rays reach the earth's surface and may damage plants and animals. Use of cholrofluorocarbons should be eliminated by 2000 and this might slowly correct the problem.

2. Global warming is caused by the greenhouse effect of high concentrations of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. It is unknown if this is really occurring, but it could raise the sea level and cause climatic instability.

3. The developing world is burning millions of acres of rain forest to make room for the expanding population and create more farm land. It is raising the carbon dioxide concentration in the air and eliminating species of plants and animals.

4. Acid rain due to burning coal and auto emissions kills fish and pine forests.

5. Drinking water is scarce in many developing countries and raw sewage dumped into ground water causes 80 percent of all illnesses. Excessive pumping is dropping underground water tables and irrigated land is being damaged by salt buildup. There could be wars in the future over water.

6. Other problems are (a) loss of coastal wetlands and other habitat causing animals to disappear, (b) overfishing of the oceans, © desertification of farmland, (d) toxic and nuclear wastes, (e) too much garbage for landfills and (f) smog.

There is real concern because the world population is growing by 93 million a year and the developing world is more concerned with economic growth than protecting the environment. Actually the developed world uses the most energy and other resources and creates the most waste. Awareness of the seriousness of the problem is increasing, but it is unclear whether the world will respond in time to hold back the ultimate disaster.


Here are two examples of information technologies used on the battlefield:

The U.S. Army is rapidly creating the integrated battlefield where all units are connected electronically and command centers rapidly receive and integrate data including the current position of weapons and soldiers. An enemy cannon fires at us. Our sophisticated radar picks up the incoming shell and calculates the point of origin. Remote sensors and satellite pictures may also help. The battle commander instantly receives the information on video screens in the control center and decides how to destroy the enemy cannon - shoot back with a tank, fire a missile, drop a smart bomb or whatever. The goal is to receive the information, decide of the most effective response, give the order and destroy the enemy cannon within 3 minutes! That is the power of the information battlefield. It will dramatically reduce the number of shells, rockets and bombs required to fight and it will save American lives.

In the modern medical battlefield each soldier will wear a PERSONAL STATUS MONITOR - maybe like a wrist watch - which will monitor vital signs, know his position via global positioning satellite (GPS) and transmit encrypted information to a corpsman who is monitoring the situation (just like you saw in the movie "Aliens"). If a soldier is injured, the corpsman can determine his location and condition. The corpsman who goes out to assist will have TELEMONITORING - miniaturized telecommunication devices and video camera incorporated into his helmet. He can be in communication with a doctor at the rear while evaluating and treating the casualty. The physician will see everything the corpsman sees and can give instructions. The injured soldier is brought to a nearby mobile triage and treatment center with an operating room. There REMOTE TELEPRESENCE SURGERY can be performed by a surgeon miles away who uses TeleVideo and remote manipulation that can even give the surgeon a sense of feel during the surgery. After surgery the patient is placed in a TRAUMA POD that is an enclosed stretcher that can automatically monitor and provide life support - in essence a miniature mobile ICU - while being transported to a hospital in the rear.


American healthcare has been organized around the episodic treatment of acute illness. Changes in the next 10 years will increase predictability of disease risk and the paradigm of diagnosis and treatment will be replaced by one of prediction of disease and early-stage management. Most chronic diseases originate within our genome - our complex genetic programming. The ongoing Human Genome Project is attempting to map human genetic structure and is expected to locate the abnormal genes causing over 4,000 inherited diseases. This will allow genetic probes to identify potential diseases years before symptoms develop. Genetic therapy could then alter the defective gene or use other techniques to prevent or treat the disease.

The biggest change will be in our whole approach to health. Today we have a medical system narrowly focused on sickness. What is health? What is happiness? What gives meaning to our lives? What is important for society as a whole? The answers to these questions will alter the practice of medicine. Personal health must include belonging to a community of people, control over our lives, access to a good education and a rewarding job, a decent place to live and safety besides being fit and healthy. Community health means things like preventing public health diseases and providing safe drinking water, but it also includes well-being through fairness, equity and cooperation. Ecological health requires using nature's productivity without damaging it. Our future survival and happiness depends upon all of these things. Individuals must start taking responsibility for their own health and we must all work toward achieving sustainability for our society.


Alvin Toffler writes that we are experiencing the third wave, the era of the information society that will dramatically change business, government and society. It is a period of rapid change, turmoil and uncertainty. But it need not be a time for pessimism. Mother nature has the capacity to absorb these changes if we are responsible. We have the ingenuity to meet the challenges. Global business can respond quickly and adapt. I am more concerned about governments that appear overwhelmed and not designed to deal with today's complex problems. The big question is whether mankind is willing to change as our world does. Our starting point in preparing for the future is to learn what is going on around us, not only in our own narrow professions, but in the global society at large. This is important because everything now is interconnected and we are all interdependent. The future is not what it used to be.

Recommended Reading

"The Age of Social Transformation" by Peter Drucker in The Atlantic Monthly, NOV 1994.

Global Paradox by John Naisbitt, Avon Books, NY, 1994.

Power Shift by Alvin Toffler, Bantam Books, NY, 1990.

Preparing for the Twenty-first Century by Paul Kennedy, Random House, NY, 1993.

The Road to 2015 by John Petersen, Waite Group Press, Corte Madera CA, 1994.

The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler, Bantam Books, NY, 1980.

The Twilight of Sovereignty by Walter Written, Charles Scribner's Sons, NY, 1992.

War and Anti-war by Alvin and Heidi Toffler, Little Brown, Boston, 1993.

Updated 9-28-95

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