Futurology blog: what’s the next trend that’ll disrupt our world, financially, socially or just pointlessly?

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Why house prices may not bounce back as fast as we think

I was feeling fairly complacent about the 10% drop in value that my house has apparently suffered since its value peaked in the summer of 2007. After all, it’s still worth a heck of a lot more than we paid for it, and if you look at what happened in the 90s, values should start picking up again in a couple of years anyway.

Until I realized that the situation has changed in a very important way.

Back in the 90s, final-salary pensions were still the norm. That meant that the middle classes could expect to finance their retirements adequately from their pensions, without having to resort to any other funding.

Now, of course, final-salary pensions are a rarity. This means that middle-aged people who were forced to move jobs in the late 90s and early 2000s have to contemplate selling their homes to finance retirement. It wouldn't be too bad if index-linked pensions were doing OK, but they most certainly aren’t. And, of course, food and energy prices have hit older people right where it hurts.

So instead of older people sitting on all the best property, a lot of it is going to come on the market fairly soon, which will help to drive down prices even further.

Our neighbour is in exactly that position right now, trying to wait out the credit crunch while her For Sale sign casts its ever-lengthening shadow and her asking price looks ever more unrealistic. She, and the estate agents, know that one day she’ll simply have to take the best offer available, probably setting a new low benchmark in the neighbourhood.

It’s no short-term problem. Downsizing is here to stay. And not just downsizing: many retirees are opting for equity release instead. Whether people release equity by taking out a lifetime mortgage – repayable at death – or actually sell a chunk of their home to the bank, the effect is that, when they die, their descendants will inherit little, if anything. In fact, more and more children of retirees are already having to subsidise their parents in the face of rising inflation.

Inheritance is the factor that’s enabled a lot of people to afford the silly high prices of the last decade. It’s also kept a lot of quality mid-range property off the market, and helped middle-aged people kickstart their buy-to-let empires.

It’s all good news if you’re trying to get on the property ladder, but dismal news if you’re looking forward to a comfy retirement.

Wearable CCTV: a revolution in personal security

You can already shoot passable video with a mobile phone or laptop. Soon, affordable video cameras will get even smaller, small enough to fit on a brooch or those Bluetooth earclip things that cab drivers wear. From these micro-cameras, the video can be bluetoothed to a memory stick or iPod

But what’s it for? Security, of course. We’ll murder each other to get the things for our children, who, as we all know, face daily threats of all kinds of unimaginable horrors out there.

The kids will love them because they’ll be able to put their entire lives on youtube (what they fed us at school, yuck, what I vomited up on Friday night, double yuck).

But let’s face it, there will be a massive effect on crime. With all the video evidence available, the prisons will hardly be able to cope with all the new convicts at first, but one-to-one crime will certainly plummet when the bad guys realise it’s not worth it.

Happy slapping? The bullies will be filmed themselves, the films will go on youTube, tagged with the bullies’ names – and the video will become part of their digital CV forever, preventing their access to good universities and jobs.

Who knows, micro-cameras could even trigger a rise in more considerate behaviour, prompted by the desire to be seen to do something valiant – part of building up a positive CV. Imagine youTube posts like ‘my hero, who saved me from …’

Other effects? Insurance disputes involving car accidents could become cut and dried. Abusive service would be exposed. Racists in the workplace would have nowhere to hide.

On the other hand, life will be a lot less private. And a new etiquette will have to develop about when and where it is or isn’t acceptable to be recording video. I certainly wouldn’t want my dinner party recorded. Dating rules would be a minefield: you wouldn’t normally want your date recorded, but with all the scares about date rape, videoing a first date may be a good idea. (You could even get a professional date counsellor to analyse the video and tell you what you should be doing differently.)

Love it or hate it, micro-video looks inevitable.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Aliens: let's hope they never come.

Statistically speaking, it's very unlikely that there isn't another intelligent life form out there somewhere. The same principle of self-organisation of basic elements into complex organic compounds and their subsequent evolution would hold on any planet in the universe – and there are oodles of those. (If you're a creationist, you wouldn't agree, but then I'd dispute that you're an intelligent life form yourself.)

So, presuming that there are intelligent ETs, it's logical that some are less, and some more, advanced that we are. (With evolutionary spans of billions of years it's obvious that some would have evolved faster than others.) Now consider how quickly our science has advanced in the last 200 years – and imagine what a civilization just a few hundred years more advanced than ours would be able to do – and it follows that there may well be ETs capable of flitting around space and time, in ways that we can barely imagine.

So what would be the effect of an alien visit to earth? (I don't accept that they've been here yet – why would they have chosen such stupid people to abduct?)

Well … we only have to look at man's own history of exploration to figure out the problems. The Europeans' voyages of discovery were all about exploitation: investors gambled large sums of money that the explorers would bring back stuff of enormous value. And so they did: usually by looting it from another civilization.

OK, so what’s likely to happen when the aliens show up? With hindsight, it would have worked out a lot better for the Native Americans if they'd simply lured the Pilgrim Fathers into a trap and slaughtered them. And then done it again and again as each new shipload of settlers arrived. Same with the Aztecs in Central America when the conquistadors showed up.

As the Australian aborigines and the South African bushmen also discovered, it’s not the race that’s best adapted to their environment that flourishes. The more competitive and better armed race will always end up taking their land and resources from them.

The conclusion is obvious. If you invite a technologically superior race into your land, you end up second-best, if you survive at all. So you need to act mercilessly and fast.

There’s a problem with this, of course. The aliens would know the score and would be prepared for hostilities, even in the unlikely event that they really are friendly. So it would be fatal to greet them with nukes – theirs would be bigger than ours.

As you can see, this takes a little thought. Obviously, instant aggression is out. So really, we have no choice but to welcome them and hope that they’re curious enough to want to know more about us before they wipe us out. And before they do we have to lure all of them into a fatal trap. But that’s just what they’d be expecting. Hmm.

Perhaps a mutual hostage set-up would work. We offer them a few of our most important citizens in exchange for a few of theirs. And hope that we’re not hoodwinked with a few super-sophisticated robots. And that they do actually have some respect for life.

And then we do an accelerated technology exchange to get to the point where we have some weaponry that they’d take seriously, then negotiate trade agreements that are more attractive to them than an invasion. Of course, if the mother ship is waiting off-planet with millions of colonists in suspended animation, we still have a problem. Because we know that even if they start off settling in Antarctica, soon they’d want Tasmania, then South America, then the world.

There’s another problem. The aliens aren’t likely to land in the most suitable place for interplanetary negotiations. It’s more likely they’d land in some place like the Middle East or the Sudan, where they’d probably get an instantly hostile, but small-scale, reaction that would instantly taint relations, in the time-honoured fashion, and lead to more and more problems down the line. Or, on the other hand, imagine the aliens pitching up in Trafalgar Square waving a global colonisation agreement that they’d negotiated with some warlord in Eritrea. It’s no more than Westerners used to do all over the world.

OK … so could there be a situation in which we could trust visiting aliens? Perhaps, as long as they communicated with earth for a lengthy period before actually showing up. Here’s my logic: On earth, nations get along fine when they’re technologically equal and have similar values. So if some aliens got in touch, showed us some videos of their civilization (and it didn’t look too alien) and then beamed down comprehensive textbooks of their technology, we’d be able to get up to speed with them and then negotiate with them as (more or less) equals.

Thing is, if they were sophisticated, yet still just wanted all our resources without going to all the bother of nuking earth and leaving it in a nasty radioactive mess, they’d be able to show us wonderfully convincing video of just how super they were, beam down an abridged selection of technological gimmickry, win us over … and then still lead us into some nasty trap.

Hmm again.