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SA futurist’s book aims to prepare us for the future

Technology Tsunami Alert, by Eelco Lodewijks, is a valiant effort to anticipate the next 20 years in tech, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK



five bulb lights

In a new book, Technology Tsunami Alert, by retired South African civil engineer Eelco Lodewijks, a simple graph tells the story of the vast scope of change facing us in the coming decades.

A classic “hockey-stick curve”, it starts relatively flat, rises slowly and then turns sharply up. At the flat end, the author has the caption, “Centuries ago, we could predict the future and we knew what to expect as change was slow.” Then came the 200-year-long industrial age, followed by 40 years of the Info-tech automation era. Our current era, a 20-year phase, which Lodewijks calls “Mullti-tech”, is just beginning, and is also the start of the steep rise of the hockey stick. Finally, we will find ourselves in the 10-year Singularity phase, in which we have no idea what to expect.

But that doesn’t mean we cannot conceptualise this unpredictable future. Lodewijks makes a valiant effort to do so, covering a vast swathe of social, political, medical, educational, economic, and technological areas in which we can expect massive changes. He draws on existing literature, research, theories and insights to provide a futurist’s view of what is to come.

His listings of potential jobs and abilities of the future are fascinating. His list of “hyper human” attributes that the future will demand also makes it clear that he is not about technology for its own sake.

“Change is now ‘accelerating’ so rapidly that experts estimate the world will probably see more change in the next 20 years than we saw in the past 2,000 years,” he says. “This book reveals… the full breadth, depth and rate of technological change that we can expect to see in the next decade. Essentially, ‘absolutely everything’ in our lives is going to change so radically that we will hardly recognise our world by 2030-2035.”

He describes the book as “a glimpse of just how dramatically our rapidly changing future will impact our children, family, business and society, including how we can avoid pitfalls and choose a better future”.

But he does not believe this is mere entertainment:

“We all urgently need to grasp and understand the dramatic impact accelerating change, disruptive technologies and countless other trends will have on our children, families, lifestyles, businesses, customers, wealth, society and countries.

“The winners of the future will be those who choose to embrace change and adopt a new approach to life sooner rather than later.”

The book runs into the typical obstacles to predicting the future, in particular not being able to take into account all possible variables. His conclusions on drones and blockchain, for example, are that “here to stay”, and his analysis is almost quaint, given how much has advanced in the time between writing the manuscript and publishing the book. This year’s blockchain sensation, the non-fungible token (NFT) and its use in the arts, is not on his radar. The revolutionary use of drones in agriculture, a very particular South African triumph that has seen Aerobotics become a world leader in crop management, is only just hinted at. The use of drones to deliver blood and medical supplies across Africa since 2016 is not mentioned.

Given that almost every one of more than 200 pages is packed with fact, detail, analysis and prediction, however, one can excuse such omissions. The serious technologist will probably not.

Lodewijks is a firm believer in “the art of futurism”, which he defines as “the art/science of evaluating actual and emerging trends in all spheres of life, including the disruptive consequences of the convergence of countless technologies and trends for the next 10, 20, even 30 years, evaluating all the risks and opportunities, and then choosing a better future”.

He says has been engrossed in, and fascinated by, futurism since 2012. When he realised just how disruptive technological change was going to be, to absolutely every aspect of our lives in the next 15-20 years, he “set out to reveal the breadth, depth and impact of technological change on our lives in an easily readable book”.

Futurism has a poor reputation, however. In the past, it was associated with technological triumphalism, which held that all technological advances were good, even those that consigned countless humans to lives of misery, whether in factories or bureaucratic corporate machines.

In the arts, futurism was demonstrably evil. The original futurist manifesto by poet Filippo Marinetti in 1909 called for the destruction of anything old, sentimental or conventional and create a new manly culture based on machines, speed and modernity, and for museums libraries, academies and cities had to be destroyed. These represented the culture of the past, along with “morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice”. Futurism, as a result, became closely associated with fascism.

Lodewijks stays away from such philosophical, artistic and political forbears or futurism, and delves into potential political, economic and ethical dangers of technology. He embraces futurism’s 21st century definition, which is focused on preparing for uncertainty. A central theme of the book is that uncertainty about the future is only a bad thing if one is not prepared for it or informed about it, and Technology Tsunami Alert is a project to help prepare.

“It is a positively exciting future that awaits,” he says.