2030: What Do Spy Agencies See in Our Future?

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Young woman in smart glasses with virtual screen

Last October, we found ourselves inundated with coverage of a peculiar pop culture occurrence: Back to the Future Day. It was an excuse to revisit a cultural touchstone, and weirdly, to look with nostalgia at an outdated vision of our present. No, we don’t have flying cars, hoverboards don’t actually hover, and the only place brimming with fax machines is likely an abandoned Radio Shack storage facility. But a much grimmer estimation of where we’d be in 2015 also reappeared last July: a Global Trends 2015 report put together by the CIA back in 2000. With a bit of Googling—er, hardnosed investigative journalism—it becomes clear that intelligence agencies do this stuff all the time. So what might another arbitrary date like 2030 have in store—and just how seriously should we take such predictions?

Deathly serious, as it turns out; a review of past accuracies suggests a much better track record than Nostradamus, Saint Malachy, or Robert Zemeckis. Tabloid rags like The Daily Mail made much of the abovementioned CIA report’s failures, even seemingly lamenting today’s absence of “cloned ‘Frankenburgers’” (though despite the Mail’s use of quotes, said report used no such term). But while some of the publication’s specifics were off, the grander currents beneath were mostly spot-on. It envisioned a world in which conflicts are steered “by large and powerful organizations rather than governments;” al-Qaeda and ISIS, we’d learn soon enough, are no more tethered to states than the KISS Army Also painfully correct: “Between now and 2015 terrorist tactics will become increasingly sophisticated and designed to achieve mass casualties.” Recall that prior to 9/11, hijacked planes were typically used for transportation, not weaponry. These would have been useful pointers for an incoming president to keep in mind; it’s a shame George W. Bush’s copy was probably tossed out with his old college Playboys.

With that astonishing degree of predicative power understood, we might confidently look ahead to 2030, or thereabouts. Those who yearn for a Black Mirror-style dystopia ruled by perverse technologies will have reason to rejoice, according to a 2012 forecast by the National Intelligence Council. Their Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science report is, simply put, bananas. Have you ever been choked up with envy by the goldfish’s ability to see both ultra-violet and infrared spectrums? Your retinal implants will show them who’s in charge. Tired of digging around for your smartphone’s USB connector? Just wait until you have to link your neural interface to a prosthetic that would shame Luke Skywalker; your own hands might be serviceable by contemporary standards, but the moneyed types of 2030 will have access to upgrades. So why limit yourself to hands? You might decide you’d rather have a robotic scorpion tail that squirts Silly String, or a tummy device that can digest pine cones and fish hooks, or all but abandon your body for an avatar (yes, like the movie). Be mindful of the hackers, though—today, they just want your bank card number. Tomorrow, they’ll be commandeering your nervous system. “Why are you hitting yourself?” will be the battle cry of a whole new breed of bully.

Sadly, other spy agencies envisage something less idyllic than the above. Strategic Forecasting, a private intelligence enterprise better known by its appropriately Orwellian nonsense title, Stratfor, rang in 2016 with their own dire warnings for the next ten years to come. Russia’s going to collapse—and honestly, given the way Putin would sooner go after former Soviet territories and punk bands than bring substantive betterment to his own desperate countrymen, that one was easy. But the aftermath, in Stratfor’s telling, will be a maudlin rehash of the USSR’s 1991 collapse: another spate of unsecured nukes and an impotent Russian infrastructure to account for them, this time requiring the deployment of our own military to keep said nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of ISIS, Uzbekistan, Martin Shkreli, or Lord knows. But should that promise of global annihilation fall short, relax—there are plenty of others. Poland, with its enviable position between Old Europe and a dying Russian motherland, will become a power player; with recent events pivoting Poland in opposition to the European Union and towards the undoing of their own democracy, that might not be a great thing (that Soviet spirit won’t die, but just move West). Or maybe China’s glaring regional income disparities will finally splinter that Red behemoth, just as the report suggests, and Beijing’s response will be to take their Iron Fist and hammer everything in sight—emboldening a beefed-up Japanese navy to wallop that sworn enemy, and from that point ask themselves: why stop there? Or maybe it’ll be our de facto ally in the Arab world, Turkey, that springs claws and swats at us. Turkey has oft been described in the West as a “moderate” Islamic state, and as such, has been gifted with a geopolitical significance that’s made Prime Minister Erdogan a little too fat for his britches. As he steers his country toward Sharia Law, “moderate” is a term with which Erdogan takes umbrage; we might as well have called Goering a “moderate” Nazi.

And so the story effectively goes like this: Pick a card, any card. Now—and we’ve never met before, have we? Now—is this the card that decimated your livelihood, your country, your family? A key trade secret, shared by magicians and intelligence forecasters alike, is that the deck was stacked against us the whole time.

Polar Bear and global warming

The cherry on top of it all, of course, is that climate change is a real existential threat—it’s going to knock the wind out of any Saudi prince just as surely as it will wipe out the domestic SUV owners who fund the Saudis’ hand-chopping, rape-sanctioning ways. While not strictly an intelligence agency—they do other things, too—our own Pentagon isn’t waiting for the outcome of some congressional pissing match to take appropriate action. With a storied and admirable history of disregarding political winds in favor of pragmatic matters at hand, the United States Department of Defense is tackling the sort of dilemma Jim Inhofe can’t mention without his snow-cone in hand: that climate change poses, quote, an “urgent and growing threat” to American interests. You know, like, our lives.

And with that, in this very article, a grand caveat is due: this piece was written with an American audience in mind. Rest assured though, foreign readers, and know that a fair amount of us here in God’s Country will likely weather all these Doomsdays just fine—inasmuch as sheer survival is a finer thing than inevitable doom (also rest assured: a fair amount of us won’t make it, which is sure to free up resources). As per our readership in the atolls of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, you peoples of Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, you polar bears perched upon vanishing ice—you guys might have a shot too, what with how the ground beneath you chases Atlantis into the briny deep. It makes common, American, scandalously uniformed sense that as the US lobs ICBMs between Turkey, Japan, Russia, or wherever, your new home on Little Mermaid-turf will be the perfect place to weather the End Times, to sip Kahlúa from a hollow coconut, and just chillax until the time comes to rise again, maybe scavenge for atomic-roasted white people flesh. Or better yet, if you can afford it: pass on the goldfish vision implants suggested by that NIC report, and instead put that money toward gills; maybe weigh the awesomeness of your robo-scorpion tail against the coming practicality of a robo-dolphin’s physique. As one great hero of American folklore put it: “Everything’s better down where it’s wetter.” That much makes sense, too—if the spy agencies are right, it’s us surface-dwellers who are screwed.

The worst part, of course: still no hoverboards that actually hover. Thanks for nothing, Doc Brown.

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