Canada at 120: future hocks

MARK NICHOLS July 6 1987

Canada at 120: future hocks

MARK NICHOLS July 6 1987

Canada at 120: future hocks

The 20 years since Canada celebrated its centennial in 1967 in some ways have been similar to the first two decades of Confederation. On Canada Day 1987, as on Dominion Day in 1887, the country bears the marks of 20 tumultuous years which, at times, have threatened its very survival but also have demonstrated its resilience. And now, as a century ago, Canadians are challenged by incipient changes—already signalled at home and heralded abroad—which begin to foretell 20 years of transformation into a new century and toward dramatically different ways of living.

On July 1, 1887, Canada marked the 20th anniversary of its founding amid widespread doubts about its future.

Since the union of four small eastern provinces, Canada had acquired three more provinces and vast reaches of territory in the West and the North. But in the same period, as a result of steady emigration to the United States, Canada’s population had grown by only slightly more than one million to about 4.5 million. The young British dominion had—after political scandal and financial distress—completed a sea-to-sea railway system. But the country was still suffering from the stunting impact of a deep economic depression earlier in the 1880s.

Ottawa’s efforts to negotiate freer trade with the United States had not only been roundly rebuffed, but Washington was raising new tariff barriers

against Canadian products. There were separatist movements in several provinces. And in the wake of the 1885 North West Rebellion and the hanging of its leader, Louis Riel, the young country was wracked by racial, religious and regional disputes.

Although Canada embarked on its second 20 years in what historian Donald Creighton much later described as “the most dangerously critical period of its existence,” the country was to undergo revolutionary progress in that period that set it on the road to becoming one of history’s most advanced and prosperous nations. By the year 1907 extraordinary immigration had pushed the population toward seven million in nine provinces. The people

were prospering on a burgeoning grain trade and on new manufacturing industries that had more than doubled in value during the new century’s first decade.

Now, on Canada’s 120th anniversary, the majority of the country’s 25.5 million people and 10 provinces are suffering the aftereffects of the depression of the early 1980s. Debates persist over regional disparities, relations with the United States and the future forms of Confederation. But as foretold by scholars who study the shape of things to come, Canada’s pre-eminent challenge in the next 20 years may well lie in its capacity to adopt new technologies and adapt to the different living styles that they demand.

If ordinary Canadians were to stumble into one of those imaginary devices beloved of science fiction writers, the time warp, and emerge in the year 2007, they would find, says Robert Russel, a Toronto-based consultant who specializes in forecasting the future, a world like the present one in outward appearances but, “inside the shell, completely changed.” In the Information Age of the 21st Century that Russel and many futurists foresee, manufacturing will be done almost entirely by machines and most Canadians will work—many of them from their own homes—for small firms in knowledge-intensive service industries. In this new society, women increasingly will share power with men. And in the most hopeful visions of the future, people will be made freer and happier by the microelectronic revolution—and by increasingly versatile robots that will help with the housekeeping, look after old people and even act as sexual partners in a world still reeling from the devastating impact of AIDS.

Students of the future also predict a world in which nuclear weapons will still exist—principally for the purpose of preventing war—while an international police force will be needed to guard against a growing risk of terrorist attacks involving suitcase-sized nuclear bombs. Regional trading blocs will compete internationally for economic supremacy, while tentative steps will be taken toward the development of a world government. But whether the forces shaping the future will bring into being a new utopian society or give rise to a high-tech

totalitarian nightmare is less clear.

Russel, for one, says that he is convinced that the current transformation to a postindustrial society will both enrich and liberate humanity. But Michael Hollinshead, an Edmonton-based consultant, speculates that a darker outcome is possible. He calculates that the microtechnology and telecommunications that are setting the stage for a new economic order could create the basis for an improved democracy—but just as easily “you could have a Stalin sitting at the centre of all these computer networks controlling everything.”

Futurists’ forecasts often differ both in the way they imagine the gritty details of life in 2007, as well as in their broader outlines. John Kettle, a Toronto futurist, foresees a glowing future for Canada as an exporter of all kinds of services—from insurance to communications systems. But he says that life is going to be increasingly “complex,

hectic, dirtier and noisier.” For his part, Frank Ogden, a consultant who runs six businesses from his 12-metre houseboat tied up in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour, ebulliently hails the advent of an era in which the risk-taking entrepreneurs of the Information Society will “walk on quicksand and dance with electrons.” But he warns that unless Canada and the United States stop trying to preserve doomed smokestack industries, Japan and the emerging industrial nations of the Pacific Rim will relegate North Americans to the status of “technological barbarians.” Many futurists agree that the world’s industrialized economies are currently in transition to a postindustrial age that will have as profound an impact on human society as the Indus-

trial Revolution that began more than two centuries ago. At the heart of the new revolution is the microchip and the world of electronically linked circuits and intelligent machines that eventually will relegate manufacturing to robots in factories that won’t need lights or windows.

At the same time, because people can easily communicate electronically and vast amounts of information can be stored on computer discs, the need for large offices—and big bureaucracies—will disappear. Eventually, futurists predict, the microelectronic revolution will exert a fundamental and massive decentralizing force on society that will spell the end of both big business and big government. It will usher in an era of individuality and entrepreneurialism based on knowledge-intensive service industries. The process is already well under way. “There has never been a period like this,” noted Keith Wilde, an Ottawa-

based economist for Agriculture Canada and communications director for the Canadian Association for Futures Studies, “simply in the numbers of educated people and the numbers of people whose work is fundamentally involved with ideas.”

Sweeping social changes will inevitably flow from the postindustrial revolution, increasing individual freedom while fragmenting society and creating new challenges and stresses. “People will no longer be cogs in a great machine,” said Russel. “We are moving toward a postindustrial person who works on a small scale with individual skills—who is creative and flexible and doesn’t just start a job and keep on doing it until he retires.” In the individualistic, highly educated society,

new values will emerge. “The people side of the equation is going to be more important,” predicted Ottawa consultant Clive Simmonds, “and the technological, economic and energy side is going to be less important.” In the process, some Canadian institutions will be transformed. “I’m predicting no unions by the year 2001,” said Vancouver’s Ogden, “because you can’t organize companies with five or 10 employees.”

One of the most dramatic differences in 2007 may be in the increasingly prominent role played by women in the workplace. Toronto futurist Kettle, for one, predicts that women will likely make up more than half of the Canadian workforce, up from about 43 per cent today.

According to Kettle, that will be partly because the traditional male advantage of superior physical strength will mean little in the Information Society.

He adds that women possess more intuitive minds and may be better attuned to the new society. Added Ogden:

“Men make decisions based on single-track thinking, their education and their experience. That is a distinct liability in the communications age. Women do it by their perception of the environment and their intuition— which they have developed to a far higher state than men.”

Another markedly different feature of the year 2007 may be the increasingly ubiquitous role played in society by robots. Besides carrying out countless industrial and household tasks—from building cars to cooking dinner—one of their most important jobs may be to help care for the estimated one in 10 Canadians who will be over the age of 70 in 2007. The great advantage of technically advanced, increasingly lifelike robots with sophisticated artificial intelligence, noted Russel, will be that “they can be programmed so they are really focused on you. They won’t get impatient with you if you are old and starting to forget things.”

In fact, some futurists say that robots may someday make ideal lovers. In the shadow of the predicted AIDS pandemic, Russel envisages “an enormous industry” developing to provide computer-assisted and, eventually, ro-

botic sex. As an intermediate stage, Russel predicted the development of a “pleasure suit” with electronically controlled heat and pressure points that would stimulate the wearer while monitoring bodily reactions through a computerized biofeedback mechanism.

Ogden says that work developing artificial intelligence and simulating human bodies will progress rapidly enough to create androids—robots that look and seem fully human—by 2007. “Well before that time,” added Ogden, who has two robots that can change his video casettes and serve drinks, “some people will be marrying robots.

Think of the advantages: you design them to your fantasy and you program them to your stamina.”

While some of the broad outlines of the future may seem clear, there is far less agreement over the economic future. Toronto’s Kettle says that in the face of growing global competition, virtually all Canada’s present major economic sectors—manufacturing, natural resources and agriculture—will dwindle in importance—and that by 2007 virtually everything Canadians use will be imported. But that should be more than offset, said Kettle, by the export of all kinds of services, ranging from health care and real estate to banking and transportation. Already, said Kettle, Canada’s rapidly expanding service sector puts “Canada on the leading edge of the move to a postindustrial economy. And we are very good at exporting services.”

Others express concern that the relative scarcity of Canadian-developed technology may leave the country lagging. Ogden put part of the blame on Canada’s educational system: “We are not even training the kids for today, let alone tomorrow. We are playing with bows and arrows, and our rivals are using laser beams.” Unlike the Japanese or the Koreans, added Ottawa economist Wilde, Canadians “do not have a very strong sense of national vision—we are not well focused on what it is we want to do, especially together.”

Against that, Russel predicts that increasingly in the future national economies will begin to give way to a global economic system. In his 1986 book, Winning the Future, he envisaged a new economic order emerging in the first decade of the 21st century in which the functions of national governments would gradually be taken over by service corporations that lack economic or cultural roots in any single nation and are therefore genuinely global in character.

A more frightening version of world power is based on the predicted need to combat terrorism. Ottawa consultant Simmonds, for one, said that when nuclear technology inevitably falls into the hands of terrorists, the United States and the Soviet Union may join in global police action so that “if any terrorist groups whatsoever use a nuclear weapon, then they would be destroyed without compunction.”

The seers agree that whatever future mankind can guess at or glimpse will always appear both exciting and frightening. Still, when it arrives, the future simply becomes what is—and the dawning of the Information Age is likely to be no more frightening than any of the past ages of human history. There is always a chance, too, that it will be a good deal better. In the meantime, as the new technological revolution unfolds, the important thing is for both nations and individuals to keep abreast of what is happening—because, warned Ogden, “if you don’t, the electronic python will squeeze you to death.”

MARK NICHOLS