Monday, January 31, 2011

Alvin Toffler predicts China's impact on the future

CNReview summarizes the China implications from Alvin Toffler's 40 predictions for the next 40 years.

Prediction No. 2

Nation-state power around the globe will be increasingly ‘multi-polar’ in terms of who wields it and where

  • The economies of Brazil, China and India will become less US and EU centric.
  • Foreign Direct Investments will shift toward developing economies.

Prediction No. 25

China will continue to position itself as a long-term economic power-player around the globe

  • China teams with other emerging countries (Brazil, India and China) to influence currency utilization.
  • China partners with other countries (Venezuela and Africa) to meet energy needs and to import a wide range of raw materials.

Prediction No. 37

China’s monopoly control of the world’s rare earth metals market will have a significant impact on US national security and the economy

  • The seventeen elements that make up a group known as rare earth metals will remain critical to the performance of hundreds of products and technologies.
  • The US will be reliant on China’s metals to produce such things as high-performance weapons components, internal guidance systems, microwave communications systems, radars, the motors and generators that power aircraft and ships, wind turbines, high-performance batteries, hybrid cars, superconductors, computer chips and digital displays.

The last one is a mistake out of Futurism 101: never project a "trend" from something that first appeared in headlines within the past five years.  Rare metals doesn't make the cut. Even something we think of as completely transformational, like Facebook or the iPhone, will change a lot and maybe disappear in forty years.  Already, just a few months after this headline appeared, a bunch of "new discoveries" are being made of new deposits and substitutions. If anything, the brief period rare metals appeared in the news will lessen China's long-term influence, as manufacturers wake up to the problems of being dependent on a single source for their supplies.

More generally, I think Toffler is summarizing too much of the accepted wisdom from the last few years, rather than look at China  -- and some other big trends -- in a longer term context. Sure, China is becoming more influential, and as a result, the relative power of the United States will fade. But one of the consequences of the much bigger globalization trend is that all countries -- in fact the very definition of "country" --  are becoming less relevant.  Neither China nor the US can make an iPhone without the other. There is a complex web of relationships among all the people who know how to make iPhones -- the designers and engineers, parts procurement specialists, factory assemblers, logistics experts, marketing and salespeople -- but none of those relationships is defined by nationality.  In forty years it will be obvious that the web of people not countries matters most.