Welcome to New World Same Humans, a new weekly newsletter by TrendWatching’s Global Head of Trends and Insights, David Mattin.
This week I thought about virus outbreaks, existential risk, energy exorcisms and modernity.
Let’s do this.
Notes on an Epidemic
At the time of writing there are over 14,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and 304 confirmed deaths. It’s thought that 2019-nCoV jumped from animals to humans in a seafood market in Wuhan; human infection has now been reported in at least 16 other countries, including Japan, Australia, Canada and Germany.
For those old enough to remember it, the SARS outbreak of 2002 comes to mind. And part of what’s notable about news around the Wuhan virus is how it highlights many of the trends and innovations that have changed the world since SARS.
An AI epidemiological tool helped give early warning of the outbreak. US Republicans are using the virus as a lever to promote US industry over Chinese. Meanwhile, some Chinese villages are deploying drones to police the behaviour of their inhabitants; see his bemused senior citizen being approached and told to go inside and wash her hands. AI, the shifting tectonic plates of global power, and drones: new world, same humans indeed.
All this was much on my mind last week. On Monday I went to an event with the cosmologist Martin Rees, hosted by the new London-based ‘slow news’ startup Tortoise. Lord Rees is the Astronomer Royal. Early on, he shared with us the two most common questions he gets from the public. First, do you do the Queen’s horoscopes? His answer: ‘if she wanted one, I’m the person she’d ask’. Second, are you worried about a calamitous asteroid strike against Earth?
The second is closer to the mark, because Rees is an expert on existential risks. In his 2018 book On the Future: Prospects for Humanity he outlines several key risks that could significantly derail the human story, or even end it. He isn’t much worried about a catastrophic asteroid strike, because it is unfathomably unlikely. Nor is he much worried…