The best of fu­tures and the worst of fu­tures

The Progress-Index - - OPINION -

The votes that were cast on Elec­tion Day might be the most im­por­tant votes cast in a long while, but they’re un­likely to change our lives as dra­mat­i­cally as two great tsunamis that are hurtling to­ward us.

Change Agent Tsunami One is be­ing driven by sci­ence. If you thought that the Dig­i­tal Rev­o­lu­tion had reached its apex with the smart­phone, or per­haps In­sta­gram, get back to think­ing room.

The In­ter­net of Things is on the march and noth­ing ap­pears to be able or wants to stop it.

Soon you’ll have “smart cities.” In the be­gin­ning, these will be the re­sult of evo­lu­tion­ary change. Things like 5G, the next gen­er­a­tion of mo­bile tech­nol­ogy, and Wi-Fi us­ing “short tow­ers” — in fact, a lot of small tow­ers — will make Wi-Fi avail­able to ev­ery­one in a city. Then things speed up. Al­ready, the Dig­i­tal Rev­o­lu­tion is re­spon­si­ble for these life­style chang­ers: bar­codes, Uber and Lyft, ur­ban bi­cy­cle sys­tems and, yes, those scoot­ers that are whizzing around many cities. Oh, throw in Airbnb.

In store is au­to­mated trans­porta­tion with au­tonomous elec­tric cars and trucks, au­to­mated pack­age de­liv­ery by drone. Elec­tric small air­craft and au­to­mated pi­lot­less air taxis will take you from your home to the air­port. Keep­ing all these mov­ing ob­jects from knock­ing into each other or into us will take fur­ther elec­tronic wiz­ardry.

All of this will come un­der the rubric of smart cities. The only im­ped­i­ment to this stun­ning new world of ef­fi­ciency and con­ve­nience is a cy­ber­at­tack that takes down the elec­tric grid for days, weeks or longer. Ev­ery hor­ror that can be con­ceived would be un­leashed: no com­mu­ni­ca­tions, no food, no gas, no money, no sewage and no wa­ter. We’d all be re­duced to the state of prim­i­tive man with­out the skills of the Stone Age.

In its way, cy­ber­at­tack is a greater threat than any­thing posed by the ar­se­nals of China and Rus­sia. We might per­ish with­out a bang, just a whim­per. An ig­no­ble but ter­ri­ble exit.

Change Agent Tsunami Two is cli­mate change. This has all the mak­ings of a global catas­tro­phe. Low-ly­ing coun­tries might not be able to mount the de­fenses needed just to deal with ocean rise. They’d have move to higher ground in other coun­tries.

Es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble is the East Coast of the United States. While the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion may be in for­mal de­nial, the agen­cies of gov­ern­ment are pre­par­ing within their abil­ity to go against the politi­cians. Na­tional labs have maps and charts of the dev­as­ta­tion that would re­sult from a sea rise of sev­eral feet. I saw the first of these maps my­self at the Lawrence Liver­more Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory in Cal­i­for­nia decades ago. I thought they were fan­ci­ful. Now I think they were pre­scient.

The Navy is par­tic­u­larly alarmed be­cause, as Ax­ios has re­ported, the sea rise along the East Coast is likely to be worse than in other parts of the world, due to tidal and other geo­graph­i­cal fac­tors. Par­tic­u­larly, the Navy is wor­ried about bases in low-ly­ing coastal cities such as Nor­folk, Va., and is look­ing at sce­nar­ios as to where these could be re­lo­cated ef­fi­ciently and in time.

Other cli­mate change hor­rors in­clude trop­i­cal bugs in north­ern climes, mu­tat­ing viruses, more storms, droughts and tens of mil­lions of peo­ple driven from their homes, i.e. refugees.

I have no doubt that we’ll lick the cy­ber­war­fare threat. Tech­nol­ogy can take on tech­nol­ogy. Many good minds in gov­ern­ment, in­dus­try and the uni­ver­si­ties are hard at work. Cli­mate change is a many-or­ders-of-mag­ni­tude more im­pla­ca­ble prob­lem.

A very dif­fer­ent fu­ture is ahead, one that wasn’t on the bal­lot — not this Nov. 6, but it will be in fu­ture years. Great new po­lit­i­cal is­sues are in the mak­ing; is­sues that are out­side of the party-speak of this elec­tion, but which will emerge soon. In 2020? Pos­si­bly.

Llewellyn King Ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and host “White House Chron­i­cle” on PBS

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