Back to the Future, again

back-to-the-future“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” Mark Twain(1)

Although the sun continues to rise every morning, my particular crop of gloomy predictions this last week makes it difficult to be too optimistic about our immediate future.

Vinton Cerf FTCVinton Cerf said that “Privacy May Be An Anomaly” during a gathering of the Federal Trade Commission to explore consumer privacy and security issues posed by the Internet of Things (“Privacy and Security in a Connected World”). He reminded us that privacy is a relatively new concept:

“It’s the industrial revolution and the growth of urban concentrations that led to a sense of anonymity,” (Vinton Cerf, as quoted by The Verge, “Google’s chief internet evangelist says ‘privacy may actually be an anomaly”)

Vinton is one of the fathers of Internet and a luminary, although since he is on Google’s payroll his judgement seems to be a bit slanted toward the interests of his company (Look his face in the photo above). Notwithstanding, he has an edge.

More gloomy is this article by Wired’s Maryn Mckenna which gives a detailed account of what we can expect if drug-resistant bacteria win the war against antibiotics. And it is not only the comeback of protracted deleterious deaths our parents once thought a thing of the past:

If we really lost antibiotics to advancing drug resistance — and trust me, we’re not far off — here’s what we would lose. Not just the ability to treat infectious disease; that’s obvious.

But also: The ability to treat cancer, and to transplant organs, because doing those successfully relies on suppressing the immune system and willingly making ourselves vulnerable to infection. Any treatment that relies on a permanent port into the bloodstream — for instance, kidney dialysis. Any major open-cavity surgery, on the heart, the lungs, the abdomen. Any surgery on a part of the body that already harbors a population of bacteria: the guts, the bladder, the genitals. Implantable devices: new hips, new knees, new heart valves. Cosmetic plastic surgery. Liposuction. Tattoos.

We’d lose the ability to treat people after traumatic accidents, as major as crashing your car and as minor as your kid falling out of a tree. We’d lose the safety of modern childbirth… (Maryn Mckenna “When We Lose Antibiotics, Here’s Everything Else We’ll Lose Too”, Wired)

The article goes on and on. She concludes that we have a few chances left to turn back the tide of resistance — but only a few, and not much room for mistakes.  Let’s hope we take them.

While you are still swallowing this pill, let me continue. Larry Summers and other economic luminaries have concluded that economic growth might also be a thing of the past, and we could have entered a period of secular stagnation, like the one Japan inaugurated more than 20 years ago.

Privacy is an anomaly, antibiotics and growth might be an anomaly. If all this is true, we are living in a sort of rare historical event or large fluctuation and poised to return to average. The future will be for sure very very different to the present and interestingly it may resemble more a not so distant past. Mark Twain must be happily rejoicing in his grave.


(1) This quote is usually attributed to Mark Twain, but as far as we know (next to nothing), it could have also been attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus. I love this quote because it is a literary version of Poincare’s Recurrence Theorem which come in very handy for this post.

Featured Image: Return to the Future II

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