The future has arrived, said William Gibson. It just has not happened to you yet.

The future has arrived, said William Gibson. It just has not happened to you yet. Count yourself lucky. Participating in discussions on the future of policing gives me a chance to think about the role of futurology in social science. Futurology often shows up in a way that gives it a bad name. It is always wrong, except for my go at it, which you should definitely listen to. Breathless predictions of the coming of network societies, freedom from the bonds of the real, and unlikely tech innovations merge together in a techno-libertarian monster. They flounder in the face of humanity’s limitless ability to screw it all up. There are some obvious flaws in these visions which I still need to point out: they assume change is driven by technology as an independent force, rather than human interests. It is a damn sight easier to change the past than the future. They read from ideal world relations to real world uses. The lol-worthy elements of this should not detain us for long. Instead let us look at what predictions have already come about, using our first trick – the old is the new thing:

We already have driverless cars. They are called ‘metros’ and ‘railways’.

We already have nuclear fusion. It is called the sun. And also ‘global thermonuclear war’.

England had a social network operating since 1516, called ‘The Royal Mail’. And since the late 19th century, ‘Have you called your mother recently?’.

We definitely already have killer robots operating in the battlefield.

I am dipping into futurology because I am examining the future of digital drug markets.

The second trick is to predict the past. Let us start from the past, usually a good, predictable place. 10-15 years ago most people buying drugs would do it from a known contact, arranged by telephone, handing over cash in person. Now a deal typically is arranged by social media, sometimes through the open web or darknet, dropped by delivery and paid for electronically, including by cryptocurrency. The drugs being bought would often be the big 6, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, amphetamines and cannabis. Now the classic illegal drugs mix with pharmaceuticals, enhancement and lifestyle drugs, and a vast array of novel psychoactives. 

Let us draw some generalisable conclusions:

  • There is no direct correlation between economic development and digitisation of the drug market. The darknet is much more prevalent in Russia than the West for example. 
  • Over time, illicit labour organisation and distribution of wealth have become more like licit models
  • The digital has become embedded in everyday life so there no segment untouched by it
  • Increasingly digital operating criminals are innovative rather than reactive

Final trick, it is safe to assume some trends will gather steam. Other have inbuilt limits which we already know:

  • Some of these trends will continue, particularly innovation. The digital world is fracturing politically and nationally, for example, as alt-right alternatives to social media are launched. Criminal groups are likely to take the lead or take advantage of the development of infrastructures that are independent of the tech economy mainstream.
  • Early trends we can see now will expand, particularly localisation and compartmentalisation. Drug businesses will be sold as an integrated package, including hosting, services and delivery.
  • We will see the replacement of the core/distributor model of drug business operation with one where the most successful will be ‘meta criminals’ who can license others to act on their behalf. 
  • The cryptocurrency moment is probably over as Bitcoin collapses under its own weight and blockchain analysis makes deanonymisation much more likely. Instead we will see payments through other non-cash systems.

Futurology tends towards the untestable and it is reasonable that social scientists do not like it very much.  Our role is often to burst the bubble at the Ted-talk party. However we have a number of jobs we have to do in order to serve our societies and communities. We need to be able to confidently predict the threat horizon. We should sketch out different possible developments and show how likely it is we will get there from here. We should be able to feedback and to pull the alarm about where these developments lead. We need to prepare people for future shocks and enhance societal resilience. 

Find out more at the Institute for the Future 

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email angus.bancroft@ed.ac.uk Tweet @angusbancroft

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