Futurist Thomas Frey: If you listen closely you can almost hear the armaments of battle being rolled into place. The stage is set with warring parties getting organized and the frontlines prepared. 2012 is destined to become the most turbulent year on record, a battleground of epic proportions.

But the primary wars of 2012 will not be fought with guns, tanks, or missiles. Instead, they will be fought inside corporate boardrooms, hacker basements, offices of government policy wonks, startup garages, on central banking committees, and the entire monetary playing field. And while the battles won’t be fought with gunpowder and bullets, battlefield generals will be empowered to use the equally lethal weapons of reputation assassins, privacy snipers, and data-blackmailers.

The U.S. presidential elections are heating up. Dirty politics of the past will seem like child’s play compared to what is about to be unleashed in 2012. During these campaigns we will be witnessing full-frontal reputation-lynchings with play-by-play narratives telling us how to think, shown on every possible surface along the information highway.

The reason I’m bring this up is because the lawlessness with which national candidates use to conduct themselves on the path to getting elected, will set the tone for nearly every other aspect of social life. And this disruptive conduct will lead to problems and chaos like never before. But that’s just a small piece of the driving forces that will influencing our future next year.

Below is a list of the eight colliding forces that will turn 2012 into one of the most memorable in all history:

1.) Atoms Vs. Electrons

While most people don’t think of it this way, there is a war going on between atoms and electrons. Atoms are what I use to describe everything in the physical world and electrons are the embodiment of the digital world.

Digital businesses are moving exponentially faster than anything that requires manipulating physical materials. Companies today are making conscious decisions about whether they should be working with physical products or digital ones.

Physical products require the use of raw materials, designers and engineers, shipping & receiving, inventory, warehouse space, shelf space, marketing & sales, and most importantly, physical products have tax implications. Digital products, on the other hand, can eliminate 90% of the work involved in distributing them.

Digital companies move exponentially faster than physical ones, simply because they can.

We are witnessing a brain drain as employees leave their physical-world jobs in transportation, manufacturing, and service industries to move into positions in digital companies because that is where all the excitement is.

Even though we run the very real risk of becoming a digitally distorted society, giving too much power to geeks and nerds, it will be a refreshing move away from the banking overlords of the past decade.

2.) Student Debt Crisis – Online Education Vs. the Sage on Stage

There has always been competing forces within education, but the looming student debt crisis is beginning to paint colleges with the same brush as Wall Street. And the belt-tightening ahead for colleges will be a precursor to reining in costs in K-12. As the austerity movement in Washington begins to settle in, education, like virtually every other profession, will be asked to do more for less.

At the same time, there’s a new sheriff in town, in the form of online education, holding everyone’s feet to the fire.

As evidenced by the success of the Michael Milken – Larry Ellison funded K12, a Virginia-based company leading a national movement to replace classrooms with computers. K12 works which children as young as 5 who learn at home at taxpayer expense. With some 95,000 students already enrolled in its system, K12 is demonstrating a strong case for giving new options to students who, until now, have been relegated to attend the failing school next door.

While their efforts are not without its detractors, this sudden shift towards acceptance is causing a new wave of introspection among educators. This introspection can best be summed up in the educator’s dilemma – “Am I really looking out for what’s best for the kids, or is this more about protecting my job, saving the profession, and preserving a way of life?”

3.) Health Food Vs. Brain Amping

A growing number of studies about the downside of vitamins have been sending shockwaves through the alternative health field. Over the years the pattern of media headlines have gone from “Vitamins may be a waste of money” to “Study confirms significant risk of daily vitamin use.”

As with other forms of health food, the sales pitch for vitamins has been pegged to the intangible hope for better health and a better life. But they offer little in the form of instant feedback for the consumer. You may be getting healthier but you won’t know until later.

Currently there is a growing subset of the health food industry that comes with instant indicators of its effectiveness.

Energy drinks, which includes everything from Red Bull and Monster to Starbucks and home-brewed espresso, fall into the food industry category of “functional beverages.” This “functional” classification also involves sports and nutraceutical drinks.

Athletes were the original target market and primary consumers of energy drinks. However, as the energy drink market grew and expanded into various niche markets, athletes are no longer the primary target. Today, the majority of energy drinks are targeted at the 18-34 year old teenagers and young adults because of this generation’s on-the-go lifestyle.

But beyond this marketing shift comes the generational-altering philosophy that if it doesn’t happen instantly, it isn’t happening at all. And simply saying you can feel the results “soon,” will no longer be good enough.

2012 will be the year when a wide range of new self-manipulating products and drinks will be launched involving everything from “instant-strong” to “instant-sleep” to “instant-attraction” to “instant brains.” Look for electronic devices to be added to the mix that push the envelope even further.

4.) The Awareness Revolution – Big Brother Vs. Big Citizenry

Yes, the world has certainly changed since 1850 when Paul Reuters, founder of the Reuters News Service, set a new speed standard for delivering news between Brussels and Berlin by using carrier pigeons.

With the pervasiveness of smartphones and instant connectivity, we are living in a society that is jacked-in 24-7 to the world around us.

Not only are we increasingly aware of the world around us, we are able to focus the frequency of our awareness to precisely the topics and industries we are most interested in.

Those who are uncomfortable with this lifting of the veils tend to be the guardians of the secrets, people entrusted with protecting company assets, government secrets, and the old guard who firmly believes that ignorance is bliss.

With centuries of dark secrets being carefully guarded by governments to prevent retaliations decades after-the-fact, facing off against disenfranchised individuals who are mere button-clicks away from unleashing pandemonium, we are seeing a rapid escalation in legislation and technologies for preventing cracks in the national armor.

Governments are keeping a closer eye on potential disruptors and the disruptors are using what they see as the rampant growth of governmental powers as a reason to create chaos and anarchy.

These two opposing factions are becoming more entrenched on a daily basis.

This will not end well. The power struggles of global politics are on the verge of becoming totally unhinged

5.) Crowdfunding Vs. Banking Industry

On Nov. 3rd Congress moved the economically disconnected pieces of society a bit closer to the American Entrepreneurial Dream of owning a business by expanding the option for attracting angel investors. Even thought the vast majority of Americans are woefully disconnected from knowing how jobs get created, this will have a major impact on virtually everyone’s lives.

Next stop for this bill will be the U.S. Senate. Given its strong bipartisan support, and backing by the Obama administration, it looks likely that the bill – or at least some version of it – will soon become law.

Although little has been written about the long term implications of this bill, opportunists, in all walks of entrepreneurship, are taking notice and beginning to formulate plans to either launch their own crowdfunding operation or unveil a startup that can benefit from it.

Since startups have become an infinitely small portion of most bank’s loan portfolios, and the SBA who guarantees (primarily asset-based) loans for startups has become increasingly out of touch with the lean thinking and digital nature of new business formation, it wouldn’t appear to be much of a banking conflict on the surface.

However, after years of being snubbed by the financial community, startup entrepreneurs have very little love for those working in “the system.” With the right mix of personalities and motivation, a full toolset of crowdfunding options in the right hands will invariably create a powder keg of activity designed around circumventing banks entirely from the system that has dissed them repeatedly.

6.) The Transparency Wars – Privacy Vs. Convenience

As humans we are constantly radiating information, and this information is being detected, logged, and analyzed for use in startling new ways.

People gathering the data are doing so for positive reasons, to make our lives more convenient. But there is a downside to this level of exposure.

Technology for capturing personal data is now being pushed to the nth degree. As humans we need to be able to make mistakes. But transparency increases the pain threshold for making those mistakes.

It sounds good when business people talk about wearing failure as a badge of courage, and how we can improve our success ratio by failing faster and failing smarter. But, in all likelihood, the next generation of transparency won’t even let us get to that point.

As Thomas Edison so aptly reminds us, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the things that don’t work.

As transparency grows, we are approaching a logical breaking point. When we do, look for the small-time rule-breakers of the past to become the full-scale turbo-charged rule-breakers of the future.

The driving forces of those wishing to monetize transparency will find themselves in a full-scale cyber-war with those who have reached their limit. And it may involve much more than online battlefields.

7.) The Retirement Battleground – The Working Poor Vs. the Retiring Rich

Populations around the world are declining. We are seeing negative population growth in Canada, all across Europe, Korea, Japan, China, Australia, and many more. The U.S. is about even with roughly 2.1 children per family.

While the number of young people is becoming proportionally smaller, the number of seniors is becoming proportionally larger – much larger.

Americans over 65 will more than double, from 34.8 million in 2000 (12%) to 70.3 million in 2030 (20%). At the same time, the next generation of retirees are destined to become the healthiest, longest-lived, best educated, most affluent in all history.

But we will pay dearly for this level of prosperity, and with the systems as they currently stand, the working class will become the indentured servants of the retirement class, consuming a growing level of income until it reaches a breaking point.

8.) Healthcare Wars

Five driving forces will cause healthcare to go into a death spiral in 2012 – the new healthcare legislation and forces of transparency combined with the convergence of smartphones, peripherals, and apps.

With every piece of health-related information that an individual consumes, there is an accompanying moment of introspection.

People today are far more adept at connecting cause and effect relationships between everything from food and the body’s energy, to physical activity and mental alertness, to sleep and daily performance.

The more we know about the human body, the more we become aware of its deficiencies. Our health is a common topic of conversation and we now have names for thousands of new medical conditions and physical performance issues that didn’t even exist 20 years ago.

Over time the number of treatable conditions for us to contend with will increase exponentially. Enterprising people will devise treatments for virtually every slight deviation from the norm, and many will prey on those who are hypersensitive to their own physical maladies.

This cumulative awareness is building towards something, and this something I believe will involve more personal control, greater efficiencies, and a focus on the concept of “self.”

Self-diagnostics, self-monitoring, self-medication, and just an overarching need for self-control.

The massive surge in smartphone technology is setting the stage for a wide variety of health-related peripheral devices to spring to life, revolutionizing how healthcare is monitored and managed.

The combination of smartphones, functioning as small anytime, anyplace computers; wirelessly connected peripheral devices such a ultrasound wands, blood pressure cuffs, EKG monitors, skin-monitoring patches, and ingestible cameras; along with a rapidly growing app-builder community capable of finding uses for equipment that manufacturers never dreamed possible, and the stage is being set for an entirely new health system to emerge.

It is this convergence of smartphones, peripherals, and apps that is on the verge of granting us, the consumers, a whole new level of awareness, and the ability to live with far fewer gatekeepers in our quest for optimal health and physical performance.

Many in our current healthcare fields will not appreciate this development.

Final Thoughts

As I started pulling my notes together for 2012 trends, I instantly became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of changes currently in the works. The number of moving parts seems to exceed the number of stationary parts. All of our markets, systems, and technologies have become incredibly fluid, and much like a floating vessel, we are heading to parts unknown.

To a futurist, the chaotic nature of interconnecting trends and the extreme possibilities appear at times like a spinning compass needle. The disarray that we find ourselves in cries out for answers – some glimpse of the uncharted waters that lie beyond the horizon.

In the famous words used by John F. Kennedy at Rice University, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Curing the failing systems that are crumbling around us gives us a far different motivation. We are doing it because we have to. And yes, it will be very hard.

We’re not going to find a way out of this mess if the industry captains and political leaders do not pay attention to the simple chore of engendering trust.

Are we up to the task? Do we have the talent in place to lead us through the coming minefields? Only time will tell.

Ultimately, we have the opportunity to emerge as a far better world.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything