What will the future hold? Most visions of “the future” are either gleaming utopias, or Orwellian horrors. But, relative to a century ago, the present is neither. Many things are better, many things worse. Utopias and dystopias make for great stories, but they don’t give a map of what is to come.
So what can we do? At least for the next decade, we get pretty far just by extrapolating trends and making logical deductions. Curiously, no writer I know of seems to have done this. Even very smart people, when making predictions, usually just take one trend (peak oil, Moore’s law, global warming, consumerism, fundamentalism, immigration, etc.) and assume it will magically determine everything. Unfortunately, the rest of the world won’t stop spinning just so Pet Cause 32 can steal the limelight. I make no claim of great precision – some of the below will undoubtedly prove false – but I do hope for more overall accuracy than most predictions I’ve seen.
(NOTE: For simplicity, all numbers below are in current dollars, not future dollars. Inflation will remain low during the beginning of the period, but will ramp up towards the end.)
– Self-driving cars will become ubiquitous. Many older cars will still be hand-driven, but they’ll be rapidly being replaced, even more quickly than automatic transmissions replaced manuals. Traffic reports will rapidly become obsolete, as every new car will have broadband Internet, and will plan the fastest route in real-time, adjusted for current conditions. Some roads will be self-driving-only, and they will have electronics which integrate with cars to prevent traffic pileups and allow higher speeds.
– The ease of driving will create a large upswing in the number of miles driven. This, combined with increased demand from China and India, will push up demand for oil far beyond present levels, until prices hit well over $200 a barrel. The government will make some efforts towards conservation and new drilling, and cars will become more fuel-efficient (a majority being hybrids), but it will be “too little, too late”. New gas rationing laws are a possibility. Carpooling will become much more common, as self-driving cars make trip coordination far easier.
– Because of the oil shortage, electric cars will become much more common, although they will still be expensive and a minority of new cars sold. All hybrids will be plug-ins, conserving gasoline for long trips.
– Corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, and nuclear fusion will still be the expensive, useless boondoggles they are today. Wind and solar will not replace coal and nuclear, but they’ll be on a much larger scale, and will fill a nontrivial fraction of electricity demand.
– Due to new oil shortages, and non-new American favoritism towards the corn industry, biofuels will keep pushing up food prices. The globally well-off will still have no trouble eating, but food becomes an increasingly serious problem for the very poor.
– Food shortages, resurgent Islamic radicalism, and a torrent of oil revenues will cause an “Arab Spring” movement to overthrow the Saudi Arabian government. The revolution will be short-lived, as American oil needs push the US to intervene militarily and set up a puppet dictatorship.
– Internet-linked goggles will be ubiquitous, and will display information about the objects they see on request. Combined with wireless microphones and earpieces, they will allow anyone to have conversations without holding a phone.
– The intellectual upper classes, made up of a mix of academia, the children of the well-off and the Silicon Valley elite, will consolidate to form a new global aristocracy. The main political battles will not be between Democrats and Republicans, but between this aristocracy and the old-guard elite, made up mostly of the heads of large bureaucracies (Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, investment banks, etc.) The public largely won’t notice.
– There will be no economic recovery. The 5% annual growth forecasted every year by Congress will never materialize. There might be one or two recessions, but nothing on the scale of the 2008 collapse. Mostly, there will just be stagnation, except in isolated sectors like information technology.
– The stock market, like the economy, will keep oscillating up and down, but there will be no big booms or busts. There will be a large but gradual capital flight from the US to more rapidly growing countries, as investors become fed up with the near-zero returns of US investment classes.
– The US national debt will balloon to about $30 trillion. Any efforts towards fiscal conservatism will be outweighed by the lack of economic progress, the growing bureaucracy and rapidly increasing entitlement spending. Interest rates on short-term Treasuries, at historic lows for years, will finally begin to rise over inflation concerns and better foreign investment options.
– Gay marriage will be legal in every state, having been legalized by a Supreme Court decision. The religious right will be as crazy as ever, but its influence will slowly wane as populations shift, and the Internet replaces TV and radio as the main communication medium.
– College costs will continue rising, and a private four-year education will cost around half a million dollars. (Remember that this is adjusted for inflation, and that incomes for most people will be about what they are now.)
– The BRIC countries will be much wealthier overall, but will still be poorer than the US per capita. However, some smaller countries will continue growing rapidly, and will have living standards clearly higher than America’s.
– Unemployment will be much more socially acceptable, and large segments of the adult population will never have a job and never seriously expect to get one. The old “go to college and get a good job” mantra will still hold sway in many circles, but many will abandon it, as costs rise and other options become increasingly viable. (The unemployment rate won’t take them into account, as it explicitly doesn’t count those who aren’t actively looking for work.)
– Large numbers of people, especially the young, will permanently live “off-the-grid”, either couch-surfing, traveling, moving to other countries, or forming autonomous, largely self-sufficient communities away from present-day city centers. They will have a lower standard of living economically than the average American, but can live reasonably on very little money.
– Conventional, 9-5 jobs will still be a majority of the labor market, but a significant fraction will be online, using electronic reputation networks. Anyone reasonably intelligent and skilled will be able to make a living by working online for far less than forty hours a week, and increasingly, many of them will be aware of it.
– DVDs and Blu-Ray disks will be fully replaced by downloads and Internet-based streaming, as bandwidth improves beyond the point of diminishing returns to video quality.
– The best games will have photo-realistic visual environments, literally indistinguishable from movies. Some will come with goggles to support full immersion, beyond what can be done with monitor setups.
– NASA will continue sending robotic probes, but its manned spaceflight program will be essentially dead, having been replaced by SpaceX and increasingly many space tourism companies. The Shuttle will not be replaced with any new government program, and NASA won’t go to the Moon, Mars or anywhere else. Private industry will be on the edge of capability for a Mars mission, but will not yet have attempted it.
– There will be no paper newspapers. Most of the old newspaper industry will have gone bankrupt, with a few large outlets like the New York Times having become online-only. Most of what we now call “investigative journalism” will be funded by individual bloggers, individual rich people, corporations wishing to promote their brand, or crowdsourced fundraising campaigns ala Kickstarter.