I like ideas: the bigger the better. I’m a dreamer and the future fascinates me. So I was intrinsically drawn to the July/August issue of the Atlantic Monthly whose cover announced THE IDEA ISSUE: HOW TO FIX THE WORLD. The article coincides with my reading of The Way We Will Be 50 Years from Today, edited by 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace. 50 Years from Today collects thoughts from 60 of the world’s greatest minds about what the world will look like in 2058. It’s a fascinating collection, though most of the ideas seem either self-indulgent or benign.
There are a few ideas in 50 Years that really stretch me, though: bioengineering the human genome “and including all the knowledge up through a great college education directly in the child.” (George F. Smoot). “The technological ability to read other people’s minds” (E. Fuller Torrey). The ability to “print” products with “an inexpensive tabletop molecular nanofactory” (Ray Kurzweil). Or, the most outrageous, the ability to communicate by thinking (Kim Dae-jung).
So with the ideas of Atlantic Monthly’s contributors and Mike Wallace’s collection in my head, let me share with you my radical vision of the world in 2058.
Have you got a window? Open it. Look outside. This is the world in 2058. Much as the man in 1958 might feel if he looked out his window and saw our world, that is how we will feel in 2058. Sure, our world is snazzed up a bit from 1958–the ’58 Chevy has been replaced by the Prius and in 50 years, the Prius will be replaced with a ChryFiat Quest. Whatever.
It’s fun and sexy to imagine that all our technological dreams will come true. But neither science nor policy is sufficient to facilitate such a rapid transformation. And face it, our perspective is skewed. Across time I can think of only one 50 year period in which the world changed so dramatically that it might render a time traveler completely flummoxed and that is the period spanning the start of the 20th century.
One of my favorite questions when I hosted a talk radio show centered on this story. Life in 1893 was virtually unchanged from the dawn of man. While the industrial revolution was just getting started its effects were not yet far reaching. Most of the world was still engaged in subsistence living–people burned candles to see and fires to cook. They rode horses to work and to do errands. If you had told someone in 1893 that in just 75 years we’d put a man on the moon, he’d have thought you insane. None of the infrastructure for such a journey existed. No flight, essentially no cars, no electricity, home appliances, computers. He’d have asked you, “How are you going to build a ladder that big?” So my question became, “What would I have to tell you would happen in 2084 that would make you just as incredulous?”
Our perspective is out of wack. We expect that the world will continue to adapt in that manner. I simply don’t see it. The period of transformation of the last 100 years is an aberration. It’s like a makeover for a homely girl–an incredible metamorphosis into something new and wonderful, but she can’t do another makeover every month and realize similar gains. The law of diminishing returns prohibits it.
If I have one prediction it is this: I optimistically believe the world will be filled with war and strife.
Our Revolutionary War was a conflict born of ideas. A hundred men or so–radical, liberal, progressive thinkers–had a notion of liberty in action. They fed off each other and these ideas took hold. The War of Independence was a war to birth those ideas into reality. It wasn’t a war for power or personal gain. Knowledge not greed was the seed of strife.
Today, we see the spread of distributed power generation. Renewable sources like solar and wind power are popping up all over the world. A small solar panel and a laptop bring all the ideas of the world to any village on the planet. Villagers can access virtually any bit of information. That information will power new service industries which will equip villages with money, but more importantly it will show them what the Jones’s have. This will be nation-building in 2058. We will literally empower a village and let knowledge do its work. As these ideas take hold and global citizens, too long on the outside of democratic processes and capitalistic opportunities, will go to war to get what’s theirs.
It will be a sign of American success when the suppressed rise up and fight for their own liberty. That is the only sustainable liberty in the first place. It is what the US should seek in its efforts to spread democracy. Not to MAKE democracies by force but to make possible democracies by knowledge. The success of our efforts will be made manifest as revolutions ripple across Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Ray Kurzweil also postulated that life expectancy in 2058 will increase by a year every year. So with any luck at all I’ll still be around in 2058 to have this article thrown in my face when the world is fully at peace for the first time in its history. Of course, if Kim Dae-jung is right, you can call me a moron without ever opening your mouth.