Infinity and Beyond: Pondering the Future

Only the most high-performance, top-of-the-line crystal ball could have forecast all this. Cable television includes a channel devoted solely to reruns, the most prescribed drug in the U.S. fights depression and Arizona, a state that once resisted observing Martin Luther King Day, recently passed an initiative allowing medicinal marijuana use. Madonna is a mommy, Michael Jackson is expecting to be a daddy and scientists think they have discovered proof of life on Mars.It figures. We're on the cusp of a new millennium.In a rock song some 15 years ago, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince (who was still just Prince back then) advised folks to party like it was 1999. Soon, of course, we won't even have to pretend. The year 2000 is lurking just around the temporal corner, its big, imposing shadow filling us with all the promises, thrills and anxieties that accompany a brand new century.What can we look forward to in this brave new world? Will there be space colonies? Crime? World peace? Will dry cleaners still return clothes without buttons? Will airlines be on schedule? Will we have finally stopped doing the Macarena?Futurists believe they might know the answers. By studying everything from current trends to cutting-edge technology, history to haute cuisine, these bold visionaries make it their business to gauge what we might find in the new millennium.These are just a few of their prognostications of what the next 50 years have in store for us:* The country will be fragmented with the addition of Nueva Hispanica, a separate nation consisting of parts of New York, Florida and southern California.* The U.S. Constitution will be rewritten to reflect what is essentially a continental economy.* A new trend in eating will be "nutraceuticals," foods infused with medicines and vaccines.* Married couples might renew their vows every three years, thus softening some of the trauma accompanying divorce.* "Smart" houses will boast a wealth of appliances and utilities capable of responding to their own environments.* Virtual reality technology will improve job training, giving prospective brain surgeons and airline pilots a tremendous opportunity to hone their skills.* Cars will get 80 miles from a gallon of gasoline.* Asteroid mining and lunar tourism will be big business.Far-fetched? Impossible?Maybe not. Consider the United States of a scant 50 years ago.Households in 1947 boasted no central air-conditioning, microwaves, powered lawn mowers, answering machines, VCRs, compact disc players, credit cards, personal computers, diet sodas or even roll-on deodorant. Television sets were still a novelty. A single phone (rotary) and car (six miles to the gallon) managed to accommodate the whole family. And office workers had yet to experience the joys of an electric typewriter, hand-held calculator, copy machine or voice mail -- much less a laptop.Rock 'n' roll hadn't even appeared to be labeled as the devil's music. Cigarette smoking was the height of glamour. And "gay" was a synonym for happy.Black and white children went to separate schools. Only in 1947 did the racial barrier come down in major league baseball. Baby Boomers were literally in their infancy, as their parents hauled the family off to new prefab housing Meccas called suburbs.What primitives. How did they ever survive?So, before we pop two Tylenol and sweep away the ragged remnants of the year that was, let us pay heed to what the futurists have to say about the years that will be.The working week of the future, if the experts are correct, will bear little resemblance to how we currently approach the daily grind of work.Even today, advances in communications -- personal computers, teleconferences, cellular phones and pagers -- enable many people to conduct business without venturing from their neighborhoods. Futurists look for more high-tech wizardry to escalate this trend, predicting that up to half the U.S. workforce will work from home by early in the next century. For professionals whose livelihood chiefly relies on brainpower, such as attorneys and accountants, the opportunities will prove especially inviting."We're looking at the world of home-work being quite significant," said Joyce Gioia, a St. Louis-based futurist."That being the case, we're going to see more homes being built with home offices."And that, undoubtedly, would launch more societal transformations. Not only would fewer commuters diminish the market for luxury cars, it also would limit the need for high-rise office buildings.But futurists foresee even more basic shifts for the notion of work."Our official conceptualization of the workforce is based on a 1940s model coming out of the industrial era, and it's obviously inappropriate," said Joe Coates, a Washington, D.C., futurist who has consulted for dozens of Fortune 500 companies."Somebody's going to get a Nobel Prize in economics for reconceptualizing an effective organization of the workforce."It already seems to have begun. Manpower Inc., a Milwaukee-based firm that provides temporary workers, is among the nation's largest private employers. To be sure, corporate downsizing has contributed to an increased use of temp services, which has jumped 240 percent over the past two decades.Such changes are reflected in the language of business. "Outsourcing" only recently entered corporate lingo, when Eastman Kodak in 1989 became the first major U.S. firm to turn over its information processing to an outside contractor. Now, industries outsource everything from legal services to bookkeeping.Amid this restructuring, Gioia expects more businesses will adopt a revolving door workforce, in which employees come and go, based on their unique talents. Career-hopping these days might be a corporate taboo, she said, but in the 21st century, it will be standard practice."We're going to see employees going to a company and staying there for two or three years, until it no longer works for the employer or employee," Gioia said."Then they'll move on to another employer where they can grow and be happy and gain more skills. We are going to get more sophisticated in the ways we are able to identify and take advantage of [workers'] skills and abilities."And many jobs are likely to be supplanted by machines. Futurists envision a marketplace where sophisticated robots will be washing windows, slapping together Big Macs, assembling cars and building houses.The age of robots might be closer than we suspect. About 70,000 robots already operate in U.S. factories, nearly triple the number of only a decade ago. And that figure pales beside the estimated 490,000 robots working in the manufacturing plants of Japan.Within 10 years, Coates predicts, about 70 percent of the U.S. workforce will be able to produce all the goods and services needed for domestic and export use. By 2050, he expects that number will shrink to 40 percent."The problem for the future is not going to be work," said Coates."We might even ration work, and make work a reward. The problem is going to be how you distribute the benefits of that productivity, so that everybody gets their fair licks at the growing prosperity of the country."Of course, that dilemma is hardly new to the inequitable U.S. economy. But Coates and his colleagues suspect wealth will be more evenly distributed in the future, albeit not in cold, hard cash. Even now, the world's leading financial institutions seem headed toward an era of electronic currency.If the U.S. hopes to share in the potential fortunes, however, futurists advise Americans to give up xenophobic prejudices that will be rendered meaningless in a global environment linked by elaborate computer networks. China is expected to replace the U.S. as the planet's largest purchasing power by the year 2020. And a host of Asian countries, notably Singapore and South Korea, are working hard to make their entire populations techno-literate. As the Information Age continues to unfold, successful business partnerships are certain to span continents and oceans."We need to accept the diversity we're going to have in terms of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic diversity," said futurist Ed Barlow."We're going to have to learn to get along with people from around the world who are different and accept their way as having some value, also."A community, by definition, is shaped by physical boundaries, a social world bonded by ties to country and hometown, even our favorite shopping mall or the other homes on your block.But the Internet doesn't care about geography. In the vastness of cyberspace, location has an almost liquid malleability, as neighborhoods spring up among people who may never meet face to face.Although futurists think the Internet itself will undergo dramatic changes in the next century, they expect computer networking to continue transforming how we interact. After all, social connections on the Net are based on common interests and abilities, not just because people happened to attend college together or live on the same street.Other social factors are sure to be more subtle. From business lunches to the increasingly endangered family supper, the rituals of dining provide a familiar backdrop for everyday conversation. But these customs will unravel in the 21st century, according to business consultant Bob Posten."We still have that notion in our memory banks of a family meal, the notion that it's kind of nice to sit down and eat with the family or a group of people," he said."Think about a whole new generation of kids. What do they do? What is their interaction? Their interaction's over a computer keyboard. Their social interaction has learned to be defined by the time they spend in front of their computer."Meanwhile, the high-tech marathon shows no sign of nearing the finish line. Computers are expected to grow more user-friendly, eventually becoming voice-activated. Virtual reality, too, might lead to revolutionary changes in communities. Futurists predict that within 50 years, Americans will be able to visit the doctor, hold business meetings and stage political conventions simply by having all the participants slip virtual reality helmets over their heads.Why not? Digital cameras already let people living thousands of miles apart hold video conferences. And the conveniences of virtual reality might prove irresistible once the technology becomes cheaper and easier to use.But that scenario has some disturbing implications, according to Rushworth Kidder, futurist and president of a Maine-based think tank called the Institute for Global Ethics."The virtues of community tend to happen around the edges of the reason that we thought we got together," he said."We thought we got together to have a conference. In fact, we hear about Gretchen's new baby. We hear about where Fred is now living and what kind of job he has. This is what community really is all about. If that disappears and all we have is a virtual community, then there's a very real question about whether there is any heart of community."Nevertheless, the high-tech possibilities appear virtually limitless. Comedian Dennis Miller, who probably would not consider himself a futurist, makes a joke of it. He has mused that when any construction worker will be able to relax in front of a TV screen every night, drink beer and screw Claudia Schiffer, virtual reality will make crack cocaine look like Sanka.Impossible? Futurist Frank Ogden doesn't think so."People will be addicted to it," he said."And in cyberspace, sex is no longer limited to the living. If you want to have an affair with Mata Hari or Cleopatra, baby, just punch in the numbers."Will such diversions make talk extinct? Edwin Abar, a mass communications professor at Westfield State College in Massachusetts, worries that we are crafting an insular society of people barking commands at voice-activated computers."I think we have to, as a society, be like that young man who stood in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square," he said."Technology is coming at us like that tank. Some people have to stand up and say, 'Stop, tank. We're going to stop for a while. You're not going to run me over. I'm going to get inside and drive you.Õ ''"I think that's what society has to do, is to look at this influx and the impact of this new technology and put a stop sign up every once in a while."Coates bristles at this suggestion, countering that the relationships forged through cyberspace will expand perceptions of community, not become it. The Information Age, he said, doesn't mean people will lose ties to their alma mater, hometown or native country.As evidence, he points to unfounded fears that arose when industrialism gave birth to the 40-hour work week."People thought, 'Oh, this is terrible. They're going to take all that idle time and [become] drunkards. They'll spend all their time in barrooms and so forth,' " Coates said."But all of the increase in leisure since 1920 is exactly equal to the time we spend watching television. We didn't become barflies. We didn't become derelicts. We didn't become drunkards. Now, you may think we could have done better than television, but it isn't all that bad."Imagine an Orwellian nightmare that reduces privacy to nostalgia, a place where all aspects of your life -- credit history, tax returns, college grades, medical and military records, even hobbies and peccadilloes -- are easily accessible to any police officer with a computer.It's a world that futurist Gene Stephens, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina, considers to be inevitable."Worldwide, you can have birth and death dossiers coded to the DNA bar codes," he said."And with the networking of computers, then you'll have pretty much a record of everything you do."Military records already include an individual's DNA code, Stephens noted, as do many daycare and senior centers.Moreover, Stephens said he expects law enforcement agencies in the future will build upon existing surveillance devices that can spy through solid walls and roofs.He isn't the only one warning of such possibilities -- Microsoft mogul Bill Gates and others suggest that video cameras in the future will monitor city streets and parks -- but Stephens goes several steps further. Specifically, he believes that police will merge supersensitive surveillance with bionics technology, noting that some three dozen body parts already can be replaced by bionics."If there are bionic ears and eyes that are as good as we have now, why not develop them better by using some of the technology we have to see and hear through walls?" Stephens said."If we can have police officers who have bionic eyes and ears who can hear and see through walls, then you have no privacy. Sooner or later, somebody's going to say, 'How can you have a reasonable expectation of privacy when any Tom, Dick and Harry can go to the electronic store down the street and listen in on everything you do, see everything you do?' I think privacy's going to be very difficult to predict in the future."Stephens also predicts alarming uses for an evolving nanotechnology and its development of computers that are invisible to the human eye. He points to Xerox and other corporations that currently are working to create "ubiquitous computing," systems of tiny interactive computers."What they're doing is suggesting that you take these little chips which network together, and put them everywhere -- on your dashboard, your collar, your office, every room of your house," Stephens said."Then they network together and create a minute-by-minute transcript of your life. What they're selling them for is to make you more efficient in business and that sort of thing."But, of course, one of the things that's going to happen is the police are going to say, 'Well, that would be great information to have for intelligence information.'"Only two years ago, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania learned how to manipulate the gene code of mice so that certain traits could be transferred through sperm to their progeny."The people who have this medical model are extremely circumscribed in their thinking about what genetics implies," Coates said."It's going to go past the disease and disorder model. We're on the brink of human enhancement. Let's say you never laughed at a joke in your life. Now, that's probably because you have some kind of genetic defect. Or let's say you're nearsighted, or have a hearing defect, or you don't like the kind of patterned baldness that you have. Those things will all be identifiable and correctable in your progeny, and, in some cases, preventable in you before they occur."If so, the idea of designer children might prove irresistible. After all, surgical procedures such as facelifts and breast augmentation are now commonplace. The human species is not exactly characterized by self-restraint. And futurists looking to the next 50 years anticipate profound changes in how we even view what it means to be human.Almost every day, they point out, newspapers bring accounts of the latest scientific marvel. The banner headlines are bound to accelerate into the 21st century, when the Human Genome Project finishes its mission to identify all three billion base pairs of human DNA. As an arm of the National Institutes of Health, the research program analyzes more than 1,500 genes each day.Because a host of illnesses and disorders are linked to specific genes, the research holds the potential for astonishing medical breakthroughs. Scientists believe that gene mapping eventually can lead to techniques that will prevent or cure deadly maladies such as cancer and heart disease. Some experts even predict the common cold will be wiped out within 15 years.For humans, growing a new arm or leg to replace a withered one probably sounds, well, ludicrous. But the idea intrigues many researchers, who say gene mapping might hold the key to organ regeneration. Want to live for 150 years? That day might not be too far off.The rapid pace of DNA research has even shocked some members of the scientific community. When the first gene was successfully cloned back in 1972, it sparked fears that humanity was delving into dangerous -- and perhaps immoral -- territory.Times change. Once the stuff of pulp science-fiction, now thousands of genes are cloned each year. And when it comes to the topic of cloning a human being, many say it's not a question of if, but when. There are reasons to proceed with such research, some argue, as human cloning could create a reservoir of body parts for transplantation.Perhaps even more staggering is how these advancements could modify our biological destiny. For the first time, humans are about to enter an era in which they can participate in their own evolution.Coates said that within the first half of the 21st century, he anticipates the leadership of a country -- probably in Asia -- will use genetic engineering to raise the IQ level of every citizen by as much as 15 points. That boost, he said, would elevate everyone to the mental capacity of a medical student, which could spur another wave of scientific discoveriesBut some experts worry how, and if, things will end."If you can build a master race, you can build a slave race," Kidder said."You can build a race of people with strong backs and weak minds, intentionally dumb people who will do whatever you ask them to do -- whether that means working in your mines or your fields or your wars -- and basically will eat nothing but oatmeal and will propagate like rabbits."Indeed, some prognostications sound downright weird. Many futurists believe that human genes inevitably will be combined with those of animals, plants and insects. By 2050, they say, it might not be uncommon to find yourself sharing an elevator with a family sporting gills and insect wings."Defining what is human may be a problem within 50 years," Stephens said."I call these new creatures 'humanoids.' What happens if a fish-type person and a bird-type person have a problem -- somebody gets killed or something? Is this going to be handled through the courts or is it going to be handled through the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)?"Most predictions of human evolution, however, are decidedly more benign. Ogden said he believes that access to information alone will prompt a higher level of human consciousness."We've never had anything like this," he said."Nobody in history has ever been subjected to the amount of information that a kid today can absorb in one night. A kid that has access to a phone line, a modem and a computer has access in one evening to more information than his parents had in both their lifetimes. And if a kid is lucky enough to have access to a satellite dish ... he has access in one evening to more information than all their ancestors in history. You have to create a different species, with that type of input."To prepare for this brave new millennium, Ogden offered this bit of advice."Today, you have to see the world through the new eyes of the Communication Age -- not the clouded lenses of the Industrial Age, where you see nothing but doom and gloom, unemployment, disaster," he said."I call it 'crossing the river.' There's nothing that can't be done today. Nothing."

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