Nostrasamus Prophesies the 21st Century

What kind of place will the ground upon which we now stand be come January 1, 2101?

As we turn into a new millennium I imagine many people have pondered what the coming century holds for them, their children, and their grandchildren. Will the 2000s be a time of peace, of prosperity, an age of enlightenment and human achievement?

Or will humanity succumb to its darker instincts, engulfing the planet in war, environmental disaster, and economic inequity? Will technology render our world a more perfect place, or will we unleash a monster even Dr. Frankenstein couldn’t have fathomed?

I notice that a lot of time capsules are going into the ground, and one sponsored by my former employer invited a variety of “futurists” to include their predictions for the coming century. Nobody invited me to contribute, of course, but I’ve decided to speculate a bit anyway, just for fun.

Below are 22 predictions for the 21st Century. Some are U.S.-specific, and others apply to the world at large. Some are of the “well, duh” variety, while others stretch the limits of the imagination (the Cubs and the Red Sox? Please….) And some reflect what I really believe, while others are probably the triumph of hope over good sense.

No, I’m not so self-absorbed that I think anybody should plan their lives according to my big thoughts; futurism is an iffy proposition under the best of circumstances, and our world is already one of infinite variables and instantaneous anachronism.

Instead, these musings are offered as plausibilities. They are intended to provoke thought, and perhaps even debate, about the social dynamics propelling us headlong into the Great What’s Next. As such, I really do invite responses. Let me know where I’m right, where I’m wrong, where I missed a key factor, whatever.

Also, before I dive in, I’d like to thank Dr. Mike Pecaut, Dr. Greg Stene, Dr. Will Bower, and Katharine Griest, M.T. (ASCP) for their input. Their scientific and cultural expertise helped better inform some of these prognostications.

1: Researchers will develop either a vaccine or a cure for AIDS by 2020. However, it will be expensive enough that the disease will plague the poor long after it has become a non-issue for the rich and middle classes (although this is one case where political leaders might fund free treatment programs). The end of AIDS will trigger a sexual revolution that will compare to or exceed that of the 1960s and 1970s (unless another deadly sexually-transmitted disease evolves, which is certainly a possibility).

2: The first quarter of the century will see the assassination of a professional athlete during a competition. This will necessitate drastic new measures to insure the security of sports venues. In the case of more violent sports like football, the resulting tensions surrounding the game environment might actually have the effect of enhancing the atmosphere surrounding the event.

3: By 2015 a major corporate executive will be assassinated. As a result, top executives of American companies will have to live with security precautions we once associated only with top political leaders. This danger, which will extend to executives’ families, will drive many into less risky professions.

4: By the end of the 21st Century humanity’s evolution into posthumanity will be all but complete. We will be bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, and our average life span will approach (and perhaps surpass) 100, all as a result of technology’s colonization of the flesh. These changes will result from medical advances (including pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering, and gene therapy, and possibly even nanotech) and computer interface innovations designed to link our minds more closely with the boundless information resident in the Internet. We will be fundamentally different from humans born 200 years ago – CyberHumans in the year 2100 will have less in common with humanity at the turn of the Millennium than we now have with Cro-Magnon humans from 10,000 years ago.

5: Columbine-type outbursts of school violence will continue to strike large, middle-class suburban schools. Intermediate steps to increase security will turn schools into armed compounds, and will deter all but the most serious conspiracies. However, these measures will only intensify the core disease infecting these environments, and unless major steps are taken to reduce the size of these schools (and hence the anonymity factor), some student or students will eventually succeed where Harris and Klebold failed, killing hundreds of their classmates.

6: The popularity of professional baseball will continue to slip. The pace of the game, already slow by late-20th Century standards, will fail to win over younger fans, who are increasingly attuned to video-game levels of sensory stimulation, and the continuing divide between big market and small market franchises will deprive fans in all but a handful of cities of the ability to emotionally invest themselves in the hope of winning. If Major League Baseball adopts a serious salary cap and revenue sharing structure in the first decade of the century the decline of the game can be delayed. But by the year 2100 America’s Pastime will be the third or fourth most popular spectator sport in the U.S., at best.

7: The explosion of technological innovation and development we witnessed in the 20th Century (especially during the latter half) may plateau in the second half of the 2000s. Whether the leveling off occurs sooner or later will hinge on the feasibility of nanotechnologies. If nanotech proves as viable as many researchers (and science fiction writers) currently think we could continue to see the development of technological marvels we can barely imagine, and the plateau predicted here might not occur until late in the century, or even early in the 22nd. Otherwise, the nearly vertical innovation curve we’ve seen in the past few decades should be flattening out substantially by the middle of the century.

8: Artificial life will evolve, although not as a result of Artificial Intelligence projects. Instead, the massive growth of computing power, coupled with the development of the global communications web, will result in a ubiquitous network of connected information, and Information Life will occur when the concentration of information reaches critical mass, in a process not unlike the spontaneous eruption of organic life billions of years ago. Two things to note: first, given the non-physical, non-organic nature of this InfoLife, humanity may well not recognize it when it happens; and second, it may not recognize humanity as a life form, either.

9: Public rhetoric about the democratizing power of the information economy notwithstanding, the rich-poor gap will not close, but will instead widen. It is unlikely that anything short of a major revolution will alter the underlying structures of power and wealth, which are robustly self-perpetuating.

10: The Neo-Luddite Movement will become increasingly violent. Cultural dislocations resulting from the rapid pace of technological innovation and deployment in the next 20 years will fuel increasing levels of resistance against “progress.” The Neo-Luddites, already well established and with spiritual leaders firmly in place, will eventually feel compelled to abandon rhetoric in favor of drastic action. At first the technoresistance will focus its energies in terrorist strikes against machinery and facilities, but will eventually graduate to widespread terrorism against technologists themselves.

11: The Red Sox and Cubs will each win a World Series.

12: Despite the growth of the Internet and other interactive modes of entertainment, the film will survive and thrive in its current form for the foreseeable future. Prognosticators who point to the power of interactivity and suggest that traditional one-way media are doomed may be right with respect to home-based media like television, but these dynamics don’t apply to film. First, it serves as a vital locus for social interaction (it’s an ideal activity for a date, for instance); and second, our thirst for the power and mystery of storytelling is in no danger of being extinguished (the most successful videogame authors have figured this much out already).

13: By the year 2010, major universities will notice that their graduates lack many basic skills and will begin questioning the value of computers and the Internet in higher education. Some (but not all) will conclude that educational technologies place unproductive layers of machinery between student and teacher. This will spur a renewed emphasis on traditional educational strategies and basic literacy, organizational, and critical thinking skills.

14: The U.S. population will migrate northward during the second quarter of the century. Rising average temperatures will fuel a move to milder climes. Air conditioning will insure the comfort of indoor living, but many people place a high importance on outdoor activities, especially during the summer months.

15: During the 21st Century we may finally learn that we are not alone in the universe. If intelligent extraterrestrial life exists, which seems plausible at least, humanity should soon reach the point where our technology will either allow us to find it (the Contact scenario) or encourage it to find us (the Star Trek: First Contact scenario). Hopefully our first meeting will be more like Close Encounters of the Third Kind than Mars Attacks!, and if we get really lucky our new friends might have technologies for scrubbing the atmosphere, purifying vast bodies of water, and curing male pattern baldness.

16: The U.S. will elect its first female and minority Presidents. Sadly, they will prove as corrupt as the white males they replaced.

17: American media will become more vapid and less reliable early in the century, but the long-term impact could be positive. Between corporate ownership and the drive to maximize ratings at all costs, most major news outlets will be all but useless for the purpose of informing and educating the public by 2020 (with the exception of news services covering financial markets). Ironically, this could lead to a new age of subjective journalism. With the once-mighty press institutions either gone or discredited, and the ideologies of objective journalism along with them, a new breed of reporter may arise. This new journalist will be openly committed to advocacy, and will make his or her biases clear at the outset. The advocacy reporter would intersect perfectly with local populations whose disgust with the corruption and unresponsiveness of national (and even state) politics have driven them to seek involvement closer to home. It is possible that these dynamics could usher in a new golden age of civic engagement.

18: As hard as it is to imagine, commercial radio and the corporate music industry will suck worse in the next 25 years than it did in the last 25 years. The Internet will make it possible for unknown musicians to distribute their work, but in doing so it will massively increase the clutter of a media landscape that’s already over-saturated, making it harder for any particular artist to break through into the broad public consciousness. Since people love music, and since music will continue to serve as a gravity well for cultural and sub-cultural identification and bonding, mechanisms for sifting good from bad will become even more important. A service that fills this role will emerge on the Net. It may look like one of the currently developing music Web sites, or it may be a Web-based music journalism outlet, or it could be a type of service we haven’t imagined yet, but something will fill the void once occupied by commercial radio, and probably by 2010.

19: Killer storms will increase in number and intensity. Whether set in motion by industrial pollution or resulting from natural meteorological cycle, heavy weather is getting nastier, and the trend will continue. By the midpoint of the 21st century Category 5 hurricanes will hit the U.S. fairly frequently, and the mythical F6 tornado (which almost occurred for the first time in recorded history in 1999) will become commonplace. A Category 5 will hit a major coastal urban center in the next 25 years, resulting in near-total destruction of the city’s infrastructure. During the same time frame a city in the Lower Midwest will take a direct hit from an F6 or a strong F5 and will be annihilated.

20: Faced with mounting damage at the hands of increasingly sophisticated hackers, corporations will begin to see “black ops” (both online and real-world) as a necessary cost of doing business. The shift from “corporate security” to all-out “Info War” footing will accelerate by 2010, when it is revealed that a major online attack against an American company was sponsored by a foreign government. The U.S. government will be strategically, tactically, and morally unprepared to deal with this crisis, and the absence of policy leadership will result in the online equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis, only instead of three players there will be hundreds with the ability to spark a full-blown cyberwar. Needless to say, world stock markets will react negatively. When the dust settles, world governments and corporate interests of all sizes will work together to develop safeguards against activities that threaten the global economy. The most significant result of this accord will be to transfer most real power from public to private institutions.

21: Sometime before 2075 a genuinely deserving artist will win a Grammy Award. Okay, so I’m out on a limb here…

22: Some form of nuclear fusion will prove technically and economically viable by 2015. If fusion and nanotech both happen by 2020, the year 2101 will bear no more resemblance to 2001 than 2001 does to 2001 B.C., and the specifics of the changes to society are nearly impossible guess at.

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