Between 13 and 20 years ago, I made a combination of humorous and pretentious predictions. Typically, these ventures reveal one’s biases more than they reveal the future. But I reprint them here because I hope you will find some of the writing full of, if nothing else, zest.
1. In the last five decades of the twentieth century, prized “free time” was in principle supposed to allow people to derive more pleasure out of life. But people had allowed themselves to fall into more traps during their most precious hours. For instance, in order to create more leisure, they would pay people to mow their lawns and shovel their driveways. And rather than take a time-consuming walk to the grocery store, they would take their cars. But of course by doing so they found that they were not getting enough exercise, so they chewed up part of their leisure hours by joining health clubs to fiddle with dull and costly machines.
In that same time period, wifi and downloadable movies mushroomed on an astronomical scale because people had no time to engage in storytelling or thoughtful conversations. Without the patience and the energy to plan for adventures, and by engaging in limited concrete activities, they had wasted too much of their leisure in adolescence watching television or their telephones. Bereft of imagination and without an eventful agenda, they had to live vicariously through Hollywood’s products.
But all of that had changed by 2036. The way people looked at leisure had been revolutionized. Megaplexes and Nautilus clubs were closing daily. People strolled regularly, admiring foliage, observing scars on pruned trees, and examining stars and planets above them. They raked their own leaves and indulged in cultivating gardens, growing the showiest flowers and juiciest vegetables; they hiked and cross-country skied in empty lots and forests and swam in ponds and seas. And they always took the time to share their experiences with friends and family in the form of fireside stories and handwritten letters.
2. Even in China, people had given up tobacco by the year 2035. Instead, many people “smoked” math and science. Teenagers would typically carry rolled up brain-teasers in cigarette-sized packages and would distribute them among friends, sharing creative solutions to frown-inducing puzzles. The prospect of being able to do math well into their ripe years made the young less fearful of aging. As a result, they no longer had reason to be rude to the elderly or to commit themselves to an early death by smoking cancer sticks.
3. By the year 2034, a concrete version of Geocities‘ virtual world had become a reality. A new suburb was created out of neighbourhoods that were based on general interests, from sculpture to sports. In the sculpture neighbourhood,for example, there was art at every corner, and workshops were given weekly at community centers. If one wanted to talk about the history of the craft with a retired gentlemen sitting on his porch, all one had to do was walk through the particular neighbourhood. A longer stroll would take one out of that realm, and into a different sphere of human activity. All in all, the real Geocity was at least as intellectually diverse as the computerized version, and in addition it provided people with far more exercise and actual human contact.
4. Two important viral strains were identified in the year 2039. The first, ITOS,had been especially rampant in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Lodging itself in specific pathways between the cerebral cortex and brain stem, it was responsible for the urge to create workshops and seminars for white collar workers. ITOS was especially effective because of the action of its companion-virus, SIBS, which over a short period of time made people even more likely to accept untested ideas in education and industry. Since the viral epidemic, millions of dollars and worker hours had been surrendered to gurus who roamed the continent, preaching about high-school semestrial courses and downsizing. But once the vaccination program was launched in the spring of 2039, these gurus found themselves in unemployment lines, without even the urge to persuade those ahead of them to let them pass.
5. By the year 2040, virotherapy used cancer-killing viruses with the following characteristics:
(1) they proliferated only in cells with Ras-gene signalling pathways or in those with excess protein-growth factors—in other words only in cancer cells and not in normal cells.
(2) they continuously changed their protein coat, preventing the human immune system from attacking these viruses before they had a chance to eliminate tumours.
In spite of these advances, some human tumours were resistant to virotherapy. Society as a result continued to invest in preventive medicine by:
(1) carefully controlling carcinogenic compounds in consumer goods and work sites and imposing stiff penalties on industries that ignored guidelines.
(2) and encouraging consumption of fruits, mushrooms and vegetables rich in antioxidants that were active in vivo and not only in vitro
(3) by leading a physically active life.
6. By 2041 the WTA and ATP had merged into one. Women tennis stars were able to compete with men by benefiting from a heavy alloy which was used only in men’s rackets to take that boring big-serve out of their game. The ladies’ lighter rackets eliminated gentlemen’s muscular advantage, so that if the latter wanted to beat the opposite sex they had to do so with stamina and finesse, both of which were acquired and not inherited traits.
7. Most autistic people, like most people in general, do not have a special talent. A minority, the so-called autistic savants, have a phenomenal memory for specific things such as music, numbers or smells. As a renowned psychologist had pointed out at the turn of the century, it was as if the rest of the autistic brain was overcompensating for its dysfunctional part.Years after, it occurred to educators that in most people, the parts of the brain responsible for social behaviours—the same ones that are limited in autistic patients— are too active, limiting the average person’s capacity for both logical and creative thinking. Through a combination of mental training, proper diet, self-discipline and the release of internal psychoactive substances, people in 2046 became capable of turning the loud voices of fruitless thinking into a feathery whisper. On demand, the brain no longer occupied itself with commercial and political propaganda; when necessary, it shut off thoughts of gossip and finances. It then had far more energy to create art and to listen to the sounds of science.
8. By the year 2047, the LHA class of 2003 had left an indelible mark on the world of science. Forty four years ago they had consisted of a musical talent who laughed a lot, a big guy who temporarily wanted to become a fireman, an artist who for a short time distracted himself with a donut-job, a peace-loving girl who dyed her hair red for the prom, another musical talent who actually read the Crystal Ball reports, a bright girl who could easily persuade her less motivated boyfriend to study, a girl who took caffeine to dance more gracefully, a modest guy who had the most analytical brain the school had seen in the 21st century to date and of many more noteworthy students.
Although they managed to open windows into the neurochemistry behind motivation, musical talent,logic, ambition, and temperament, the LHA class of 2003 found that the brain is like the sky and weather: intricate, beautiful, stormy, partly predetermined, and in the long-term unpredictable. Whether they approached a subject at the level of the organism or at the molecular level, their probes themselves had an impact on the human brain, not to mention the countless other factors that shaped each person along the way. Are all the possible outcomes of personality being played out somewhere in an infinite universe? The other versions of the red-haired girl and her classmates may be unfolding, as we speak.
9. By the year 2032, the world of advertising had crumbled. After a century of “slavery to brand-names”, people became fed up with paying $100 for a pair of shoes that cost $2 to manufacture but $20 to promote. As long as the quality of goods was improved, total sales did not suffer dramatically because of Third World demand. With public opinion behind them, governments were then able to pressure manufacturers in meeting durability and environmental standards, which were funded by capital that in the past had gone into running shoe contracts.
10. Not too long ago, the crystal ball of science gave us a glimpse of the year 2029. For most of the twentieth century, thanks to chemical pigments in photographs and to fluorescent materials in TV screens, electromagnetic waves from inanimate materials could resemble those bouncing off the people we loved thousands of miles away. Similarly the waves from their voices could be made to disturb the crystal patterns of tiny fragments of iron, which later led to the regeneration of so very similar disturbances on the cardboard of a speaker. But smells and tactile impressions, so unlike sights and sounds in that they involved direct interaction with matter and not energy, could not, for the longest time, be recorded. In 2029 a dream specialist, after understanding the way the brain uses memory to recreate physical feelings and smells in dreams, recorded the perfume and velvety texture of a rose and induced its impressions in the consciousness of a computer operator who had not smelled a flower in 22 years.
11. Only hydrogen and electric cars motored through the streets of Honolulu .There were no tourists parading on their scooters without a helmet. In fact, the streets of Waikiki were relatively quiet. Most tourists came to Oahu to study the geology of the island or to appreciate the interaction of light and water. Only birds slept in Kapiolani Park. The hydrogen-generating plant in Pearl Harbor had rehabilitated and hired all of the city’s homeless people.
12. This month, the crystal ball of science gave us a glimpse of the year 2026. Most states had adopted Vermont’s no billboard law on their highways. Within urban centers, the only billboards found (and there were never more than 2 per acre ) were those containing useful information such as atomic masses and physical constants.
I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.
At every major intersection, along with a 911 terminal, there was a 912 terminal, an emergency computer hot line for students stuck on homework problems. We saw a haze over L.A. that slowly but surely dissipated, suggesting that for the first time in 75 years, less than 1000 compounds diffused into its atmosphere. And there were quiet motorcycle gangs wearing T-shirts with elemental symbols on their backs. Street gangs had traded their guns in for periodic tables, and they spent their nights helping little old ladies understand moles and molecules.
13. The Empathy Assistor was invented in 2043. Using only two consenting participants with a minimum age of 15, for three nights the two people involved would experience manufactured dreams based on each others’ fears, hopes and aspirations. Each person would wake up knowing what went on in the other person’s head and soul as the latter experienced anything from taunting to ice cream, from math to television drama. It was more efficient than any other therapy or method for resolving inter- and intra-personal conflicts. Like most new technologies in the last two centuries, it was embraced too enthusiastically. Even after strict controls and guidelines, it did not work on some people. The public went back to shaming them until they were reminded to have a little empathy for those who lack the capacity.