American Culture

Predicting the 21st Century: Nostraslammy's ten-year review

Ten years ago, at the turn of the millennium, Nostraslammy took a stab at predicting the 21st Century, with a promise to check back every ten years to see how the prognostications were turning out. Odds are good I won’t be able to do a review every ten years until 2100, but I figure I’m probably good through 2030, at least, barring some unforeseen calamity. And if you’re Nostraslammy, what’s this “unforeseen” thing, anyway?

Let’s see how our 22 articles of foresight are holding up, one at a time.

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).

Too soon to tell on the cure, although I suppose it’s still possible. We have treatments that can extend the HIV victim’s life indefinitely and any number of research programs are working on the problem so let’s call this a maybe. As for part two of the prediction, that one’s looking pretty likely, isn’t it? Part three I stand by, no matter when the disease is finally cured.

2: The first quarter of the century will see the assassination of a professional athlete during a competition.

Hasn’t happened yet, but there’s no reason to think it unlikely. Fans still have unprecedented access to athletes in some sports (in most NBA arenas front-row fans might as well be sitting on the bench) and it seems to me like it’s only a matter of time.

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.

Again, hasn’t happened yet, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. Lay, Skilling, Ebbers, Madoff, Nacchio, the Rigas, Koslowski, half the bankers on Wall Street – it’s damned near unfathomable how none of these deserving pillagers have been whacked by one of the people whose lives they ruined.

In any case, put me down for “when, not if,” even if I miss my 2015 target date.

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.

This is a long-term, too-soon-to-tell item, but I can’t imagine that it won’t come true. The impact of technology on the human physiology and human cultures proceeds at an insane pace, with the innovation curve being nearly vertical. So let me get on record as being more confident now that I was even a decade 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.

We haven’t had a case that surpassed Columbine (although if we broaden the scope to include universities, Virginia Tech is comparable). We’ve seen no move to address the school size issue, so on the whole I’d say that I’m on track with this one.

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.

Ratings and attendance appear to be trending downward. A lot can happen between now and 2100, of course, but for the time being this prediction looks like a strong one.

I’m not terribly happy about it, either. I’ve played a lot baseball in my day and watched a lot more, and I love the game. I hope I’m wrong and that the game thrives in the future. But there are so many obstacles. The steroid scandals hurt the credibility of the game (although baseball has bounced back from scandal before), but nothing poses quite the threat of the rich/poor gap – and I say this as a fan of the Red Sox, the second-worst offender behind the Yankees. As long as supporters of 80% of the teams know they have damned near no chance to win, the sport is going to struggle.

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.

Perhaps more than any other item on the list, this one I’m not sure about. We could see a plateau – that has been the lesson of history – but our current pace is so explosive and shows no signs of doing anything except picking up more steam, so this prediction may wind up in the Nostraslammy’s loss column when all is said and done.

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.

This hasn’t happened yet, as far as we know, but I continue to believe this the most likely path to the evolution of AI/A Life. Not everyone agrees with me, including my friend and colleague Anne Foerst, who knows a frightening amount about AI and is convinced that it must arise within an embodied context. My counter is that the path I’m theorizing is the one that’s most like the evolutionary spurts we’ve seen throughout history.

We won’t know until we know, but mark me down as still confident in this prediction.

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.

Damn, this prediction is looking good. Of course, this was probably the most obvious one on the list.

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.

We have not had outbreaks of violence tied directly to any overt neo-Luddite movements, but I’d argue that a lot of the terrorist acts we’ve seen have had at their core the same reaction to technopoly that characterizes our self-identified neo-Luddites (like Kirkpatrick Sale, Mark Slouka and others). For instance, I’d file any and all terror by religious fundamentalists under this heading, including 9/11. Fundamentalisms are ultimately about the displacement of religious institutions as the final arbiter of morality and ethics in a culture (and a hefty fear of the rampaging change brought on by technical innovation). Take something like abortion (or any question of reproductive rights), for instance. Isn’t abortion a direct artifact of the world of medical technics? And what happens to our ability to intervene in affairs on the other side of the globe if we strip away our technological superiority?

I believe this neo-Luddite impulse goes even further – I think there’s a great case to be made that the violence of the Unabomber (read his manifesto) and Harris and Klebold are essentially reactions against a technological society run amok.

So I’m declaring victory on this prediction and believe that the problem is only going to get worse so long as our technology evolves more rapidly than our ethics.

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

We knocked half of this one out in just a couple of years. Can the Cubs win it all in the next 90 years? I think so. They’ve shown signs of life in the last decade and I think it’s only a matter of time before they win one despite themselves.

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).

Anybody seen Avatar? It just cleared the billion-dollar mark over the weekend. Yes, we’ve seen an explosion in gaming and home-based entertainment offerings, but the movie biz looks stronger than ever.

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.

Looks like I missed this one big time, didn’t I? In fact, it seems like precisely the opposite is happening at every turn.

Which is sad, because what I describe in the prediction is much needed. Our educational complex is in the worst shape it’s ever been in, and in so many cases technology is part of the problem, not the solution.

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.

Too soon to tell, but if our scientists are right about climate disruption (and I think they are) this looks likely.

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.

We haven’t found alien life yet, but we have found a lot more evidence of worlds with the conditions to sustain life (like recent discoveries concerning water on Mars). It seems like we hear a new report on alien worlds that are very Earth-like every month or two. As a result, I remain bullish on item #15.

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

One down, one to go.

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.

This one is a mixed bag at present. The first element is a gimme – this is worst moment for journalism since the days of Pulitzer, Hearst and Twain – and while I gave the legacy J establishment until 2020 to complete it’s full meltdown, it only seems to have needed half that much time.

The rest is unsettled. We could see the rise of a responsible, ethical advocacy press movement (see my series on the rise of “subjective” journalism), but there’s been no movement so far.

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.

Part one of the equation – it would have been hard for me to be more right, huh? The part at the end looks like a miss – we’re still seeing all kinds of attempts at providing a reliable center, but so far most of our energies have been devoted to delivery systems (and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before Spotify or something very like becomes that all-songs-available-all-the-time uber-channel for us all). The filtering problem remains. Net radio and satellite are doing a nice job in places, but the only mass national music outlets are things like godforsaken American Idol, which really is the talent show at the Fall of Rome.

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.

Katrina was a lot closer to that Category 5 than we like to think about, and where destructive damage is concerned let’s remember that it missed New Orleans. All that damage happened on the back side of a Cat 3.

As with item #14 above, there seems every reason to believe that this prediction will come true, although it’s too early to put it in the win column.

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.

This one is a mixed bag at best because there’s so much we don’t know. There is plenty of evidence that large corps have been hit in the way predicted (and an analyst like Winn Schwartau would tell you that foreign governments have provided all kinds of supports for the perpetrators). The problem lies with my prediction that this would all become public knowledge – that hasn’t happened, and in large part it’s because the companies involved have every incentive to keep it a secret. Further, if said companies (perhaps even with the help of our government) have launched black ops activities, that’s something else you’re not likely to hear about in a daily White House press briefing.

So all I can really do at this point is say that I failed to account for the need for secrecy, but at the same time I suspect most of the prediction was on the money. I may never be able to point to evidence that I was right or wrong, although I’ll be watching and listening with interest.

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

This was mostly snark, but the underlying point is more valid than ever. The Grammys are almost as big a joke as the Rock & Roll Hall of Product Sales Fame.

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.

I have another five years before I have to admit defeat, but at this stage my chances look dim. I do believe that we’ll see widespread nanotech and commercial fusion in this century, but my timetable was too optimistic.

So there you go. A few wins, a couple of losses, some too-soon-to-tells and partial successes. On the whole Nostraslammy is doing better than the grandpappy of predictification, Nostradamus himself, and that ought to count for something, right?

See you in 2020.

Categories: American Culture, Business/Finance, Education, Energy, Environment/Nature, Internet/Telecom/Social Media, Journalism, Media/Entertainment, Music/Popular Culture, Politics/Law/Government, Science/Technology, Sports, United States

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6 replies »

  1. 2. I think you are thinking about the big US franchises. I figure it would be more probable at small foreign football matches, if it hasn’t happened already.

    3. I’m as flummoxed as you that this hasn’t happened yet. I’m surprised al Quida hasn’t gone all New World Order crazy and taken out some Fortune 500 CEOs.

    4. The problem is that the scientists will be constantly battling people’s extraordinary capacity to indulge in sloth. We have the technology now to increase average lifespan by 10+ years if people do that 20th century notion of a healthy diet, excersize, see your doctor about problems you have and do periodic screenings. Working with health care researchers, a lot of our time is spent trying to trick patients into doing these simple things, knowing that they would do more to save and improve lives than any pie-in-the-sky immortality vaccine. It’s like that old joke about trying to build something that’s idiot-proof. They will always build a better idiot.

    6. Sadly, I think you’re right. I’m dreading what rule changes they’ll enact to make baseball more “relevant”.

    7. Compared to the technological explosion of the 1890s to the 1960s, we have leveled off; computers being the exception.

    8. I’m siding with Anne with this one. AI creators are becoming more methodological ( and the size of the primordial data soup would have to raised to the power of itself before there’s a chance of an “immaculate conception”.

    15. I bet we’ll find microbial life in the solar system before we find ET intelligent life.

    18. Spot on in the first part. But I don’s see any good venues for the little guys to break out.

    This is nifty Sam, and here’s to you being around in 90 years to wrap it up.

  2. 4. The problem is that the scientists will be constantly battling people’s extraordinary capacity to indulge in sloth.

    The ideal delivery vector, of course, will be the Big Mac. We may be getting close – Taco Bell is now a diet program.

    7. Compared to the technological explosion of the 1890s to the 1960s, we have leveled off; computers being the exception.

    That’s a fairly large exception, don’t you think?

    8. I’m siding with Anne with this one. AI creators are becoming more methodological ( and the size of the primordial data soup would have to raised to the power of itself before there’s a chance of an “immaculate conception”.

    Really? How many bits do you suppose are loose on the Internet right now? And at what rate is this number growing?

    15. I bet we’ll find microbial life in the solar system before we find ET intelligent life.

    Very likely. That is Crichton’s posit, as well.

    This is nifty Sam, and here’s to you being around in 90 years to wrap it up.

    The way things are going I have no interest in being around in 90 years. I want to die soon while the planet is still livable.

  3. How many bits do you suppose are loose on the Internet right now?

    Less than the number of molecules in the primordial soup that life supposedly sprang from. A lot less. And that was to create life, not consciousness. Spontaneously-created self-replicating viruses are much more likely to come about first. And then, well before the environment for spontaneous consciousness can come about, free-range virus-destroying bots will be set loose to make the “cloud” uninhabitable as an AI nursery.

    Philosophical question: If AI arrives spontaneously, is it really artificial?

  4. Less than the number of molecules in the primordial soup that life supposedly sprang from. A lot less.

    For the moment. But look at the growth curve.

    And that was to create life, not consciousness. Spontaneously-created self-replicating viruses are much more likely to come about first. And then, well before the environment for spontaneous consciousness can come about, free-range virus-destroying bots will be set loose to make the “cloud” uninhabitable as an AI nursery.

    Well, I don’t think my suggestion was that info life would skips several million evolutionary steps.

    Philosophical question: If AI arrives spontaneously, is it really artificial?

    Well, “artificial” is an arbitrary term. It will be non-bilogical. Call it what you like.

  5. In re #4, I gotta say, it’s a laudable goal for humanity, but I lay money on the teabagging crowd taking down the whole show well before the end of the century.

  6. Most of these seem to me to be right on the mark. However I disagree with number 2. My money is on a professional athlete assassinating a fan or several fans. The criminals are on the field of play not in the stands.