« Environmental Wisdom of the Crowds | Main | Solar Decathlon »

In The Year 2040...

thingstocome.jpgThe political science journal Foreign Policy celebrates its 35 year anniversary this month, and in comemoration, they've asked sixteen leading thinkers to answer the following question:

What are the ideas, values, and institutions the world takes for granted that may disappear in the next 35 years?

The answers are intriguing. Some of the replies aren't terribly surprising, if you're familiar with the authors: Lawrence Lessig argues that The Public Domain will be gone within 35 years, for example, and Esther Dyson suggests that Anonymity won't last (Lessig's article freely available, Dyson's requires free registration). These two are among the most technology-focused essays of the group; there are no Kurzweilian predictions that the human species won't be here in post-Singularity 2040.

Other pieces are a bit more provocative. French economist Jacques Attali suggests that Monogamy will be but a memory by 2040, while GBN founder Peter Schwartz argues that the War on Drugs is not long for this world (both articles are free). Both are hard to imagine from the perspective of 2005, but not completely impossible.

About half of the pieces would not be considered radical forecasts, while the remainder arguably push the boundaries of how fast society can change in a generation. Eight of the sixteen articles require a Foreign Policy subscription, including the one that could be the most controversial of the bunch: former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's argument that Laissez-Faire Procreation will no longer be allowed by 2040.

Most surprising is the lack of any significant environmental predictions (one article says that Auto Emissions will be gone, but that's not a terribly radical forecast). This derives in large part from the way the question is phrased -- we don't tend to think of the global ecosystem as an idea, value or institution. We do, however, have fundamental ideas, values and institutions related to the environment. Suggesting that (say) meat-eating or extractive industries (mining, drilling for oil, etc.) will be gone by 2040 isn't as provocative as claiming that monogamy and sovereignty are on their way out.

But thinking about the future is a game we all can play. So, inspired by Foreign Policy's anniversary, let's make our own forecasts. What do you think will be gone in 35 years?

Comments (25)

I'd bet that the American car-dependent sprawling suburb of cul-de-sacs and McMansions on the very edge of metropolitan areas will be either gone, or so transformed as to be unrecognizable, by 2040.


Human life will change more in the next 25-35 years then it changed in the entirety of the 20th Century. I see this trend continuing at a fast pace leading up to a Singularity-like event around 2050. We can already see the signs that scientific progress is speeding up faster then ever approaching exponential trend like we see in the Computer Industry today.

Interesting graphical choice, the poster for "Things to Come," the film based on the H.G. Wells story. Here's a summary of the film from IMDB: "A global war begins in 1940. This war drags out over many decades until most of the people still alive (mostly those born after the war started) do not even know who started it or why. Nothing is being manufactured at all any more and society has broken down into primative localized communities. In 1966 a great plague wipes out most of what people are left but small numbers still survive. One day a strange aircraft lands at one of these communities and its pilot tells of an organisation which is rebuilding civilization and slowly moving across the world re-civilizing these groups of survivors. Great reconstruction takes place over the next few decades and society is once again great and strong. The world's population is now living in underground cities. In the year 2035, on the eve of man's first flight to the moon, a popular uprising against progress (which some people claim has caused the wars of the past) gains support and becomes violent."

My own thought is that we shouldn't predict the future. We should create it.

Work will be gone, all will be play.

I don't see how the global fossil fuel economy can persist as it is for another 35 years. Fossil fuels will still exist by then, I think, but it's hard to see how postindustrial countries will continue to tolerate the growing expenses involved with their use. Developing countries will be burning a lot of dirty coal though.

I don't see how stipends and subsidies for the elderly can persist as they do for another 35 years, as older people become more vigorous, governments will just keep raising the retirement age to avoid paying out.

Its also likely that biodiversity will continue to diminish.

Those are the obvious ones I guess.

Things I'd like to see gone in 35 years:

The Electoral College.

The persistence of traditional measuring units in colloquial speech. Go Metric!

The persistence of corruption, war and poverty in Africa.

Patrick Di Justo:

The concept of owning intellectual property will vanish. There won't be a 2040's equivalent of the DVD or CD, since intellectual property will no longer be packaged for sale in individual units on tangible media. Instead, all content will be streamed directly to your media center, where it will reside for only a short period. If you want to watch that movie again, you've got to download it again (and pay for the rights). The cost will only be the 2040s equivalent of pennies, so most people will have no problem with it.

The last holdout will be books. They'll still exist and you'll still be able to buy them, but you'll be treated like the freak whoo collects 8-track tapes.

Patrick Di Justo:

Also, literacy as we now know it (more precisely, literacy as we knew it 10 years ago), will be completely changed. In the developed world, it will no longer be necessary to read and write in a way that anyone alive in the 1980s would understand. Jargon, codez, metaphors, and glyphs will suffice to communicate with your immediate group; if you need to communicate with the wider world, your computer will be able to translate / standardize your content. ("HAL, Granny-filter it for everyone else.")

Of course, this will result in the homogenization of written prose. Literary movements that attempt to re-create Hemingway's style will spring up, and there will be a brief fad for manual typewriters.

Joakim Ivarsson:

The idea of abolishing monogamy is not new at all and I can't see why it would happen in the years to come. It is true that our biology speaks against monogamy, but it also speaks against creating a pologamous society without or a LOT of jealousy. It's a tradeoff, and we will probably continue as now, with both solutions side by side.

Justin Minich:

What will be gone in 35 years? Hard to say.

If you're someone who reels over the grim possibilities of global warming, the energy crisis, and a government that increasingly seems to care less and less about its citizens like my friend K, then the answer is that WE won't be here in 35 years.

If you're a super-optimist like Kurzweil, then biotech and nanotech will solve all our problems in roughly this time, and the things that will be gone are The Energy Crisis, Centralized Production, Biological Brains, and quite possibly Biological Death.

I don't really agree with either position.

The very serious issues we face today that the pessimistic argumment addresses, look to be spurring an increasingly number of people to action. The rate at which alternative fuel and energy generation technologies are being developed, combined with a renewed push in fusion research is a good exmaple of this. However on the other end of the spectrum there are the rather stalled efforts at halting and reversing global warming. Somewhere in the middle you have the formation of sustainable community projects and growth of independent media.

What kind of future does this point towards? Well, in 35 years I think humanity will still be around, although whether it will be in increased or diminished numbers, I don't know. Getting to the point where the world is doing something substantial about global warming is going to take awhile. If the planet doesn't enter an Ice Age/ Tropical Age/Desert Age before this time, we should be starting to see the first fruits of an effort to seriously combat global warming. Sustainable communities and indie media are going to continue to proliferate; various sorts of citizen/government conflicts are likely to result. In energy, depsite the best efforts of fossil fuel industries we're going to have cold fusion, a number of alternative and most likely decentralized energy sources, a remote chance of a free energy device, and maybe nano solar.

Which brings me to optimistic future of Kurzweil. First, I have to say that I think Kurzweil ignores many of the major pitfalls and quandaries that come up in his vision of the future, or if he does recognize them he only pays them lip service. While I will admit that nanotech does show promise in a variety of arenas (such as energy, manufacturing, and medical applications), I don't think it will take us as far as Kurzweil suspects, and could very well be more dangerous than it's worth. A recent example is the finding that carbon nanotubes caused lung cancer in mice. Could other nanomaterials do the same? Beyond this there is the possibility of nanoweapons, which could very well wipe us out (can anyone claim to have complete control over an army of molecules?), as well as that of self-replicating nanobots in the body, which if they got out and about could bring about the dreaded "gray-goo" scenario.

Then of course there are Kurzweil's ideas on intelligence and the brain and "downloading consciousness". Are there going to be intelligence modifications to the brain via artificial means in 35 years? I can see that, but not downloading consciousness. I don't buy the reductionist, materialist, "science as meta-theory" dogma that consciousness is something that somehow arises from a particular grouping of neurons. There are too many philosophical arguments and questions on the matter. It seems that slowly but surely more people are recognizing this, thus in 35 years I see a growth of integral science, and a better understanding of consciousness, albeit not a completely physical one.

All this aside there is something else I see coming down the road concerning "the war on drugs", something that Peter Schwartz seems to miss. Perhaps one would call it the McKenna model of the future, or to paraphrase a term of his "The Entheogenic Revival". In 35 years, marijuana will be legal or decriminalized in Canada if not also parts of the US. I think the NAC will roughly stay put, but I think the UDV will branch out from its foothold in New Mexico and into the rest of the United States. Similar entheogenic religious groups will crop up as well, and will provide major competition for established and already shrinking religions. In addition, you will also have those who would rather explore on their own, but there will be much fewer of those who just want to get altered by any means necessary, and more who explore intelligently and with caution. There will probably be more designer smart drugs, but entheogens will most likely have the prominent role in helping us furthering our technical and psychological progress (Silicon Valley and the work of MAPS should be good indicators). As far as the users go, perceptions of them are not likely to change much; they already look like you and me.


In 35 years a fair bit will change.

Suburbia will still be here and will be as popular as ever but it wont look the same.

No more rushing cummuters weaving around to get thier kids in school and themsevles to work. By 2040 75% of people will do no work at all and 75% of the rest will work exclusingly from home.

Food will be nearly free.. as long as you dont want anything special. It will come in big autofactory made tubs and then massaged by washing machine sized appliances into anything from hotdogs to pizza to cheeseypoofs to beer.

Homes will be free. Due to ww3 and the plagues and globat warming and at least 3-4 realy bad screwups and some rather nasty natural disasters combined with armies of robots building homes left and right we will have 3 homes for every family alive in 2040. We will also have about 10 robots for every person.

Better homes of course wont be free but tons of homes will be.

All that we can will be recorded as to dna sequencing so that by 2100 we will build massive buildings to house every animal and plant that can recreate. The number of "sepcies" will explode as people make more and more man made ones. At least 3-40 will be deadly t man and eat alot of people.

By 2040 the combo of natural and unnatural climate change and general namby pamby weakening of current generations will result in fully 90% of all people on earth being utterly incapable of leaving the city or going anywhere "wild". This effect will empty most of the world of people by the end of the century.

By 2040 homes will be mini fortresses designed to withstand the weather and what horrors madmen and stupid men and just plain clutzes unleash apon the world. This will include dozens of deadly insidious monsterous animals as well as others.

By 2040 at least 1 ai will try to kill as many people as it can and will prolly be rather good at it.

By 2040 california will have had its big earthquake and so will tokeyo.


An interesting quote worth reading in light of this post:

"The human race, to which so many...belong, has been playing at children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called, 'Keep tomorrow dark,' and which is also named...'Cheat the Prophet.' The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. Then they go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun."
--G.K. Chesterton, "The Napoleon of Notting Hill"

Sun Flower:

why do people always expect a future where no work will be required? Some of the earliest economists expected that economic growth from the industrial revolution would level out and people would devote their time to enriching their lives rather than expanding their consumption. When I went to school it was widely expected that by now computers and robots would be doing most of our work for us so we could lead lives of great leisure.

Instead now we're either working longer hrs or unemployed. I'm interested to hear your explanations why leisure and quality of life will expand in the near future to the stage where we barely have to work at all. I doubt it. I expcct more flexible working hours perhaps, hopefully, more moderation and balance, but work won't vaporise. I hope for more worldwide equality in work and income.


Well by 2040 I expect an army of around 10 million robots will have been donated/purchased by the governments of the world for the express purpose of making and distributing phood. This goop will be rather bland but healthy fare and a food printer will use it to make various edibles.

Thus eating will be free.. if rather bland.

On top of this due to wars and plagues ythere will be far more homes then people needing them and so there will always exist somewhere a free home. Thus food and shelter will be free. Not wonderous but you get what you pay for.

Various other services will be free simply because the entire chain will be robotic in nature and whoever bought the entire set of robots and all will from time to time donate the entire enchelada to humanity.. mainly to buy thier way into heaven;/

So at some point work wont be about living it will be about doing and buying interesting things.

I agree that work isn't going to magically disappear in the next 40 years. Some goods and services may grow very cheap but they won't cost nothing. Don't forget that other new, as yet unimagined goods and services may also appear and some of these may still be expensive. Even the air you breath has costs associated with it.

What has happened is that definitions of poverty in the postindustrial world have changed. There are the working poor and the homeless but, I think I can argue that their circumstances aren't as horribly wretched as war refugees in Sudan or famine plagued North Korea. I'm not denying their woes, I'm just expanding the scale to include all of global poverty.

Anyway, things are still going to cost something and people are still going to have to earn money somehow. Even if robots and cheap foreign labor eliminate many of the jobs that currently exist, new, as yet unimagined, jobs will be created or other jobs will be redefined beyond recognition and perhaps grow in importance.

The question is not the elimination of work. The real question is will the new and the changed jobs pay enough to support people and families well enough to allow them to save money, afford good health and education and make a profit for some of the finer things in life? This question still hasn't been answered, that's why the working poor persist in postindustrial countries. They just aren't paid enough to save and get ahead, simple as that.


Well as I said the reason people will work is they want cool stuff. It wont be NEED driven it will be want driven.

Joakim Ivarsson:

But if our future gives us more wealth than we have today, what we now se as luxorious wants we will then perceive as absolute needs. So, we will still be need driven in our work.

35 years is practically tomorrow; I don't think very many things will change very much. If we are lucky, one or two things might change radically, but for the most part life in 2040 will not be so different from life in 2005. Life in 2005 is still pretty much the same as life in 1970, after all, despite the panoply of gadgets introduced since then. Any change likely to reach "critical mass" between now and then is almost certainly already in motion, and will only surprise people who aren't paying attention.

It takes three or four generations, roughly, for any technological innovation to change society. The first generation develops it; the second generation makes it ubiquitous; and the third generation, having grown up with it, takes it for granted and runs off in a direction their parents never expected. Depending on how disruptive the technology is, it may be another generation still, during which the youngsters can grow up and take control of society, before the full social consequences of the technological change get a chance to play out.

Sorry to drag this out but I still don't quite see the total elimination of work.

The situation now is that there is a persistent and growing number of people on the dole and a shrinking number of highly stressed people who have to keep retraining themselves to stay employed so, how does the government avoid a shrinking tax base to maintain the growing subsidies?

In postindustrial countries, many of the necessities of life, aside from land, are already very cheap, never mind revolutions in nanotechnology or extreme automation. But even then the costs are never zero. I argue that reductions in costs of the basic necessities of life will never shrink fast enough to offset the growing number of people on the government dole. The only way out of this situation that I can see is that there has to be large, preferrable growing, number of people creating taxable wealth in other sectors of the economy outside the government.

Creating wealth (Wealth is hard to define but let's say wealth is anything that people pay you money for and anything the government can tax.) is, in my simplistic view, labor. Creating wealth is what work is.

Money is just an abstract concept that we invented soon after we invented agriculture and pastoralism. Money is just a crude way of coding up information about how people value labor and things but, apparently it's the only system we have so far that seems to work. Eliminate labor and you've eliminated a key source of wealth creation, you've removed something that can be coded up in terms of currency.

But for the economy to work, the money has to come from somewhere otherwise everything collapses.

People usually don't do something for nothing. They do it for praise or for their loved ones or, hate to say it, for material greed. This transaction has to be coded up somehow, to be represented in standardized, mutually agreeable way for a modern economy to work. This is why I don't think labor is going to disappear.

Even if you cut yourself down to the barest necessities, life is not free. You have to earn your place in the world somehow. Food and shelter just don't jump into your lap. In the ecosystem, where there is no money or economy at all, plants and animals struggle daily to stay alive and thrive.

I know that's really cold but that is apparently how the human world has always worked. Even in tribal times and cultures, unproductive members of the clan or family were eventually cast out and ostracized. You had to do something to make the other members of your family, tribe or clan value you, to make them care for your well being. That's why work won't disappear. Life is work. Work transcends mere economics. Work and struggle is built into biology itself.

Agh. Now I'm just repeating myself. Ah well, just doing my part to add value to WC. No need to pay me! Just keep WC going is payment enough! See what I mean?


Well technically alot of people supoosedly working right now arnt realy working or ever have realy worked;/

Anyhoo it will happen no matter what that as we gain more and more robots and most importantly robots that just do stuff for humanity at large we will at some point wind up not NEEDING to do anything to have a simple life.

Not to mention by 2040 its quite possible that over half the pop is retired;/ The longer you live the longer yu have to do what work you ever will do and get it over with.


Oh a final or likely final remark. Never underestimate the lazyness of humanity. If at all possible we will do as little work as possible expeding great effort into doing as close to nothing as possible.

Yup! That's for sure. All things will take an entire shift towards the changing trends.

Sun Flower:

So winterman who owns the robots? is it a purely socialist world? cos you have to have access to or own entitlements: your labour, your capital, or govt held and distributed entitlements with which to obtain basic necessities. If a rich minority control and own the robots & you've lost the ability to fend for yourself then maybe you will be living in a tiny room eating tasteless goo.

The principle-agent problem taht you've described, ie shirking, has always existed. this doesn't change anything.

Like others have said, our needs expand and wants become needs. Robots won't replace human ingenuity. There will be constantly expanding avenues of employment for people to earn their keep and those workers will have influence if there's still democracy, and they won't want to support lots of lazy bums.

perhaps we should check into the Long Bet & see what bets are down on this subject.


Oh thats simnple. It will start with rich people owning the robots and using them for themsevles and for charitable purposes. Just as they use money now.

Then as they upgrade to new robots thier old robots wont just be scrapped they will be sold or donated.

As the number of working robots builds up and robots make robots the costs go down. Now at some point in all this set of plagues and natural disasters cuts the pop by 50-80% concentrating massive numbers of robots and reasources into the hands of the survivors.

The result is alot of robots many no longer owned by anyone or owned now by the children of parents and grandparents who died. At this point due to labor shortages everywhere as much of societies systems are robotic as possible.

Its basicaly what happened with the black death. Everyone had alot of land alot of food and alot of animals and one or more homes after it was all over.

And no it wont be a socialist system. It will be a robotic one.


What will be gone in 35 years?

Gasoline powered cars, that, at this point seems almost guranteed. Wires and cords wil lbe gone when it comes to electronical devices, practically everything may be wireless. People may be cryogenically freezing themseleves to come back in a future time peroid (I'd like to see the year 3000, but I can dream can't I?) But I believe that maybe by 2040 most oil wells will be running dry (with the exception of OPEC and Canada) Maybe video games will look exactly like reality if not better than that. I dunno, predicting the future is tricky business. People in 1966 believe that by 1988 the world wouldve run out of oil, in 1977 people believed that by 2000 food would be a little pill. Everything has to pass the good enough test, if people like it it will changes our lives, if they dont, we'll throw it in the rubbish bin. Future predictions that were right. In 1967 people believed that by 2000 we would be using computers to get stuff done, they were right, even mroe so now in 2005, I've also heard that computers may be the 2005 equivalent of like $20, and how fast internet will be. All we can do, is make the future and set our watches and see how time plays out.


In 35 years: everything will have changed. Nothing will have changed. The point: if you buy the argument that change is accelerating, then the entire exercise of predicting the future is futile. There's no telling what will change. Will we be able to download consciousness? Why not? Has anyone ever observed a soul? Has anyone ever called back from the afterlife? Njet. End argument. So far, the entire endeavour of science is based on: the world = materialist. It may be a bit more complex than we ever imagined, but it's still materialist.

There's a thing I think everyone is missing and that is the issue of body modification. I think we're now all obsessed about ubiquitous heroine or coke, but once assemblers are real and I can make any drug at home... in that case I might as well go on and homeproduced me as much of any drug I want (viagra comes to mind) or can concoct. I hope you can imagine what this sort of invention will do for the trannies.

Another thing will be the ongoing negation of Francis Fukuyama. Mr Fukuyama famously predicted an end to ideological development (The End Of History). By now, the poor man has been proven dead wrong. The romanticism that fueled era's and ideological movements in the 20th century (Roaring Twenties, National-Socialism, the Swinging Sixties, Punk, culture of complaint, etc.) is alive and well. The evidence: transhumanism and its opposition. I think that we transcend our biology every day and that it is entirely up to individuals (in line with darwinian evolution) to move beyond that. The risk is that 'improvements' are imposed on an entire country.

(did the borg have darwinian or lamarckian evolution?)


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 13, 2005 5:19 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Environmental Wisdom of the Crowds.

The next post in this blog is Solar Decathlon.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.34