The Ides of March

The Universe in 2040 (a WiP)

As an ‘artist’ I believe you have to endure pain and work hard for any success you achieve, and suddenly, accidentally, here I am with a good job and a mushrooming wad of cryptocurrency, and I’m about to get married again. Life is good, and getting better, and I feel like an old cow given a last glimpse at a daisy-filled pasture before the bolt is driven through its brain. 

The fear. That’s what William Burroughs called it. I never understood growing up but i do now. You wake gasping and thrashing. I’ve had knives pressed to my throat and a raving madman level a shotgun at my chest and rack it back: You don’t feel fear in the moment, it hits later. When you’re ready for it and I’m getting jumpy.

In a branching universe of simulations I know I’ve snuffed out a branch or two.

Sorry, marriage puts you in a contemplative mood. It requires faith in the future and slotting yourself into family trees.

What follows is an attempt to imagine what life will be like for our future kids as they reach adulthood twenty years from now. It’s also about the earliest I can accurately recall my thoughts about the future. In early 2001, I was 21, I’d washed out of college, and was about to leave for an internship at TIME Asia. I lusted after 13” LED monitors, Pentium chips and 2.3MB Minolta digital cameras. We’d survived Y2K, the NASDAQ was roaring. America seemed like the only country in the world that would ever matter again.

My wife-to-be was two-years-old. My father was 49 and about to enter the most influential phase of his career. His father (my grandfather) was 84 and about to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

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This is very much a work-in-progress, by the way. Even though I used to do this for a living, there are huge gaps in my knowledge. I have no idea what might happen in South America, for example, and have only the dimmest idea of what’s going on in Southeast Asia and Oceania. I’d like you to contribute in the comments below. I’ll add to this thing periodically.

It’s a living document… For now I’m going to burgle a structure from Ed Keller’s Future Cities and Post Planetary Architectures presentation and zoom in and out of the human frame (the version below maddeningly doesn’t seem to include it).

I will also do my best to restrain myself from Zager & Evans-style dooming. Even though the future looks a little bleak…

On a universal or intergalactic scale, there may be change but we won’t be able to perceive it. And anything we do pick up will be millions of years old.

The next generation of orbital telescopes will be online, so we might understand what’s going on out there a little more than we do now. There’s also a non-zero chance that we’ll be engulfed and obliterated with a massive wave of gamma radiation emitted from the death of an ancient star or that we might uncover unambiguous evidence of either living in a simulation or being subject to the whims of a supernatural entity beyond our comprehension.

But as sad as it makes me, I think all of that infinite stuff remains out of reach for my lifespan and that of any of my human kin. 

Zooming in closer, interstellar space probably remains cold and distant for our lives. Voyagers 1 and 2 will be in the Oort Cloud and remain there for the rest of human history. It seems unlikely we’ll have propulsion good enough to catch up with them but it’s possible, the real question would be why. It would be expensive to accelerate something to near light speed… the only thing that could justify doing it would be some kind of existential threat to humanity, a rogue comet on a deadly trajectory. Visitors from beyond the Oort Cloud is a possibility.

We’re a blazing beacon of electromagnetic radiation. In a Dark Forest universe (where civilizations remain quiet or face annihilation from ferocious competitors) we could be in for an unwelcome visit.

There are candidates nearby. NASA claims over 4,000 exoplanets have been identified and the number is doubling every 27 months. These planets are too far away to resolve many details, the most we can get is a hint of a chemical signature and maybe a wobble of detail after intense image processing. But there must be ways to extract more information, and maybe chart we could chart a course toward one of them. It would have to be unmanned. 

Physics will strangle most of our interplanetary ambitions in the next twenty years. But not all of them. There are plans for unmanned landings on Europa (an icy moon of Jupiter with a liquid ocean beneath) and petrochemical moon Titan. But twenty years isn’t long enough for much interplanetary exploration. Most planets will remain out of reach absent a sudden reemergence of plutonium based propulsion. But we might land a human on Mars.

There’s a tracked rover listening and kicking up dirt on the surface right now.

Will Elon Musk be the one land someone on Mars? It seems incredibly expensive for a private entity to justify landing on Mars alone. So if anyone makes it out there, the expedition will probably be done under the auspices of a nation state. (Or some kind organized entity--maybe Wall Street Bets after 20 years will have the funds to organize space flight) The United States still seems like the most likely candidate for Maritan expeditions, although I worry that the days of national prestige space exploration is in the past, unless China and India fall into a friendly rivalry with one another and want to do it for national pride. But they won’t have the missile gap incentive that the U.S. and Soviet Union did. (They’re too close) 

Perhaps our best bet for a Martian colony is a competition between centi-billionaires who’ve captured the U.S. government with lobbyists and stuck American taxpayers with the bill. Environmental catastrophe could also be a motivating factor. I’m pretty confident that our wealthiest human brethren will want to safeguard their expensive coastal properties and we won’t experience much of an effect from global warming (or we’ll find some clever way to mitigate its effects) but if it’s worse than we think it might spur the world’s wealthy into organizing some kind of global cooperation. 

Davos 2040 on the Mars!

I’d say the odds are pretty low. There would be canal boats in downtown Los Angeles long before the U.S., China, India and Russia cooperate on a Martian colony.

The Moon seems much more likely to host a colony within the next twenty or thirty years. It’s close enough to the Earth to justify inhabiting, maybe not for mining (because you’d have to get anything you dug up back down the gravity well to earth) but it’s almost certainly worth it as a military outpost. 

The U.S. Space Force seems like a ridiculous concoction, but space is a real theatre of war. Satellite monitoring can anticipate an enemy’s reactions. Combined with an orbital insertion of special forces or an artificial tungsten meteorite (probably in the form of rod to reduce friction) hurtling toward the earth and there would be plenty of incentive to lurk in orbit. An attack from space would be threat to any country on Earth. Think of it as an extension of mutually assured destruction, Space is essentially the next generation of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile defense. Spooky sentinels keeping us safe (for now).

The commercialization of space will continue, albeit fairly slowly absent the aforementioned massive leap in propulsion. Getting out of the Earth’s gravity will remain expensive, but it will probably be cheaper than it is today as reusable rockets and improvements in rocket propulsion continue.

It would be wonderful to see something completely new like a space elevator pulling stuff from the surface up into orbit but that kind of thing is a long way away. Imagine getting a permit to build a tower five thousand miles high.

For now, moving anything into or out of Earth’s orbit will be expensive and only worth doing if it’s incredibly valuable and impossible to create on earth. Perhaps some kind of optics might fit the bill? Or a strange superconducting material forged in zero G? Orbital hotels will remain a ludicrous extravagance and more of a publicity stunt than a source of revenue. But mining might be a real application.

We could see a private firm drag a metallic asteroid into lunar orbit for exploitation. Imagine the environmental outrage. And let us hope no one decides to project commercials onto the moon.

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That takes us down to our planet. Space will probably remain abstract and alien and to all but a select few of us, but life on Earth won’t be.

For most of the world’s inhabitants, life in 2041 will be much more pleasant than it was in 2021. Globalization has been cruel to the developed world but has been a tremendous boon to the rest of the world. China is the obvious case, but visiting Nepal after a fourteen year absence was exhilarating -- people seemed happier and healthier and had cellphones and better clothes and cars than they did a generation earlier.

People are generally living longer and are much wealthier than they were in 2000. The IMF and World Bank are less predatory than they once were. Cellphones and information technology have allowed developing countries to rapidly improve their infrastructures. Innovations in cryptocurrency and smart contracts, and automation will help strangle corruption and advances in logistics and medicine will allow hundreds of millions more people to live into adulthood and receive an education. We’re a much better world than we were in 2001. But will it stay that way?

Manufacturing has been exported from the developed world into the global south. So have many low-level white collar jobs like accounting, programming, data processing or call centers. One of the great realizations for Westerners in the 21st Century was seeing how replaceable we really were. And how quickly corporations and institutions we’d worshipped for decades would turn their backs on us.

Life in the west will be riven by inequality, much more so than today. A combination of GPT-X (the text generating software developed by OpenAI) and smart contracts will swallow coding, accounting, writing, search, and most other white collar professions. Most work will involve service type jobs, marketing, caring for the elderly or debugging/curating AI output. There will be a massive premium put on technical education with a small percentage of highly skilled technicians and PhDs making a tremendous amount of money (mostly in service of accumulated capital). There will also be a small grasping outer edge of bureaucrats, human resources and marketing personnel, and a vast underclass who can’t compete and will be left behind. It’ll be easy to fall in to the latter category (a single error will do it) and tremendously difficult to escape.

Automation will bifurcate society, inequality will deepen, and society will be riven over the division, and cosmetic attempts redress the balance. A few mostly illusionary pathways to fame and fortune will remain: OnlyFans, Youtube, Instagram, lotteries, music, and the vestiges of venture capital will beckon and break hearts. The majority of those ‘winners’ will be the sons and daughters of the last generation of creators. (Just look at the surnames in a recent Hollywood movie or a The New Yorker).

Most of the tension in Western society will come from the chasm between the impossibly wealthy elite, the technical class, the bureaucratic layer and the left behind. There will be constant low-level conflict.

The rest of the world may come to experience this soon. Automation and robotics threaten to provide an even cheaper source of manufacturing labor, and the rapid growth of Decentralized Finance (DeFi), smart contracts and cryptocurrency means that many traditionally white collar jobs are under threat of being replaced.

On the other hand, cryptocurrency represents a massive source of new capital and opportunity, particularly in the developing world. It’s an easy way to bank “the unbanked” and provide droplets of capital and a way to safeguard funds in the absence of anything more than a telecom connection.

Africa, which has an enormously young and fast-growing population is being forced to experiment with new ideas and concepts. The arcologies of tomorrow are more likely to sprout in Lagos or Kinasaha than they are in Tokyo.

Population growth for most of the world is slowing down. China and India’s populations (currently accounting for about a ⅓ of the earth’s population) are leveling off. Beyond the African continent much more of the world will be older than it is today. Medical research breakthroughs will shift to accommodate this and we’ll probably see better treatments for cancers, heart diseases, obesity, diabetes and other diseases of overconsumption and old age. Dying baby boomers with funds will live and die in tremendous luxury. 

This could break America’s stranglehold on global cultural production. Korean pop is the current contender for global cultural hegemony,; but if a compelling pan-African movement cultural movement emerges in the next twenty years, we could be seeing a lot more Nollywood entertainment

Art will be increasingly tribal and about reinforcing and celebrating identity rather than an individual quest for meaning. (As much as I hate this idea)

As a global phenomenon, the digitization of (and algorithmic distribution of) culture will continue hollowing out creativity’s working middle class and leaving only few big winners and many, many hobbyists. There will be many blips of fame, but fewer stars on the level of Elvis or Madonna or David Bowie. The great works of the next twenty years will increasingly be collaborative, and author-less, particularly literature. Community written projects like Wikipedia will be the enduring feature of tomorrow. Meme culture could calcify into an eternal style. The future’s aesthetic could lock into a cycling series of color schemes and musical palettes. We’re doing gold filters and high waisted jeans again this year.

This will seem to contradict something I think will happen with individual consciousness--we’ll increasingly customize our subjective experiences using augmented and mixed reality: I think of it as being able to roll your own experience of work, shopping and even companionship (or reskin if you’re familiar with video game modification). You might choose to live life through the lens of 20th Century military officer or pop star living in luxury, but I imagine consumers’ choice of what they experience will increasingly be influenced by the same kind of algorithmic selection as everything else and eventually the choice of reality will be narrow down into a few basic flavors (probably Disney, Marvel Comic Universe, ‘Business,’ Nu Business, and a few ‘edgy’ variations).

Casual English will be nearly unrecognizable, largely as a result of evading and intentionally confusing natural language processing software. The same goes for fashion, we'll often see the equivalent of dazzle camouflage in edge streetwear. Free speech as we know it will be an archaic and despised concept. (Substack will remain as a last redoubt of free speech… just kidding)

I’d wager we’ll still be driving cars with internal combustion engines in 2040, though they’ll be more efficient than before, and mostly hybrid. Oil and gas will still be the most important strategic resources. Nuclear power could reemerge, probably on the African continent (there are already plans underway in Kenya and plants in South Africa). Nuclear weapon proliferation will be slow (strangled by the United States and United Nations). Environmental catastrophe will be kept in check by aging, and wealthier populations.

Conventional war will become much more scarce but conflict will shift online. Israel could see a weapon of mass destruction used in a terrorist attack, which could lead to nuclear conflict with Iran. Saudi Arabia will remain powerful with its decline roughly mirroring the United States’. The tension between China and India will soften to rivalry; Taiwan will remain independent, and Russia will remain a threatening but toothless presence, holding NATO together. The DPRK will reunite with RoK.

Zooming into individual countries, national governments in the US, UK and Australia will increasingly relinquish control of infrastructure and community governance to NGOs: this will be akin to HoAs, with much of the developed world will resemble 'City of Quartz'-era Los Angeles (1990s).

College will remain expensive and exclusive and its denizens trapped in an insular bubble.

In the United States will be vast expanses of infrastructure, with the coasts dominated by racially segregated enclaves within megacities (a few extremely expensive cultural “oases” notwithstanding).

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Within the human body, preventive medicine will be better understood and tracked. Vaccine development will be accelerated. Masks will remain a feature of public life (but won’t be mandatory). Lockdowns may return periodically.

We’re about to hit a major inflection point with DNA/RNA sequencing. It’s already cheap enough for most laboratories to afford. Next will come consumer sequencers the size of cellphones. DNA is the most common material on the planet earth and being able to recognize and read it all around us will lead to strange and wonderful things.

Emergency, surgery and allopathic medicine will remain expensive and cruel. End of life care will on average be worse than it is today in the US, but much better for those who can afford it (because of generous government pensions or lucky investments).

Custom hardware and wetware will be as easy and common as 3D printing is today (which will remain a cottage industry/hobby rather than a ubiquitous service like water/power/electricity). These will be ruthlessly monitored for WMD production. Drugs will mostly be legal, if regulated. A few states will remain strict. Chemical manufacturing will be almost entirely automated by companies like Aether Bio, using machine learning to engineer enzymes.

Artificial General Intelligence won't exist but most cultural production will be curated. Direct brain to computer wiring won't be popular for healthy humans but could be required for military pilots or used in restorative medicine. The rest of us will use something like wifi. This will enable virtual and augmented overlays that will consume us: our most intimate memories and experience of conscious will be increasingly mediated and modulated by algorithms, but it'll happen so effortlessly it'll feel the same as today. 

Reality will be customized - Gen Xers will be able to live in the 1990s forever with AR/XR overlay. Make mine the Britpop variant please.

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The audience for this Substack is slowly shifting from one I dredged from my contacts list (thank you for sticking around) to people I’ve never met, but presumably share an interest in technology and its strange effects on culture and aesthetics. Substack is a surprisingly intimate medium, it feels much closer to writing a letter than an essay for a literary magazine or a weekly column or a chapter in a book. All this is to say thank you! Especially to my subscribers.