(Originally published by The Sacramento Gazette on January 7, 2000)
Well what do you know! It looks like the Y2K fears, which ranged from computer meltdowns to “apocalypse now,” were, um, how shall I say it, a bit overblown? As best I can determine from news accounts from around the globe, about the most serious glitch occurred back east where one state sent out vehicle license renewal notices advising owners to get their “horseless carriages” re-registered. And even that one had the sound of some bureaucrat’s idea of a joke.
So here we are, ensconced firmly, by at least a few days, in the new millennium (if you accept the media’s version of millennium counting). And, with the rollover of the calendar to twenty double aught, we are also (again, in keeping with the same media’s interpretation) in the first days of the twenty-first century. Hooray for us!
By pure coincidence I’m sure, the woman who was listed in the record books as the oldest living person died at the age of 119 on December 30, 1999. She was described as being remarkably lucid right up to her last days, when she succumbed to a nasty case of pneumonia. The story was reported in all the major news media, and so it should have been. To live almost twelve decades and still maintain one’s faculties is big news.
But a similar story won’t be big news one hundred years from now, which is how I’d like to begin this look ahead at the twenty-first century of the “current era.” (Note, by the way, how we are changing our lexicon: BC is now B.C.E., for “before current era” and AD is now CE; all in the name of political correctness, one supposes.) The year 2100 will almost certainly see many survivors from the twentieth century, and one would expect that most of them will be able to describe the development of the Internet and the impeachment of Bill Clinton with some degree of specificity, even though those events took place when they were still young children.
What I am saying is that there is a remarkable future in store for us, and it will make what we now think of as a normal life seem archaic beyond belief. Here are some developments which I fully expect our children will live to see. (And if I’m wrong, blame it on my inability to separate my dreams from my sense of reality).
In the field of science and medicine, we will find cures (or preventive measures) in the next hundred years for many of the leading killer diseases of today. Some of these will come in the form of vaccines, others will be in the development of chemicals (the twenty-first century version of antibiotics) and many will be in the soon-to-be-exploding field of gene therapy. The long and short of it is that we are about to develop the means to live (and to live well) for well in excess of 100 years, and if you doubt that prediction, you either are not paying attention or have an unduly pessimistic view of human intelligence.
The history of humankind clearly establishes a pattern of increasingly great strides in the fight against disease. And the acceleration of the successes we’ve achieved is geometric if not exponential, so that one can envision advances occurring more rapidly and more dramatically as each decade passes. True, we have not found a magic bullet to cure or prevent most cancers, but we know much more about the causes and courses of malignancies than we did even ten years ago. Likewise, heart disease and cardio-vascular malfunctions still occur, but not nearly in so random and haphazard a fashion as we used to assume was the case. We understand now how to prevent many of these illnesses and others are curable through life-style modifications or surgical intervention. We have all but wiped out most of the dreaded childhood diseases of one hundred years ago, and in the next hundred years, the best guess is that many adult maladies will also be conquered.
Will we achieve immortality? No, I suspect that breakthrough might be a bit farther down the road. Bodies will still age (albeit more slowly) and organs and systems will ultimately still fail (but perhaps less painfully). Most of our recent ancestors who were born in the year 1900 thought they might live to see 65 and actually lived to see 75 or 80, we now predict those born this year will live to see the age of 80, and in fact, many will survive into the next century.
And they will witness a world few of us would recognize or imagine possible.
The first major change I anticipate in our everyday lives will be the replacement of the telephone with the Internet. My guess is that within ten years, every individual who wants one will have a web page (much as we now have phone numbers) and that we will soon thereafter contact each other not by phone but by computer. I’m no Bill Gates, but it is easy to imagine that this technology is about to explode. In the last two years alone, we have seen virtually every business develop a web site, and the on-line economy is about to supplant the shopping malls that were so in vogue only ten years ago. Can similar changes on the personal level be far behind?
We’ll all have our own web sites (maybe they’ll be called “personal pages”) on which we will “publish” our calendars (to the extent we want to), and our friends and associates will be able to determine where we are, what we are doing, and how long we intend to be doing it (again, to the extent that we choose to make that information available). Internet-conferencing will soon replace teleconferencing and virtual offices will provide all the hard space most of us will need to conduct our business affairs. And I’m sure I’m only describing the most rudimentary of systems that will soon be in place for our personal convenience.
Space (of the “outer” variety) will continue to be the last frontier, but it will be far less foreign to us in this new century. By the year 2100, we will have established a substantial presence on the moon, with millions of us living in a variety of colonies which will be self-governed (i.e. without regard to national allegiance), thereby providing new laboratories for experiments in governance. It is also entirely conceivable that we will develop societies that live under the seas, especially as the higher sea levels resulting from global warming continue to make available land more scarce.
And as our world becomes figuratively if not literally smaller, I expect we will see a diminution of national identities. Certainly, we touch on the most difficult and delicate of humanity’s ongoing struggles with itself when we talk of nationalism and the concomitant traits of ethnic and racial identity, but I expect that over the next hundred years we will see a gradual softening of some of the rigid and zealous identification that is still very much a part of our condition with regard to these factors.
The idea of one world, without national citizenship, has some appeal, but it probably won’t occur any time soon. On the other hand, the importance of one’s country diminishes as the interests, goals and essential structure of all the world’s nations become more clearly congruent. A worldwide economy, of which we are already on the verge, will reduce the need for parochial protectionism, and greater communication will inevitably lead to reduced resistance to cultural and societal “cross-pollination.” Without these barriers, we are less likely to feel threatened by each other and more likely to seek ways to join in regional communities. We are already seeing a move toward unification in Europe. I expect the Americas (North and South) might well be next, and with the pre-eminence of the United States becoming less pronounced in the long term, a world-wide community or federation of individual states is certainly conceivable.
Similarly, racial and ethnic identities will be harder to define as we move to a more pluralistic and integrated world community. Miscegenation was viewed with open hostility as recently as 50 years ago. Now “other” may be the fastest growing racial identity, and “racial minority” will likely have all but lost any significance at some point towards the end of this new century.
Work, as we currently think of it, will likely become less structured in the next hundred years. Self-employment is probably going to become much more common as many find ways to commercialize their skills and expertise without the necessity of an office or an employer. Continuing a trend that has already taken root, corporate home offices will give way to offices in the home. And the nine-to-five job with a couple hours tacked on at either end for the commute will be replaced by the ultimate flex plan, in which we work on a schedule of our own choosing.
There will undoubtedly be more leisure time in this new century of ours, much of it due to the fact that we will be able to do things so much faster and with such great efficiency. As time seemingly expands, all of the entertainment industries will find ways to attract our attention. Much of the growth in this field will likely be computer-oriented, but I suspect live entertainment, perhaps of the interactive variety will also be a growth market. I can envision sporting events that include the fans as coaches, deciding on strategic moves during the course of a game. It is also conceivable that we will have individualized movies, with the script and action adjusted according to the immediate whims of any and every person in the audience on a given night. Vacation resorts should continue to blossom, with more of us seeking more time in beautiful surroundings to contemplate our navels. (One thing that I’m convinced won’t change is the game of golf, which will continue to bedevil and intoxicate the most stolid of personalities, bringing out the Mr. Hyde in every Dr. Jekyll at least once in every round that is played.)
Helping us get through these exciting times will be many forms of robotics, some perhaps with what will pass for personalities. How soon these “household appliances” will be available is a matter of some conjecture, but as is the case for much of the prophecy contained herein, the wise bet would be sooner rather than later. And for the children of this twenty-first century, we may soon see the end of studying, in the traditional sense at least. It is entirely probable that at some point in the next hundred years, the entirety of human history will be implantable in the everyone’s brain in the form of a computer chip. Other scholastic disciplines shouldn’t be far behind, with the result that higher education will emphasize how to access and process the information we already have instead of stressing the need to commit it to memory in the first place.
Some may scoff at these predictions and claim they ignore the dark clouds that threaten our very existence. Yes, I understand. I tend to be somewhat of a worrisome cynic myself. And the aforementioned global warming and the increase in horrible violence among our youth and the seeming inability of people of different cultures and ethnicities to get along and the continuing threat of terrorism and nuclear annihilation and Armageddons of one type or another do not escape my attention.
But with all that said, this species of ours continues to strive and to thrive. One hundred years ago we were on the verge of a new age, one that included then unimagined wonders like computers and antibiotics. The pace of our acquisition of knowledge and the discoveries that come with it is ever-increasing. We may be our own worst enemies, but we are also possessed of a magical power, and in the century that is before us, we will come closer than ever to Mount Olympus.