By Brad Lemley
Sept. 30, 2000
Let’s get real.
The world never changes as quickly as the fevered imaginations of writers, futurists, and other visionaries tell us it will. Progress is, and probably always will be, an incremental business.
Looking 20 years into the future, the likelihood is that our daily home, work, and recreational pursuits will look a great deal like they do now— just as life today isn’t terribly different from what it was in 1980. And is that so bad?
Here are 20 facets of everyday life that we can count on remaining fundamentally the same right up until Super Bowl LIV:
Houses. From 1957 to 1967, millions of visitors trooped through a plastic UFO-shaped abode at Disneyland called the Monsanto House of the Future. No more were ever built. Since the historic-renovation revival of the 1960s, Americans have settled on circa-1880 architecture as the apotheosis of residential aesthetics. Both the brand-new Victorians dotting the coast of Nantucket island and the cinder block faux-adobe houses in Santa Fe would be instantly familiar to Chester A. Arthur or Buffalo Bill Cody. And because people grow attached to the house styles they grew up with, tastes are unlikely to radically change anytime soon. In any case, the houses of 2020 are, for the most part, already built. Of the 110 million housing units in the United States today, roughly 70 percent will still be around two decades from now, according to Department of Housing and Urban Development figures.
Pencils. Beginning in 1565, when Swiss physician Conrad Gesner of Zurich first described a pencil as a writing rod held in a wooden case, the pencil underwent a slow development— eraser on the end, paint to forestall splinters, flat sides to retard rolling— that hit a plateau more than a century ago. Today’s pencil is a classic example of evolved engineering, says Henry Petroski, a Duke University engineering professor and author of The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. Pencil sales, he notes, have remained steady right through the word-processing revolution, because the old advantages remain: “It can be erased, sharpened with a penknife, requires no batteries, needs no ink supply, and is cheap.” He expects the pencil’s shape and sales to remain relatively fixed through 2020.
Books. Nicholas Negroponte, director of MIT’s Media Lab, has predicted that books will soon evolve into bound volumes of paperlike, rewritable leaves. Some books may go this route— labs worldwide are laboring on paper-mimicking interfaces— but traditional books have 500 years of inertia behind them, and no wonder. They are stable, cheap, durable, lightweight, and a hassle to pirate, virtues that e-books of any kind will be hard-pressed to emulate in a mere 20 years.
Cash. Despite frequent predictions that microchip-bearing “smart” cards will soon replace cash, hard currency remains popular, and will remain so. A report issued in October 1999 by Retail Banking Research in Great Britain proclaims, “Cash use is set to continue at similar levels to the present for at least several more decades.” Cash appeals to banks, who profit from ATM dispensing fees. It also changes hands easily, tucks neatly into garter belts, and crosses borders without leaving any traces. Money talks, but in the form of cash, it can also keep quiet, and that’s an appeal that’s unlikely to wane.
Eating utensils. In 1611, Thomas Coryat, an Englishman, brought forks from Italy to Britain, promoted their use, and was ridiculed and considered effeminate for his efforts. But today, the fork and its prehistoric mates, the knife and spoon, constitute a culturally validated food-dispatching triumvirate, according to Petroski, in his book The Evolution of Useful Things. In the Western world, at least, these three basics are likely to attack whatever tofu permutation we’re munching two decades from now. And in the East, Petroski predicts, chopsticks will continue to serve as they have for millennia.
Passenger jets. Concept drawings of supersonic, stratospheric aircraft are intoxicating. NASA’s High Speed Civil Transport, capable of zooming 300 passengers at 1,500 miles per hour, could go into mass production in 15 years. But the average life span of a contemporary passenger jet is more than 20 years, notes George Bugliarello, editor of the journal Technology in Society. So the noisy, cramped, and relatively poky jets aloft at this moment will more than likely still be in service in 2020. Anyway, most of the advancement in new aircraft construction over the next two decades, predicts Bugliarello, will be in size, not speed. Huge planes on the drawing boards at Airbus and Boeing may save money for airlines but do little or nothing to improve the flying experience of passengers.
Driving. In an August 1997 demonstration, eight cars carried hands-off “drivers” down a seven-mile stretch of the San Diego Freeway. Self-driving cars have obvious advantages: They allow closer spacing and faster speeds and minimize the danger of human error. But widespread implementation, even by 2020, remains far from probable. Autopilot systems for trains and airplanes fail frequently, requiring trained humans to step in and (usually) avert disaster. If automated car guidance goes awry, it’s unlikely garden-variety drivers will be just as vigilant. After all, if they wanted to carefully monitor the system, why would they buy an autopilot car? Result: Liability concerns will make automakers skittish for the foreseeable future. Minor flourishes, such as range-finding cruise control that prevents tailgating, will be adopted long before autopilots.
Traffic congestion. Flying cars won’t get us out of a jam either. “Cars will still roll along on the ground, and congestion will be a fact of life,” predicts Bugliarello. In fact, it will get worse. “Traffic in New York City increased 30 percent this decade, but the city itself has changed very little to accommodate that. The trend will continue.”
Noise. Innovations in noise isolation, insulation, and cancellation will do little to ratchet down the incessant hum of mechanized life. “We have not, and will not, be able to abate noise very much,” says Bugliarello. “When you talk about more people in tighter environments, noise will be there.”
Religion. Since the French Revolution, when Robespierre’s followers renamed Notre-Dame Cathedral the “Temple of Reason,” freethinkers have predicted the demise of religion. They were, are, and will be wrong. Projections based on United Nations population data indicate that in 2025, the percentage of the world’s people who identify themselves as Christians will remain virtually unchanged, from 33.4 percent in 2000 to 35.5 percent in 2025. Percentages of Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, and adherents of various folk and tribal religions are also predicted to remain substantially similar.
Baseball. Players will get bigger, 80-homer seasons may arrive, and something— women’s soccer?— will eat a larger slice of the sports viewership pie. But baseball will survive, predicts Joseph Coates of the future-megatrends consulting firm Coates & Jarratt. Only how we experience it will change. “Every little factory in the South used to have its own team,” says Coates. “That kind of participation won’t return.”
Sex. The advent of cloning, genetic manipulation, and extraordinary advances in joining eggs and sperm in test tubes will no doubt be embraced by a growing part of the population. But the real deal— with its ancient freight of risks and rewards— will certainly be the dominant reproductive interface in 2020 and beyond.
Zippers. By 2000, Heinlein predicted, we’d fasten clothing with polarity-reversing clasps. But electromagnetics are too unreliable for the task of hiding flesh from public view. Only an interlocking chain of clasps, preferably of steel, will do. The zipper, in development since 1851, will suffer no pretenders.
Poverty. A rising tide of world prosperity won’t lift the third world’s boats, at least not by 2020. We will still witness “mass starvation in the third world,” predict Ian Pearson and Peter Cochrane, futurists for British Telephone Laboratories.
Shopping. Despite the inevitable e-commerce onslaught, “Real stores that people can walk through will definitely still be around,” says futurist Coates. “It’s just something that lots of people like to do, and that won’t change.”
Paper clips. The familiar round-ended paper clip, known as the Gem after its British manufacturer Gem Limited and sold in the United States for at least 100 years, “long ago won the hearts and minds of designers and critics as the epitome of possible solutions to the design problem of fastening papers together,” contends Petroski. Assuming that the use of paper persists in 2020, the Gem will assuredly be on the job.
Zealotry and terrorism. “We will retain our inability to deal with fanaticisms of all kinds,” predicts Sesh Velamoor, a trustee of the Foundation for the Future in Bellevue, Washington. If anything, Velamoor sees the havoc wrought by terrorists increasing over the next two decades.
Men’s suits. Skirt hemlines undulate with the tides, but the so-called sack suit— a nondarted jacket with soft, unpadded shoulders, flap pockets, a single rear vent, three- or four-button front, and matching, loose slacks— has remained aggressively static for nearly a century, suffering only lapel-width oscillations. “The reason that it has managed to exist successfully for such a long period of time is simply that it appeals to the common denominator,” says fashion critic Alan Flusser in his book Clothes and the Man. In other words, a sack suit offers an attractive mix of status, conformity, and anonymity. Dress-down Fridays and Silicon Valley polo-khaki chic notwithstanding, the suit will survive.
Death. “We will never conquer death,” predicts Dr. Michael Fossel, editor of the Journal of Anti-Aging Medicine. For starters, getting hit by a bus— even a fuel-cell-powered one— will still be fatal. And a more typical death— from, say, deteriorating organs— will almost certainly still be around in 2020. But Fossel believes that the ancient threat will at least have begun to ebb. “When people look back from the year 2100, I believe they will pick some date between 2005 and 2015 as the point at which we were first able to intervene in the aging process in a significant way,” he says. On the other hand, some researchers point out that medicine has a dismal track record when it comes to curing complex, chronic diseases such as diabetes and hemophilia. And aging is the ultimate chronic disease.
Dick Clark. At 90, he’ll no doubt look younger than ever.