Monday, February 07, 2011

Unexpected future history

Most -- maybe all -- of the interesting changes that happen in history are completely unexpected. Well, maybe not completely, and there will always be people after the fact who will claim they knew such-and-such was coming, but history is only interesting to the degree that it marks events you didn't expect.

Twenty-five years is not such a long time.  The mid-1980s is about 25 years ago, yet think of some stunning ways the world is now different:

  • The Soviet Union, Cold War, and all its consequences, not to mention a newly reformed China that was barely alive.
  • Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Microsoft were around but who really knew or cared?
  • Technology: Internet, mobile phones, personal computers, cordless phones, VCRs, digital cameras, home theatre
  • Venture capital, hedge funds, and other forms of finance that now seem routine were much more specialized and rare.
If anything, we'll look back on the early 2010s with just as much amazement over the huge changes.  Here are some examples of things that are nearly certain to happen in the next 25 years:
  • End of the Cuban Embargo (and surge in development and tourism).  Same with North Korea.
  • A major earthquake significantly incapacitates Tokyo.
  • Nuclear terrorism
  • A Chinese recession (3+ quarters of negative growth) and resulting political shakeup
  • Major disease epidemic kills millions of people worldwide
But even without specific events like the above, imagine a world 25 years from now where the following are true:
  • Post-petroleum world that makes the Middle East (and other oil-exporting countries) economically irrelevant
  • Developing countries no longer suffer major casualties from common infectious diseases like malaria and AIDS.
  • Major news organizations like The New York Times or CNN are no longer significant information sources, either because they're out of business or because they're entirely eclipsed by something new.
  • Enrollment in "traditional" colleges and universities plummets as the process of higher education is replaced by something else.
  • The United States no longer has military bases in Japan, Korea, Europe, or the Middle East.
  • A new type of finance (microloans? e-bartering?) is mainstream and common.
I'm deliberately trying to offer examples that are entirely plausible and would seem inevitable in hindsight.  Can you think of others?
future cities