I also posted this to Medium here.
The biggest and most disruptive changes may well be technological. The future is awesome, part three.
A popular thought experiment goes like this: imagine a person from 1900 who somehow teleports to 1957. Also, imagine a person from 1957 who is transported to the present day. Who would experience more culture shock?
On the face of it, you might say the person who goes from 1900 to 1957. They might have seen or heard of automobiles, but now they would be driving all over the place. That might be quite a shock. Not only that, there would also be airplanes, refrigerators, televisions, telephones, and all kinds of other innovations. However, after adjusting to the technological advances, they would probably be able to adjust to life without too much difficulty. In 1957 men were still the heads of the household and brought home the proverbial bacon. Women were often expected to stay at home and take care of the kids. In the United States, the civil rights movement had not scored any major victory yet. In the Netherlands, depillarization had only just started. Socially, things had not changed very much.
Adjusting to life would probably be much harder for the person transported from 1957 to the present day. Cars, planes, refrigerators, televisions, and phones are still around, though much improved. The biggest technological change would probably be the rise of computers and the internet, although transistors were invented in 1947 and computing was not that far off. Integrated circuits had been thought of in 1952 and a working example was available by 1952.
Yet, the biggest changes from 1900 were be sociological: there are families where husband and wife both work; single parents; mixed-race couples; even gay people have been able to marry since 2001 and no-one blinks an eye. To the person from 1957, it would seem like the world has been turned upside down. In the United States, black people can vote and even become president; the USSR is no more; people no longer work at the same company for their entire careers, nor do they expect this; and many more sociological changes have happened since 1957.
So we can conclude that the biggest changes made in the past century or so have been sociological, rather than technological. But I think that in the future, the biggest changes in our lives could have their roots in technology. I will explain why I think so.
Firstly, I don’t foresee many more sociological changes happening soon. The world is on a slow, but steady course towards more democracy and equality, for instance in the case of LGBT rights: more and more countries are legalizing same sex marriage and letting same sex couples adopt children. More and more countries are becoming democratic. These are two ongoing trends that won’t stop soon, but other than these, I can’t think of many sociological changes that are afoot.
On the technology front, though, things are moving faster than ever before. Thanks in large part to the internet, technology may well be the driving force behind current and future societal changes. Many of these innovations are disruptive technologies that will no doubt have quite an impact on the world.
Thanks to the internet, we can now communicate, foster connections and collaborate with people all across the world. We are moving towards a ‘Shared Economy’ in which people have shared access to goods, services, data, and talent.
Mass production will likely not disappear, but with the rise of (commercially available and easy to use) 3D-printers, people will be able to manufacture goods right in their home. Furthermore, they can tailor those goods to their specific needs and desires. 3D-printers may radically change existing production processes: houses can be printed extremely fast, prosthetics can be made to order and respond to an individual’s particular physiology, to name just a few examples.
Driverless cars may well usher in an era where driving is a thing of the past. This isn’t just a convenience, it could drastically reduce the need for cars and thereby change entire cityscapes. What if we didn’t need parking garages or could replace car lanes with bike lanes?
Driverless cars could also reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which would be very helpful in combating climate change. The fight against climate change itself is fueling many technological changes by creating a need for sustainability, both on the supply and demand side. In the future, every house may well come equipped with photovoltaic panels, solar heaters, wind turbines, and other sustainable technologies.
The cities we live in are likely to be connected to a smart grid, thus becoming part of the ‘Internet of Things’. The interconnectedness of physical objects will enable us to use resources much more efficiently.
Using resources more efficiently is becoming more important than ever, not only because of climate change, but also because we’re running out of fossil fuels. In the future, hopefully, we will live in energy-efficient ‘Smart Cities’, which respond to inhabitants’ patterns of use.
Fossil fuels are not the only resources that are becoming more scarce. The amount of people in the world is rising. it is estimated that there will be 9.6 billion people on earth by 2050. That means there will be many more mouths to feed, homes to heat, and devices to power. Resources could become much more scarce, not just fossil fuels, but also water, food, land, and many more. Interestingly enough, advances in medicine and nutrition, leading to less child mortality, actually do not lead to population growth. When children survive in greater numbers, parents decide to have smaller families. Increased life span may increase population, though. But I believe that technology will actually help slow down population growth, which in turn will help lessen the increased demand for various resources.
An estimated 6.4 out of those 9.6 billion people will live in urban areas. Much of those urban areas are yet to be built. Informal growth has recently outpaced growth in formal areas, especially in the developing world, which is where population is expected to rise the most. However, I think that even informal growth does not necessarily have to be bad. Planners, designers, and policymakers are increasingly aware of the need to manage it. Thanks to the lessons we’ve learned regarding how cities work and thanks to the internet’s spreading of knowledge around the world, I hope that even these informal areas could, in some way, become Smart Cities. Local governments would surely stand to benefit from it and so would the rest of the world.
Many of the advances relating to Smart Cities are made possible thanks to governments publishing ‘Open Data’. I’m not sure whether the Open Data movement is a sociological or technological phenomenon—it’s probably both. This is another one of those innovations that exist because of the internet.
Similarly, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding can be seen as innovations that are part sociological and technological. They would not have been possible without the internet. I think both these movements will only become more important as time goes on. Traditional methods of financing will no longer be the only way to get a project started.
Another way in which finance is changing is the advent of digital currency, most notably in the form of Bitcoin. It is now possible to send a million euros from the Netherlands to Tanzania and pay just €0,05 in transaction fees. Bitcoin is not only a currency, but also a network. Some say it is “the internet of money.”
Bitcoin is made possible largely because of advances in cryptography. Even though recently we have seen governments spying on people worldwide, thanks to cryptography, we could very well enter an era in which it is possible to be completely anonymous when communicating. This is useful when publishing highly sensitive materials, for instance putting classified documents on WikiLeaks.
All these advances are only available to people who have the technology to take advantage of them. So it’s a good thing that there are initiatives such as One Laptop Per Child, aiming to provide laptops to children in the developing world. Other innovations, such as Motorola’s cheap smartphones and Raspberry Pi’s also make hardware more affordable and thus more accessible.
What of software? In line with the Shared Economy, I like to think that the world is more and more moving towards open source software. Today, much of the internet already runs on open source software, with Linux-powered servers running Apache, MySQL, PHP, WordPress, to name just a few popular examples. But this movement is not just restricted to the internet. Another good example is Blender, 3D-modeling software that is also capable of rendering, animating, texturing, and much more. The Blender foundation has even made several open source films, the latest being Tears of Steel.
Of course, I’ve merely scratched the surface. How about technologies such as ‘Augmented Reality’, peer-to-peer marketplaces, electric cars, robots that can walk, or learn; or how about specific cases, such as Amazon’s delivery drones, Google’s project tango, the World Solar Challenge race, or SpaceX’s private space flight? There are so many innovations going on, it’s almost impossible to name them all.
Bitcoin puts power in the hands of people, rather than banks (and, to a lesser extent, governments). Cryptographic technology and the internet may be responsible for a future in which whistleblowers can blow their whistles without fear. Open Data will likely lead to more government transparancy. Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding put more power in the hands of consumers, rather than large companies, who can collectively decide what gets made. 3D-printing can even turn these consumers into ‘prosumers’ and the Shared Economy will ensure that access to all these innovations is available to anyone who is connected. Luckily, since technology will be more affordable and accessible, it will be in the hands of more and more people.
I think that if you were teleported to 2050, you would encounter a radically different world from the one in which we live right now. I think the changes may well be due to technological innovations. I hope Medium and this post will be around by then—perhaps I’m completely wrong and we’ll all laugh at this silly post. I hope I’m right, though, because I think these changes are all positive and I hope that they will bring about a more connected, efficient, equal, fair, fun, and clean world. The future is awesome.