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The future, broken down
July 15, 2010 6:01 AM   Subscribe

40 Things You Need to Know About the Next 40 Years For it's 40th anniversary issue, Smithsonian magazine asks experts in various fields for insights into our future and compiles a list of 40 predictions about the future of science, nature, the arts and technology. The feature essay is by President Obama, in which he explains why he's optimistic about America's future. (VIA)

The 40 predictions, crudely categorized:

Nature & Environment
Coral Reefs Will Be Devastated - Scientists say the outlook for the world's oceans is bleak—unless we stop overfishing and reduce air and water pollution.

The Catch of the Day? Jellyfish - As the world's oceans are degraded, will they be dominated by jellyfish?

Oysters Will Save Wolves From Climate Change - For scientists in a remote corner of coastal North Carolina, ignoring global warming is not an option.

2,000 New Mammal Species Will Be Discovered - From old-world primates to patch-nosed salamanders, new creatures are being discovered every day.

It's Curtains For The World's Rarest Dolphin - Conservationists estimate that one-eighth of all bird species, one-fifth of mammal species and one-third of amphibian species are at risk of extinction.

Most Americans Fear For The Planet's Health - A joint poll from the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine finds high hopes about science but anxiety about the environment.


Science & Technology
Sophisticated Buildings Will Be Made Of Mud - An MIT professor shows how ancient architecture can be the basis for a more sustainable future.

New Cars Will Be Given Away, Free - An entrepreneur hits the road with a new approach for an all-electric car that overcomes its biggest shortcoming.

Industry Will Generate Energy In Space - Billionaire entertainment mogul Richard Branson talks about the future of transportation and clean energy.

Farmers Will Plant Spinach In Tall Buildings - Grow fruits and vegetables in city towers? Advocates give a green thumbs up.

An Ancient Grain, Fonio, Will Fight Starvation - Five Game-Changing Crops That Could Help Feed the Hungry.

Glowing Squid Will Lead To New Antibiotics - By studying microbial communications, Bonnie Bassler has come up with new ways to treat disease.

Science Could Enable A Person To Regrow A Limb - It won't be long before surgeons routinely install replacement body parts created in the laboratory.

Astronomers Will Discover Life Beyond Earth - Probes and landers sent into the final frontier will bring us closer to answering cosmic mysteries.

How Will We Avert The Dinosaurs' Fate? Telescopes - Astronomers are determined to protect human beings from inanimate outer space invaders.

Brain Scans Will Illuminate The Infant Mind - Anthropolist and physician Melvin Konner talks about how our understanding of child development will change.

A Medical Lab Will Fit On A Postage Stamp - Harvard professor and scientific genius George Whitesides believes that nanotechnology will change medicine as we know it.

Viruses Will Help Build Machines - Chemist Angela Belcher looks to manufacture high technology out of viruses.

Electricity Will Be Harvested From Your Skin - Energy harvested from our bodies will make possible mind-boggling gadgetry.

Crucial Energy Will Be Generated With Mirrors - Solar technologies being pioneered in Spain show even greater promise for the United States.

Your Refrigerator Will Talk To You - Google’s “Chief Internet Evangelist” Vinton Cerf talks about the direction of online connectivity and communication.


US & World Politics
The Nation Will Meet The Tests Of The Century Ahead - Looking ahead to the next 40 years, President Obama writes about our nature as Americans to dream big and solve problems.

The Heartland Will Rise Again and The Top U.S. Social Problem? Upward Mobility - The United States population will expand by 100 million over the next 40 years. Is this a reason to worry?

By 2050, One Out Of Three U.S. Kids Will Be Latino - Experts predict the U.S. population will become increasingly diverse, with the greatest gains among Latinos. The Chicano cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, creator of the syndicated "La Cucaracha" comic strip and illustrator of the book Latino USA, reinterprets a now-classic vision of mid-21st-century life.

World War III Will Begin. In Space - Geopolitical scientist George Friedman predicts which nations will be fighting for world power in 2050.

Unless We Conserve, More People Will Go Hungry - Economist Rosamond Naylor discusses the stresses that climate change and a greater world population will have on our food supply.

Afghanistan Risks Turmoil For 40 Years - Maturing populations may mean a less violent future for many societies torn by internal conflict (but Afghanistan is another story).

Health Workers Will Eradicate Malaria - Melinda French, co-chair of the world's largest philanthropy talks about what can be done to improve global health and poverty.


Art & Culture
Artists Will Run The World - The director of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum predicts how art will engage us as never before.

Novelists Will Need A New Plot Device - Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Rita Dove discusses how new technologies will affect the creative process.

Everyone Will Make His Own Music - Inventor and MIT professor Tod Machover talks about where music and technology will intersect over the course of the next 40 years.

Secrets Will Reveal If Young JFK Was "Vacuous" - Declassified records and journals to be released in coming decades will shed new light on pivotal 20th-century figures and events.

James Cameron Will Still Be Making Movies At 96 - The director of Avatar and Terminator talks about future sequels, 3-D television and Hollywood in 2050.

Stand-up Comedy Will No Longer Kill - Late-night talk show host George Lopez discusses how America's changing demographics will affect what makes people laugh.

Native American Youths Will Revive Their Culture - Filmmaker Chris Eyre says Native pride will embolden the next generation of first Americans.

U.S.-Muslim Relations Will Improve - Museum curator and author Sabiha Al Khamir predicts that relations between the United States and the Muslim world will improve.

Evolution Will Continue In Reverse, Humorist Says - Satirist Carl Hiaasen talks about the "curve of human weirdness" and the need for public outrage in the political arena.

Goodbye, Stereo; Hello, Hyper-Real Acoustics - Multi-faceted artist Lauri Anderson sees a future in which artists change our auditory experiences.

Reading Will Become An Athletic Activity - As digital screens proliferate and people move from print to pixel, how will the act of reading change?
posted by mondaygreens (48 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite

 
My only regret is that I probably won't be alive fifty years from now to mock these predictions in the inevitable "Look at these wacky ideas from the past" post on the MetaFilter of 2060.
posted by briank at 6:11 AM on July 15, 2010


I favourited this post so I can come back and read it again on my holo-implant in 2050. I'll have just retired about then and should have plenty of time on my hands.

Well, either that or I'll be tilling the soil in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:15 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


By the time I've finished reading all these articles, it will be 40 years from now.

(But seriously, good stuff.)
posted by grubi at 6:18 AM on July 15, 2010


Obama reminded me:

Over the past year, we’ve made the largest investment in basic research funding in history; it’s an investment with the potential to spark new technologies, new treatments and new breakthroughs we can’t foresee.

It is due to this increase in funding that I currently have work as a researcher in computational genomics. Although I probably could have gone to grad school, the funding would not have been available for me to immediately work on generally useful tools.
posted by melatonic at 6:19 AM on July 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm really hoping that the oceanography predictions don't look like wild eyed optimism 40 years from now.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:23 AM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Paging Taleb, paging Nassim Taleb, black courtesy phone.
posted by KaizenSoze at 6:29 AM on July 15, 2010 [3 favorites]




Stand-up Comedy Will No Longer Kill

I wasn't aware it ever did. There's nothing quite so insufferable as being stuck in a room in which a television is playing stand-up.
posted by resiny at 6:32 AM on July 15, 2010


Man, sometimes with all the shit going on in the world I forget how comforting it is that the U.S. has a President that can write.

And who I am reasonably confident actually wrote most or all of what is under his byline, using sentences some of your former leaders probably couldn't read.

It's... good. This is a good thing. Well done, America.
posted by Shepherd at 6:33 AM on July 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


I am pleasantly surprised to see Lauri Anderson there. Looking forward to reading the articles.
posted by Splunge at 6:34 AM on July 15, 2010


Also, it always throws me when I go to the Smithsonian website, because their favicon looks like a wedge of the BP logo. So I'll open a tab with it, forget about it, and then an hour later look up and think "why the hell do I have a tab to the BP website open?"
posted by resiny at 6:35 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: a guy wearing no clothes, shivering, playing the flute.
posted by Splunge at 6:40 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


For me, the strangest thing about reading magazines and watching television from the 50s and into the early 60s isn't the change in fashion or technology since that time. Rather, it's the realization that there was a time in which people were generally optimistic about the future that amazes me. These days the general consensus seems to be "We're really screwed" but back then it was like... "Wow! The future is going to be AWESOME!" More than anything else, that's why the past feels like a different world to me.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:01 AM on July 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


I saw National Geographic's "Jellyfish Invasion" on the CBC a few nights ago and was squicked and impressed. There's an excerpt here.

And -- just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water -- now Irukandji syndrome may be spreading outside of Asia and the South Pacific, where you usually find the tiny box jellyfish that brings on unspeakable pain from a tiny sting. Another excerpt from the NatGeo documentary.
posted by maudlin at 7:13 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I had to read the Laurie Anderson one first. I like Laurie Anderson quite a bit, but she really overestimates how many of us are going to be audiophiles, or at least enough of audiophiles to want hyper-real sound. I'm betting this will be one of the predictions people laugh at in 40 years.
posted by immlass at 7:21 AM on July 15, 2010


Whenever I see articles like these, I always picture their authors' wearing Carnac the Magnificent's hat.
posted by .kobayashi. at 7:24 AM on July 15, 2010


"Barack Obama is the president of the United States."

I guess they have to identify him along with all the other writers, but even bad as things may be, something about that sentence made me smile. Thanks for the post.
posted by emhutchinson at 7:32 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Interesting, but the setup was pretty frustrating. I wish they had the same title on the list page as on the page you linked to- I opened a bunch of tabs and then couldn't figure out what I was reading, particularly since the titles from the list don't seem to really capture what the article is about, anyway.
posted by emilyd22222 at 7:35 AM on July 15, 2010


And we still won't have flying cars or jetpacks. Dammit.
posted by lash at 7:40 AM on July 15, 2010


All you need to know about the future:

1. You don't talk about the future.
2. ????
3. Profit.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:46 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Since when was George Lopez an authority on comedy?
posted by schmod at 7:56 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


The James Cameron prediction is just so bleak.
posted by heyho at 8:06 AM on July 15, 2010


LastOfHisKind: These days the general consensus seems to be "We're really screwed" but back then it was like... "Wow! The future is going to be AWESOME!" More than anything else, that's why the past feels like a different world to me.

Lash: And we still won't have flying cars or jetpacks. Dammit.

The future isn't what it used to be, more's the pity.
posted by Herodios at 8:08 AM on July 15, 2010


In the future Now everyone is a futurist.

But seriously: some of these make a lot of sense, some are pretty marginal and some are overly optimistic at best.

The prediction of which nations are going to fight each other next is a mugs game. 20 years ago there where some pretty serious thinkers who thought that the next big war was going to be fought between the US and Europe/EU (over power issues if I remembers correctly), if I took a day I could actually excavate the article from my "mounds-of-paper-in-the-closet".
Personally I think the trend we see of low intensity, decentralized, transnational actors (what is called terrorism) is the future of war for quite awhile. The disparity of war resources (stealth bombers eg) a handful of states hold over the rest of the world necessitates such an approach.

The Malaria cure I could see, was just reading an interesting article (in Science News I think) about some real progress being made in developing a viable vaccine, actually a vaccine already exists, but is so cumbersome to produce each dose (dissecting literally 1000 mosquitoes per dose), running it though the FDA trials and synthesizing it may be the only steps left.
posted by edgeways at 8:13 AM on July 15, 2010


I need some sort of index where the number of posts it takes to get to "STILL NO FLYING CARS, WHOOO!" in a discussion about the future relates to its overall quality.
posted by codacorolla at 8:13 AM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


In the future Now everyone is a futurist.

Yes, but only for fifteen minutes.
posted by Herodios at 8:16 AM on July 15, 2010


if we never get flying cars or jetpacks this world will be happier.

better instant noodles, though...
posted by artof.mulata at 8:28 AM on July 15, 2010


And who I am reasonably confident actually wrote most or all of what is under his byline...

Personally edited, maybe. I'm not saying he couldn't have, but really, he's the President. He's had people for that since he was running for the Senate in IL.
posted by rusty at 8:32 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Huh, can we cross-reference this with something from 40 years ago?
posted by The Whelk at 8:37 AM on July 15, 2010


"Barack Obama is the president of the United States."

I guess they have to identify him along with all the other writers, but even bad as things may be, something about that sentence made me smile.


Me too. Knowing our leader is President Obama is one of those things that makes me happy to be alive right now. Seriously.
posted by bearwife at 8:54 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


That'd be "Laurie" Anderson, not "Lauri" Anderson.
posted by sideshow at 9:14 AM on July 15, 2010


Well shit, there goes *my* productivity for the day.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:29 AM on July 15, 2010


No, see, Irukandji Syndrome is actually a sign that the future will be great. Some group will get done researching it and eventually turn it into the "pain by nerve induction" box from Dune. I would pay to have one of those boxes. I'm not even joking. I would jam my hand in that thing just as soon as I had put a tarp down in case I wet myself. I'd probably play the "Dick in a Box" video and then put my dick in the box and scream wildly because I'd be interested to know how much that would hurt. "A lot" isn't a valid measurement.
posted by adipocere at 10:01 AM on July 15, 2010


I liked Obama's essay overall, but I also found something vaguely depressing about it, in that it really highlights the moderate, incrementalist approach to things that he sometimes draws criticism for. The whole point of these exercises in futurism, as I see it, is to let your imagination run wild and conjure up ideas of big, sweeping changes. So, for example, when he talks about education, I want to hear something like, "I imagine a world where college is free for everyone. Not slightly more affordable, just free." I don't want to hear about expanding Pell grants to keep up with inflation. He talks about doubling renewable energy production; I want to hear about the end of oil.

I get that he has the burden of being sensible and measured, but damn sometimes I wish he'd just shoot for the stars. He's repeatedly made reference to the importance of dreamers, geniuses, and innovators. Why can't he be one himself?
posted by albrecht at 10:06 AM on July 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I am a big Obama supporter as well, but I have to say that his piece in this collection was underwhelming. It seemed like political boilerplate, like something any US President could have written. He says he's optimistic about the future -- is this surprising? Even Dubya found reason to say that New Orleans had a bright future in his Katrina speech.

All of our Presidents are required to do two things in their rhetoric: mythologize the past, and talk about how great the future will be. Or, in short, to say:

"In the past, we were awesome. But in the future -- we'll be even better."

(Not that I blame him for this - I mean, what's he supposed to say, right? My point is just that, as a rule, Presidential comments like this have their boredom built-in so reliably that they aren't worth commissioning in the first place.)
posted by Philemon at 10:47 AM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]



Over the past year, we’ve made the largest investment in basic research funding in history;


My initial reading was that this should make historians happy. Alas....
posted by IndigoJones at 11:11 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Looking ahead to the next 40 years, President Obama writes about our nature as Americans to dream big and solve problems.

Presumably while the rest of us sit around twiddling our thumbs, waiting for Uncle Sam to save us. Because Americans? They're special.
posted by Quantum's Deadly Fist at 12:04 PM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Salamanders are mammals?

I must have missed a memo.
posted by HFSH at 1:17 PM on July 15, 2010


Salamanders are mammals?

Some are.
posted by mazola at 1:42 PM on July 15, 2010


Presumably while the rest of us sit around twiddling our thumbs, waiting for Uncle Sam to save us. Because Americans? They're special.

I don't think the implication was that non-Americans don't do those things, but if you want to read it that way, that's your prerogative.

What's the President of a country going to say, really? "The inhabitants of my nation are a bunch of worthless layabouts!" Of course President Obama, by virtue of being the leader of the nation, is going to say flattering things about Americans - especially if he wants to win re-election.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:45 PM on July 15, 2010


Why is Barack Obama optimistic? Because he's the president. He has to say that.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 1:51 PM on July 15, 2010


schmod: "Since when was George Lopez an authority on comedy?"

Now, see, I was thinking this. I really was. And I came thisclose to posting this exact comment. But I always run out of snarkwidth before the end of the month, so I decided to skip it.

So thanks.
posted by Splunge at 2:05 PM on July 15, 2010


Grapefruitmoon, I find it difficult to read it any other way, but then I'm equally irked when British people (or politicians, hoho) attempt to ascribe generic attributes as 'uniquely British'.
posted by Quantum's Deadly Fist at 2:29 PM on July 15, 2010


My point is just that, as a rule, Presidential comments like this have their boredom built-in so reliably that they aren't worth commissioning in the first place.)

This is true for all politicians. Everything interesting or noteworthy is filleted from any comments they might make beforehand. Generally, if they're currently in office, they're not worth listening to.
posted by greytape at 2:47 PM on July 15, 2010


We're not special. We're just exceptional.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:16 PM on July 15, 2010


I wouldn't read too much into Obama's essay. Hell, I doubt he even read it himself.
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 4:32 PM on July 15, 2010


I sit next to the Web dev at work. I can't look at a list like this now without imagining all of the ways it could benefit from jQuery...
posted by limeonaire at 4:59 PM on July 15, 2010


Obama is not just a politician any more, he's a leader. Are we so willing to accept lies and contradictions in our leaders? And what kind of a future does that portend? He doesn't have to say anything. He has to do. But he's saying specific things repeatedly as justifications for doing ineffectual and capitalist things as a leader - more of the same stuff that got us into this mess - for keeping power where power is (in government and in money) as long as its even remotely sustainable. His logic is flawed and he's full of platitudes. But the problems are real and the solutions are not working, in the face of which all he says is: no matter what happens, I believe in the genius of Americans.

A more honest title to his essay would have been: Why My Government is Going To Keep Doing What It's Doing. And its content should've been: Because we Americans are always right, no matter what has happened or will. I mean, are you saying you're not awesome? Hell yes! You believe in me and I'll believe in you, reality be damned.

This is not a moderate president. This is a conservative president. Power usually is, and it's depressing.


(My original comment got out of hand so I've put it up elsewhere to avoid spamming MeFi: Why I'm Pessimistic About America)
posted by mondaygreens at 10:39 PM on July 15, 2010


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