Futurism is such a solace in times of trouble. Most people like to think back to some supposed golden era, when times were supposedly simpler, but crisis always makes me think of historical versions of the same type of crisis, and that’s never good. When I heard that COVID-19 had been given a name, the first names that came to my mind were “Justinian” and “Boccaccio” - which, if you don’t already know what I mean, should at least be an interesting half-hour of web browsing.
I studied history just long enough to know that I don’t want to live there!
I think forward. I mean, someone has to. Why do images of the future always turn out so dystopian? Because 1. we lack imagination and 2. we fear change. As a species. The individual ego dies but humanity as a whole carries on, smarter and more sanitary every time.
This is what I picture.
Urban people live in personalized pods that are sanitized by UV light. Almost all possessions are digital, including music, books, movies, games, and artwork. It’s possible to 3D-print objects like a new toothbrush or pair of socks, and then just toss the waste material back into the machine to be remade into something else.
All city food is inspected, cleaned, chopped, prepared, and served or delivered by robots. The only human hands that touch it are yours, when you eat it.
Sanitation is built into restroom fixtures, water fountains, railings, and other surfaces.
Everyone is wildly bored because there’s nothing to do but passively be entertained and waited on. It’s like being on a space shuttle without actually going anywhere.
Actually I don’t think that’s true at all. I think in a world like this, some people would adore it and others would run off to become Amish. Some, like me, would be urban most of the time and go off to the wilderness part of the time to recharge. It’s so much more interesting when it’s wild enough for the top-tier predators to come back.
We still want wildness, even when it tears into the tent, clamps its jaws around our head and drags us into the underbrush.
Why do we continue to find the past so hauntingly attractive, even when it’s demonstrably so grubby and smelly? When the plague could come and kill 30% of the population or wipe out an entire city? When for decades the leading cause of death was not heart disease, stroke, cancer, or war but tuberculosis? When a paper cut could give you tetanus and kill you in three days?
We’re squeaky clean compared to earlier humans, no offense to any particular century or culture but it’s true. We have incredible sewers and water treatment plants, flush toilets, running water, automated soap dispensers, and even better, we have vaccinations. There is now a vaccine for a common childhood disease that killed my first cousin once removed about 60 years ago.
In the future, there will definitely be new and improved vaccines. I’ll bet a flat green American dollar that they will be free to all comers. Quite probably there will be a universal flu vaccine and a universal rhinovirus vaccine and a universal coronavirus vaccine. And, equally probably, there will be refusers and deniers and scoffers just as there are today.
The more common the vaccine, the less people care. They take herd immunity for granted. Dude, I have close relatives who have been taken down by mumps, by scarlet fever, by tuberculosis and even by chicken pox. We can largely ignore most epidemic illness because of the concerted effort of health professionals and the scientific community throughout the Twentieth Century.
We live the dream of every parent who ever cried over a child’s deathbed, “Make it stop!”
This is why I think the biggest deal about the future will be better and better health care, because that’s always been our first priority. It’s the main thing people will bankrupt themselves for. People will risk their lives to care for other people when they are sick. Others will work day and night, hunched over in a lab, trying to develop treatments or vaccines or anything at all that will work.
I think what will change is faster communication, cheaper and faster diagnostics, and cheaper and faster vaccine and drug development. As we get better at research and better at logistics, better at crisis response, there will be parts of the world that get by mostly epidemic-free.
And, in response, at least for now, more intellectually lazy people contributing to one of the all-time great tragedies of the commons, abdicating on herd immunity.
I think in the future we’ll be marginally better at public service announcements and understanding the psychology of the refuseniks. Probably we’ll also get better at isolating people.
What is more likely to save us is the innovation curve of the service industry. We’ll go on smearing our greasy fingerprints all over everything, only institutional changes will gradually adapt around our behavior. We’ve all been taught incrementally to do things like wait in line, use tablets to place our orders, read the signifiers on little sauce packets, and sort our trash. A lot of the sanitation and trash hauling is transparent to us as we go about our business.
Mostly, we buy what is available in the form factors that are presented. We quickly adopt innovations like voicemail or seatbelts or drive-thru windows, and we learn to understand new icons in a way that may even be accessible to habituated wildlife.
We’ll be cleaner and healthier in the future because decisions will be made above our pay grade. For instance, right now industries from airlines to banks to coffee shops are making adjustments, as much to keep the money machine humming as to protect their customers and employees. Commerce only works for the living.
Ten years from now, we won’t even remember exactly how it happened. We may only realize how much things have changed when we try to look backward, just as it’s hard for me to remember what it was like before smartphones + internet access + GPS. I remember the specific day I learned how to do a Boolean search, but I have trouble reconstructing how I used to think before that day. It’s going to be the same with the near-term future.
Right now, we can order quite a lot with the touch of a button. In the future, it just won’t be a physical button and we’ll be subliminally discouraged from touching anything at all.
We keep forgetting that we’re living in the future. It’ll probably take about two generations before we start to figure it out.
This is the argument that I use when setting policy with my husband about our domestic arrangements and mental bandwidth. How would this be different if it were automated? If it were engineered out of existence as a problem? Offload it, sure, abdicate it, absolutely. Tell Siri, though, not me.
We’ve had a lot of success with delegating household chores to “the robots,” as we call them, and now I’m trying to teach him to do it with the administrative stuff.
The thing is, like a lot of people, we each have a smartphone in our pocket. Along with all the many other features of these incredibly powerful computers, which are far and away better than what was used to get the first rocket up to the Moon, there is a voice assistant. It can do stuff, and, arguably, it should.
Check the weather
Read off lists
Probably a million more things that we haven’t realized it can do
We both grew up with moms who were traditional in most ways. We both had the kind of mom who did most or all of the cooking and housework, the kind of mom who knew how to sew and make Halloween costumes, the kind of mom who basically ran the household while the dad did the fix-it stuff. We both had a certain internalized expectation that the woman of the household is also the secretary and receptionist of the household.
But then, we met each other in the workplace.
I literally WAS his office assistant.
It literally was my job to take notes at his meetings, sort his mail, make his photocopies, and copyedit his technical documentation. (He was one among a staff of 75 others).
This probably helped when we got married years later. It helped to make clear that certain types of tasks were PAID and, thus, valuable. As an engineer, my husband understood full well exactly why these low-level administrative tasks are delegated down. It’s a silly drain on the mental bandwidth of a professional who has more interesting things to do.
He gets it that if these random and small interruptions keep popping up for me to handle, then it interferes with the headspace I need as a writer.
I can either be a full-time stay-at-home spouse, maintaining the perfect household and cooking great meals from scratch, OR. Or I can be something else, something more interesting and fulfilling that also generates a higher income. Both are valid paths to lifestyle upgrades for both of us. One is depressing, boring, and annoying (for me at least), and the other is awesome.
More to the point, why should a human (including me) do something when a robot or an artificial intelligence can do it?
Back to the robots.
We have a Roomba and a countertop dishwasher. We also have a robot mop, but we currently aren’t using it because our kitchen floor is about the size of a beach towel. Once upon a time, we had a washer and dryer. We “start the robots” before we go to the movies, and we come home to a clean apartment. The only things “the robots” don’t do (yet) are to knock down cobwebs, dust surfaces, clean the bathroom, put away laundry, and make the bed. We sort laundry by having a hamper with two detachable bags, one for lights and one for darks. That’s not robotic, but it is based on principles of lean engineering.
This is the premise on which I am building my empire, my Kingdom of Mental Bandwidth.
The goal is for both of us to have as much high-quality uninterrupted System 2 thinking time as possible. I’ve made my case for how much I do to support him as he works on his third patent, and he appreciates that this takes care and focus. This has helped me make the case that I, too, need help protecting my thinking-cap time.
As an engineering principle, our household should be as well-maintained as possible with the least amount of effort as possible. This is known as “low-side compliance.” It’s extremely important in engineering, because an engineer’s time is expensive, and even an extra hour putting in an extra feature might blow both the budget and the production schedule. Low-side compliance helps avoid “scope creep,” which is what happens when the specifications of the product keep expanding. Scope creep makes everything more expensive and complicated, and also more vulnerable to failure.
Running a household is the classic example of scope creep. It’s also a stupid place to put that kind of cognitive and emotional focus.
Together, we’ve worked out a way to automate, systemize, or eliminate as many household tasks as possible. This includes chores and errands. The next step is to automate more administrative tasks like ordering dog food, scheduling appointments, and booking travel.
Another horizon would be keeping track of where things are. I have what amounts to a 3D mental hologram of every object in our home, as well as several other homes of family and friends. My superpower does not, though, make me responsible for keeping track of other people’s stuff! One day, an AI will have this ability and then it will make sense to interrupt *it* instead of me.
Since this function would be so valuable in manufacturing and inventory management, it WILL eventually arise and become widely available.
The household of the future will run itself. It will clean itself, schedule its own maintenance, stock itself with supplies, and track the location of objects, maybe even uninvited insects. With 3D food printing, everyone can have a personalized meal on demand, including guests. The house and the computer will effectively merge. Household chores and errands will become as antiquated for the average suburban family as churning butter and trimming lantern wicks are today.
We’re already at the point where commonly available software can track our budgets, order groceries and other household supplies, schedule appointments, and even suggest entertainment options. Not that far into the future, there will be nothing left to argue about except whose job it is to give the cat a pill, unless of course it’s a robot cat. We might as well get started on figuring out what to argue about next, and maybe the voice assistant of tomorrow can mediate.
***NOTE: I formatted and scheduled this post on Saturday, January 13, 2018. BTC was trading at about $14,100.***
I thought it was 2014, but I went rooting around in my Sent folder and found the email trail. My husband and I seriously considered getting into Bitcoin in November of 2013, and decided against it. It had jumped that month from about $200 to about $600 the week we considered it. As I write this, in January of 2018, a BTC is valued at nearly $15,000. We could have made 24x on our investment!!! Right?!?!? The natural emotional response of most people who looked back on this kind of decision would be deep regret. “The one that got away.” We stand by our decision, and in some ways we’re even more confirmed that we did the smart thing.
The short version is that I had an extended conversation with a good friend of mine who was a Bitcoin miner. She and her husband had been into it for a couple-few years, and they had already made a bunch of money. Technically, kind of literally they had “made money,” in the sense that they were creating new Bitcoins. I already knew what Bitcoin was. Through this conversation I grasped the premise that we could set up an extra computer in the office and, over time, it might generate a tiny amount of this speculative figment called cryptocurrency.
I went home and told my husband about it, which I will discuss three paragraphs from now.
Then I went into a research black hole.
When something ignites my curiosity, there’s no stopping me. I will open two dozen tabs, read 800-page books, speed-listen to podcast episodes on 3x, talk to anyone and everyone to find out what they know, and basically let the topic eat my brain. Sometimes this goes on forever, and other times I find out enough to satisfy me in a few days or hours. In the case of cryptocurrency, it went on my news radar and stayed there in the background.
One of the constant themes my husband and I have in our conversations is “Walking Dead Future vs. Star Trek Future.” Cryptocurrency definitely fell on that track. I can and do research and make my own investments, and if I had wanted to go into Bitcoin alone, I certainly would have. I knew my husband would be interested in it, though, because he’s a numismatist. That means he’s extremely interested in coins. In fact, he makes museum-quality replica hammered coins. Anyone with that level of fascination in the history of money would obviously take note of cryptocurrency. Would we jump on the bandwagon, though?
First, we looked over the extra computer equipment we had sitting around in the office gathering dust. We quickly figured out that it wasn’t robust enough to generate any BTC. If we wanted to do this at a serious level, it would cost us nice flat green American dollars to upgrade our computer setup. There is little short-term risk in this kind of investment, because if we wanted out, we could either use that rig for something else or we could sell it and recoup part of the cost. (Until three years went by and the whole lot of it became laughably obsolete). Digging a little deeper, we learned that people were already dealing with the problem of dispelling the extra heat from their rooms of dedicated Bitcoin machines. Getting started as miners would cost us a lot of real-world money, and we’d be competing in an ever-escalating computing arms race.
At that point, we pivoted. Mining wasn’t a strategy for us, so what if we just speculated and bought some BTC?
The reason we passed was that in 2013, Bitcoin couldn’t buy anything. We couldn’t pay our rent with it. We couldn’t make our car payment with it. We couldn’t buy groceries with it. All we could really do was to save it and hope it was worth more one day, and that at a certain threshold, mainstream retail establishments would start accepting it. To my knowledge, that has not yet happened at even one single business entity where we routinely make transactions.
In 2013, we were still catching up financially. I married a man in recovery from a disastrous divorce settlement, and he married a woman with student loans. (Well, two in a row, actually). We had a guaranteed 16% rate of return from continuing to pay off our credit card debt. We had money in the market that we weren’t even remotely planning to pull out, which is great, because we did well between 2013 and 2018. We had everything to gain from continuing to earn, spend, and invest traditional US dollars, and only a dim future to imagine with Bitcoin.
Then I kept doing research and waving my mental antennae.
There were more potential pitfalls with cryptocurrency than we had realized at first blush. First off, cryptocurrency most likely will be a key player in the AI-flavored, robotic, Space Age near future. The question is, which cryptocurrency? There’s been significant drama among the people who run the Bitcoin show. What if the real winner winds up being Dogecoin? Second, international fiscal policy and potential currency manipulation. Third, the wallets. There was no guarantee that the company we trusted to store our BTC would continue to exist a decade later. I also read stories of people being hacked and robbed, and you know you’re living in a libertarian paradise when there’s no legal enforcement and nothing anyone can or will do about it. Fourth, loss. Lost BTC is already legendary; even Elon Musk has lost some.
Hold that thought, because what Elon Musk does is highly relevant to the way my hubby and I make strategic decisions. Study hard, work hard, create value, create the future. Don’t act like Elon; think like Elon. But I digress.
The funniest thing about cryptocurrency is that so many of the players seem to be worried about that Walking Dead Future I mentioned earlier. Um, what are you going to do with your BTC when the power goes out and stays out? Seriously! Might be better off at that point trading bottle caps.
The thing about the history of money is that it’s gone through a lot of very weird phases. What we’re looking at with the dawn of cryptocurrency is just like the early days, in Colonial America, when people issued their own competing currencies and scrip. Many cultures and eras have produced cool museum artifacts in the form of “money” that is only “worth” anything due to its status as a rare collectible. Exactly, exactly like postage stamps.
Stuff is only worth what someone will pay you for it. Or the use you get out of it.
If you believe in the Walking Dead Future, build your physical stamina, work on your wilderness survival and food preservation skills, and put the bulk of your effort into learning communication and leadership. If my game is Get Allies and your game is Anarchy, I’m going to be your new queen. You may kiss the ring. Guards, deal with him. If you believe in the Star Trek Future, what makes you think money is going to be such a big deal anyway? Part of why my husband and I still deal in ordinary American dollars is that we’ve already lived through the beginning of the Information Age. We remember when long distance phone calls were very expensive, and now they’re virtually free. Pretty much the same thing happened with minimum viable food and clothes. Next it’s going to be electricity, wi-fi, and transportation. This isn’t the post for the full gamut of my futurist predictions, but they’re relevant to why we passed on Bitcoin.
We’re not really skeptical about cryptocurrency. Of course it will be relevant in the future, of course it will! (Which one, though?) Still, we’re glad we didn’t buy in back in 2013. We would have made anywhere from $15,000 to maaaaybe $45,000. We paid off our credit cards and increased our earning power significantly in that time. We also realized far larger gains in US money with our strategy than we would have by using it to speculate on BTC. Also, how would we know when to cash out? What would be the point of a virtual wallet that was only “worth something” as long as we left it in there? What about the transaction costs? What about a false sense of security? If we’d bought BTC four years ago, I’m sure we’d be squabbling right now about whether we’re in a bubble (probably) or whether it’s just a hockey stick. We’ll have a better idea about that in another four years. In the meantime, we’ll continue to focus on building our real-world earning and survival skills, as well as our real-world financial wealth.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies