It’s been said that we create our own reality. I believe that is only true to a certain extent. It does seem obvious, though, that we can have more or less influence over our lives depending on how prepared we are.
Preparation, not prediction. It’s a futurism thing.
We can’t necessarily guess what’s going to happen next, whether in the near or distant future.
I didn’t guess that I would get COVID-19 last March, that’s for sure. As a senior in high school, I never guessed that I would wind up working in the space industry - since there effectively *was no* space industry at that time. Anyone who pauses to think about it can probably list of a bunch of events that were major surprises when they happened.
Everyone has major surprises at some point or other. Sometimes those surprises happen to all of us at once, like a category five storm, or a global pandemic. (Just because you don’t believe in it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t believe in you).
The question isn’t what happens, the question is how we react to what happens.
The further question is, what do we *make happen* regardless of external events?
Everyone responds to stress and trauma in different ways, and there’s no right answer. There’s no correct speed or reaction time when something goes wrong. I would never say otherwise.
Personally, though, I strongly resent being toppled by external events. Shocks in my life like my early divorce, an IRS error, or getting COVID have been deeply, shall I say, offensive and annoying. My response is to drag myself back to my feet and keep on pushing.
That’s why I applied for a job when I still wasn’t 100% convinced that I would survive COVID. I wasn’t about to quit setting goals just because I might die in a couple days.
(I tried. I tried to officially relinquish all my goals, but my system didn’t really accept it).
What if you can’t guess what’s going to happen next?
Well, you can. Anyone can take a wild guess. Can you get it right? By the time you know the answer to that, it’s a moot point because you already know the answer.
This is the inherent frustration of living in the place of uncertainty.
There are probably infinite ways to deal with the emotional load of being in the place of uncertainty. One of them is to shrug, and another is to go WHEEEEE and wave your arms in the air. Of course another is to curl into a ball with your hands over your head.
My preferred way is to go back to strategy.
The great thing about finding out that the rules have all suddenly changed is that, guess what? If the old rules no longer apply, then it’s likely that almost *no rules* apply.
You can step out of the maelstrom with a new identity.
Not to say that it’s easy. It’s not.
It hasn’t been easy, for example, to get onboarded at a new job while still recovering from a near-death experience. It’s hard to learn proficiency in half a dozen new software titles while still so tired that it’s hard to sit up straight.
It felt familiar, though. It felt a lot like getting back on my feet after my divorce.
This is why people who have lived through hard times can look back and say that it all turned out okay. Not that going through trauma has any sort of intrinsic value - I don’t think that it does at all.
It’s more like being backed into a corner by life forces people to be more decisive and bold than usual. We spend more time strategizing because that’s our only choice, and if we made it out, that’s why. We finally thought of options that normally wouldn’t have occurred to us, and did things that were out of character because that felt like the only choice that made sense.
This is where preparation comes into the picture.
What I did after my divorce was to eventually go back to school and get my degree. That put me in a significantly better position to deal with the next batch of high weirdness that life threw my way.
There is nothing about college that makes a natural and obvious connection to ending a marriage. “I have nothing, let’s add thousands of dollars in debt” is not an automatic response, right?
It just seemed to be the most obvious place to add skills, and adding skills is always a good answer.
I reacted the same way when I was bucked off my horse by COVID. Should I keep on doing what I was doing before? Not really, not when I had just had a universal reset.
Instead I thought, what is the most interesting thing I could be doing right now? And I got a new job.
Other people in other situations might have a natural “most obvious” repositioning station. For some, it would probably be moving in with their parents, especially if there was a need for a caregiver around the place. For others, it might be selling all their stuff and relocating, or taking some time off and getting their teeth fixed, or something else that feels more personal and necessary.
What is always helpful is to regroup and try to put things in their new, oddball perspective.
Remember, when times are tough, that every minute feels like a million years. It isn’t clear at all what the right choices are, or how things will turn out. That’s prediction and it isn’t something that humans are very good at.
In retrospect, though, what felt like forever might only be a few months.
Looking backward from whatever happened next in the storyline, whatever was going on during that time of mysterious transition won’t even be an interesting footnote. Nobody will care.
I could tell my story as “my husband left me and I lived on my friend’s couch for a year” - which happened over twenty years ago - or I could say, “I got a degree in history and then I became a futurist, and let me tell you what I think about lunar habitats.” Both versions are true.
That’s how preparation can turn into prediction. In that one sense, whatever you do to prepare for your next phase of life has the ability to predict how your life will turn out. You can shape it if you choose which direction you want to go and put yourself in motion.
Just because something is a great song doesn’t make it automatically a great idea.
I remember New Year’s Eve, the last day of 1999, and of course we all had a party and played the song and danced around to it. We were all at least halfway convinced that the Y2K bug was going to cause mass havoc. People were going to get stuck in elevators all around the world, the power grid would shut down, and nobody would be able to pick up their prescriptions. Chaos and mayhem!
Many of us at that time were discussing what we would do when we received confirmation that It’s the End of the World As We Know It. (We played that song too, of course). Several of us had it in mind that we would drive up to the rural property of a certain prepper guy we all knew. We were young and it didn’t occur to us that he had already watched that movie all the way to the end and we hadn’t.
It’s strange to look back at those days, not least because I was still with my ex-husband. I hadn’t gone back to school yet, I still couldn’t drive, I was still living in Oregon, I hadn’t yet discovered my love of distance running or backpacking, I had only been outside the country once.
Twenty years ago, almost nothing that is important in my life today was anywhere on my mental radar.
If I could have seen what my life would be like twenty years later, would I have danced harder? Or not?
There are a lot of other differences between 1999 and now. It’s hard to even remember, but a lot of what we consider everyday things were entirely absent then. Not just smartphones and texting - my ex-husband actually had A PAGER when we met, and I would text him codes on it and he would call me back on a landline. In those days, most people didn’t even have email, not even at work. No Google, no Wikipedia, no YouTube, no memes, no “social media” other than BBSs. We still occasionally used floppy disks. I had a physical answering machine. Amazon had only recently branched out from books to things like shampoo, which I thought was dumb as heck.
In many ways, our world really was coming to an end in 1999. That was the world we knew, a 1980s-tinged world. Our fashions and music would carry on, along with, apparently, a bunch of our workout videos? But many of the social, cultural, and technological norms would completely change.
Do I miss those days? Having lived through them? Nah.
The truth is that I can easily download all the music I remember from that time. The rest of it, who cares?
Food is better now. Not just restaurant food, or the fact that we can get all sorts of things delivered, but grocery store selections as well. Keep in mind, in 1999 we did not have Hot Cheetos. (I’ve never had one but I hear they’re quite popular).
Consumer items are cheaper and more widely available, whatever that might mean.
We have streaming. Streaming what? Why, everything, of course.
There are a few things about our current moment - other than the pandemic, of course - that are really annoying. I don’t mean “microplastics in the ocean” annoying, I mean “constant text message spam” annoying. What is interesting, though, is to watch these sorts of things come and go as someone or other innovates around them.
In 1999, I was 24. One might think that I would look back with nostalgia and miss my youth, especially now that I’m still recovering from almost dying of COVID-19. As much as I enjoyed dystopian film and fiction back then, it never occurred to me that I personally would feel like a character in The Stand at some point in my adult life.
I wouldn’t go back and relive that time in my life for a million dollars.
I’m thrilled to be here in 2020, moments away from 2021. Might actually go out and try to set a fire in a dumpster just for the feels. (Actually no).
On New Year’s Eve in 1999, we were able to talk about the world coming to an end as something of a mood, an abstract concept. We did genuinely have plenty to worry about. We were still not just pre-COVID, but pre-9/11 as well. It didn’t occur to us how very innocent we were, how little we understood of paranoia or even irony, though we thought we did.
In so many ways, though, our daily lives are almost immeasurably better.
One very real improvement that we have now is that we can communicate with friends and family all over the world, as long as we want and as often as we want, basically for free. The standards in those days were pay-by-the-minute long distance, and photographs you had to pay to have developed and then put in the mail.
We didn’t have crowdfunding, either, an innovation that I think will probably always be a part of our culture, but not something we even thought to do twenty years ago.
When I think ahead to 2040, I hope I’ll still be here. I have reason to expect that I probably could. I do wonder what things will be like.
On the crest of major change, it always feels at least a bit scary. We don’t know what’s coming, and we hate and despise uncertainty, so we catastrophize. Even as terrible things often happen, and some situations persist for years or decades longer than they should, amazing and incredible things happen, too. It’s just that we don’t tend to notice those trends or patterns because we aren’t looking for them.
Times are hard right now. We’re still in the global pandemic that had already begun by this time last year, we just didn’t know it yet. We may still have another year to go. That doesn’t mean that better times are not coming.
As we all look forward to 2021 and years beyond, let’s remember that the future doesn’t exist yet. There are no predetermined outcomes. We’re still here, so let’s take the opportunity to look forward with some anticipation. What if we all party like it’s 2039?
I’ve decided I’m going to start writing about futurism on Fridays. I’m going to skip the next couple of weeks, since I don’t post on holidays, and then we’re going to start the Twenties by talking about our new century and beyond.
For the past several years, my aim has been to post book reviews on Fridays. Then I got COVID-19, and then I got a day job, and I have found myself unable to read enough to stay on top of this self-generated commitment.
I suppose that makes this my very first futurism prediction. In my future, I won’t be writing book reviews, and in your future, you won’t be reading them. Or at least, if you do read book reviews they’ll be done elsewhere by someone else.
This probably won’t stop the occasional hopeful author from asking me to review their novel, even though I haven’t reviewed fiction in something like 15 years. Note: Do your homework before you make a request of someone you don’t know.
Why am I writing about futurism?
I’m hoping to go back to school at some point in the near future - there’s that word again - to study strategic forecasting. Somebody’s gotta do it.
It turns out that writing five days a week and working long weeks are already pretty significant time commitments. If I go back to school as well, then something has to go. I haven’t made my mind up yet about the direction of the blog, so for now, this is a way to try to have it all.
Editorial decisions come up in the shaping of a blog, and one of them is how personal it will be. There are broad areas that I don’t cover - for instance, I don’t use the names of my friends or family, so they don’t have to worry about my writing spoiling their online reputations. I don’t write about family drama, I don’t write intimate things about my marriage, I don’t write about my political positions, I don’t share specifics about our finances. I don’t necessarily see a problem with other people making those topics their brand; it just isn’t for me.
At the same time, I see the world moving and changing. When I started writing, I focused on clutter and minimalism because I was still working a lot with hoarders, and it was something I thought about all the time. I started moving away from that work when I realized that it really doesn’t scale, that what people need is someone to work steadily with them for 3-5 years in a relationship that is at least as much therapeutic as it is practical. I don’t have it in me to become a counselor of that type and I didn’t feel that I had it in me to carry on any further in that direction.
I also wrote about health and fitness, and now that has shifted to my standoff with COVID-19. I certainly hope that quits being a topic of interest, in my personal life as well as the rest of the world. Whether I’ll continue to write about these things, I’m not sure, because my focus has changed over the past few years here as well. I remain opposed to the HAES movement, whatever it is that is currently known as “body positivity” leaves me utterly cold, and I am probably just too out of sync with trends to have much to add. Out of anything I write, this is the area that makes me the most nervous, because it just feels radioactive. It is probably better for everyone, myself included, if I keep my opinions to myself and simply manage my own mortal vessel.
This is what the topic of futurism does. It causes me to pause and ask myself, what parts of my life belong to the 20th century, and what parts are worth carrying into the 21st?
History has a school of thought, that there are watersheds, pivot points in time when everything noticeably changes. 9/11 was one of those, and so was the Vietnam War, and so was the first lunar landing. Part of the watershed theory is the idea that each new century doesn’t really get rolling until the second decade, just as each new decade doesn’t really get rolling for a year or two. Example: When we think of “the Sixties” a lot of the music, fashion, and culture that come to mind are more characteristic of the Seventies. What we think of as the Twentieth Century wasn’t really true of, say, 1903. People of the 1920’s felt modern in a way that people of the 1910’s, before WWI, do not.
Now we’re really starting the 2020’s, the Twenties again, and what is going to be different?
This is all going to be more obvious to us in the Thirties and Forties. Hey, readers, most of you are still going to be around to see how the 2030’s and 2040’s play out. How crazy is that?
I think what we’re going to see is a significant leveling up of technology, in the sense that middle-class consumers will start being able to buy stuff at Costco that wasn’t even sci-fi when we were kids. There are going to start to be thousands, then hundreds of thousands of blue-collar space industry jobs. Robots everywhere. You can already see this stuff starting to happen if you follow space and robotics news; for instance, did you know that an airport for flying cars is already being built?
(Hot take: I’m flying-cars negative because I don’t need that kind of thing falling through my roof, thank you very much).
The biggest obstacle between “us” and “the future” is human psychology. It’s tough for us to adapt to things that look and feel very different from what we had in our childhoods. We don’t always understand what we’re looking at, or why it is actually a big improvement over what we had before. This is what interests me about the future - that it’s coming at us one way or another, and it’s really all about how it makes us feel.
I’m taking another futurism class at work, and I wanted to share a bit of what we’re learning. One of the great call-outs is the idea that “there are no future facts.”
What this means is that since nothing in the future has actually happened yet, whatever we think of as “the future” doesn’t technically exist. What we imagine, may never happen at all.
The contrary of that is that many possible alternatives may happen, and we never thought of them, and we didn’t see them coming, and we are caught unawares.
One of the examples from our class was that commercial advertisements can be a good source of fringe signals. Another student questioned this and didn’t see why commercials would matter. I shared that around 1980, I remembered an AT&T ad showing a video call. We have that technology now, but at the time the commercial aired, my family was still using a rotary phone.
(I can’t find it, so I’m probably wrong about either the company or the year... or maybe I just dreamed the whole thing... or maybe we’re in the wrong wormhole again...)
I find it relatively easy to think in futuristic terms, because I’ve seen so much technological and cultural change in my lifetime. It was also easy for me to imagine what things were like when my grandparents and older relatives told stories about their own childhoods. Imagine growing up in a house with no electricity or running water, and then living to see a person land on the Moon... and *that* moment was half a century ago.
I think most people aren’t really paying attention to how rapidly “the future” is forming all around us.
It’s different for those of us who work in the space industry. It takes a long time to build stuff that is space-rated, but it does get built eventually. What we’re seeing are preliminary designs of things that will be Up There fifteen years from now.
I love thinking about the future because it makes all my present-day problems seem small and dumb. Which they are.
For instance, I’m almost out of curry mustard. (#astronautproblems) That is something that matters to my daily life, but it’s also a pretty dumb thing to be worrying about in the midst of a global pandemic. The pandemic itself is a whole lotta nuthin’ compared to the vast chasm of science denial that has appeared beneath our feet.
I’m not even worried about the pandemic anymore - I’m worried about all the otherwise rational-appearing people who are spending their spare time attempting to discredit any and all mainstream sources of information, on general principle.
“If I didn’t tell you it myself, ignore it!”
“Nobody who is smarter than me is worth listening to!”
“Only believe random bloggers or people who know how to make videos on their phone!”
This is what’s happening right now. Or actually it’s been happening since the 1990s and we weren’t really picking up on it. What is happening is that sources of information are fragmenting more and more and more. Individual people are starting to have their own completely personalized versions of current events.
Which is fine to an extent - don’t get between me and my gator news - but also, it means we aren’t even going to be aware of other people’s personal news bubbles. They’ll be thinking about, planning around, and acting on stuff we don’t even know exists.
The nice part about that for someone like me, someone who has special access to reports and diagrams and designs for future things, is that I can make plans for myself and my personal household that will help me to be resilient. I can avoid threats and I can create opportunities for myself.
Giant bummer for everyone else, though.
It’s easy to imagine... hmm... take the 1984 movie “Ghostbusters,” for example. If you haven’t seen it yet, then it’s your own fault if you keep reading before downloading it and watching it, because spoilers. Okay, remember in the movie that that one big apartment building was a sort of portal for Zuul? And all sorts of things disrupted Manhattan? “Dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria!”
Okay, now imagine that a few people somewhere out there in Alterna-News-World have some kind of conspiracy swami telling them that my apartment building is going to have a Zuul visitation on a specific date.
That would suck for me, because I live here, and I don’t really need rando’s camping out on our steps.
On the other hand, this sort of thing can only really touch me if these speculative people conspire to do things to my building - and only if I’m still living here. I have the resources to simply go elsewhere. For a day or an hour, or for permanently.
What “the future” is always about is the ability to handle whatever happens. That’s resilience.
In my life, and I think this would work for anyone, there are only a few absolute must-haves for someone to be versatile enough to handle “the future.” Those are a flexible mindset, the ability to think strategically, having a portable lifestyle, practical skills, physical fitness, and money.
Unfortunately, what most people want when they think about “the future” are comfort items. We can’t bear the stress of living in the place of uncertainty. So instead of preparing ourselves to have fun with all the cool things that are coming, we cling to memorabilia, buy large heavy liabilities like houses and cars, and dig ourselves into debt through recreational purchases, entertainment, and calories.
Not to say that I don’t also indulge in recreational calories, entertainment, etc. It’s just that in between, my husband and I will hit pause, turn to each other, and start discussing the fringe signals we have just seen. Or why whatever was in that movie is so unlikely and what we think would happen instead.
I’m thinking about putting together a ‘bad sci-fi’ club at work to have watch parties and either try to invent real versions of those props, or laugh ourselves sideways at what people of earlier decades thought our 20’s would be like.
Newsflash: It’s The Twenties again, time to party. But not like it’s 1999.
The most interesting thing about futurism is the stuff that happens that we could never see coming. Not just that we did not see it, but that we could not see it. There were no indications that anything like that would happen, until it did.
We look back to the famous 1899 quote, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
Did you see Back to the Future Part II? Characters from the Eighties venture to 2015. Since everyone reading this lived through that year, with the possible exception of a baby with advanced literacy skills, we can compare the movie to reality. It was quite right about a few things, though we can giggle at the omnipresent fax machines. What’s missing, though? What are the dogs that didn’t bark?
Anyone who wanted to predict our era and left out those two things would be missing probably the most dominant features of the age.
(They were right that we are constantly surrounded by news updates and instant communication, though!)
Something else that didn’t show up in the movie was the concept of the gig economy, with businesses like Uber and AirBnB so commonplace now that we hardly ever think back to when they were confusing new innovations. I remember that the first time I heard someone was contracting random people to deliver packages in their personal vehicles, I scoffed at it. That Will Never Work, I intoned. I was wrong. Not only did it work, it works for me on a regular basis and I hardly give it a thought.
Leave out the big stuff, and you miss the character and culture of a point in the timeline. It’s the hole that makes the donut, not just any old pastry.
What I’ve been trying to do lately is to think more about the hole. What would be something big and weird that might happen?
I’ve gotten pretty good at noticing trends and predicting stuff in the 10-15 year range. Of course, in most situations this is a useless skill. You can’t prove it to anyone unless you were smart enough to write it down; you’re still hanging out with them a decade later - and they care; or you just shrug and put your money where your mouth is in the stock market.
I nailed it with eye scanning tech and I got it again with pet insurance. I bought TSLA at $42.26. I won’t say I saw the crash of 2008 coming, but I broke even because I chose contra funds in 2007.
So what though. I didn’t predict my divorce in 2000 and I didn’t predict that I would get COVID-19 before the shutdown. The holes in the donut.
There are other things I didn’t predict. I have a degree in history, but I had no idea that fascism would be on the march again in my lifetime. I also had no idea that conspiracy theories and cults would take off the way they have, that people would gamble their own and their families’ lives to uphold their science denialism.
Possibly I started paying attention to it sooner than others, but then again, I’m only aware of most things because I read about them somewhere. That means someone else was looking into it somewhere ahead of me on the arc of change. For me to join them, I have to get better at scanning the fringe and finding my own patterns.
I think the most interesting things happen in culture completely outside of global politics, the economy, and in some ways, even technological change.
One thing that is interesting about change is that most things stay absolutely the same. As Nassim Taleb points out, if something was around 100 years ago, and it’s still around today, then it will probably still be around in another hundred years. Chairs have been recognizably chairs for a very long time, shoes more so, and knives even more so than that. You can go to a lot of museums and look at some very old lost socks, but also some truly ancient weapons.
Most material objects around us will continue to feel familiar. In a lot of cases the specific individual object will be familiar. I can still picture my grandmother’s kitchen, which probably looked almost identical for at least 30 years.
Something that changes is the prevalence of a thing, something that maybe pops up as a trend (Crocs, eyebrow piercings) and then gradually becomes more and more common. When I was a child I had never seen a facial tattoo, and now it doesn’t even occur to me to ask about them. Stuff grows familiar (Facebook, scratch-off lottery tickets, blue beverages) and in a way it feels like it’s been here always.
Culture moves on its own. It propagates itself. You can’t legislate it into or out of existence. For instance, people have generally decided that it is the correct thing to do to smash a car window if there is a dog trapped inside on a hot day. Likewise, if a terrorist tries anything on an airplane, there are enough people who will rush up and overpower him that this specific gambit is unlikely to work very often any more, if ever. Once an idea gets into popular culture, it is almost impossible to get it back out, and that is how folklore is born.
This is what I think about whenever there is an election. A president is only in office for a maximum of eight years, while people like Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg can do what they do for decades, and nobody elected them, and they are wealthier in absolute terms than any president ever has been or probably will be. Someone who could name and possibly recognize those men, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jack Dorsey, maybe a few other billionaires - someone who could name those people might not be able to name or recognize any five US presidents.
We’re living in a time of intense transition, a time when vast populations of humans and animals are on the move, a time of rapid technological and cultural change. It upsets people because we become less good at guessing what is going to happen next. We hate the sense of instability, even when it turns into something wonderful. A lot of crazy economic and political stuff was happening in 1980, the year that science won the two-century battle against smallpox. Is that a year of celebration? Course not. I had to look it up because nobody talks about it. We have our ways of absorbing incredible sights and wonders and shrugging them off, only to turn our attention back to the pettiest of annoyances. Verily, that is how progress is made.
The hole in the donut is that a lot of the things that bother us today will be gone in twenty years, and we’ll barely remember that they ever happened, and instead we’ll be irritated by something else. The funny thing is, we’ll be correct, because future generations will inevitably look back on our time today and feel sorry for us. It’s up to us to guess why, and set to work fixing whatever it is that we’re getting wrong.
The way I deal with stress is to look ahead five years into the future.
This was challenging when I was sick with COVID-19, because I wasn’t even sure I had five days in my personal future. Even at the time, though, I was positive that the pandemic would be over by then. Maybe things would end badly for me, but it was likely that my friends and family would be doing okay in five years.
A lot can happen in five years. It seems like a long time to a kid, but the older you get, the more you start to realize that what adults have always told you is true. Time passes more and more quickly, or at least our subjective, experiential sense of it.
I just had a conversation with my boss in which I mentioned possibly going back to school in academic year 2022. That seems like a minute from now, because I know from past experience that the application deadline for that year will come up so quickly that I’ll barely have a year to study for the GRE. It seems entirely likely that it will take five years or more to get my PhD, and that doesn’t even feel like a big deal. At 45, I know that I’ll either be five years older anyway... or I won’t. Might as well plan for what is the most likely future.
A lot can happen in five years. I started running as a complete amateur and non-athlete, unable to run around one block in my neighborhood without stopping to walk. Four years later I was chugging along in my first marathon. It never even occurred to me to aim for such a thing when I started. All I wanted to do was to run a two-mile loop, and I thought it would take me all year to train for it.
Five years is a long enough span of time that conditions can completely change. I met my ex-husband, moved in with him, married him, and signed the divorce papers in less time than that. I haven’t laid eyes on him in twenty years now. What was once the epic drama of my life is something that I now rarely think about at all.
What else has happened within five years? In a five-year span, I dropped five clothing sizes. Within five years, I paid off two credit cards and my Pell grant.
In five years, a new baby could be conceived, born, and grown enough to ride a bike with training wheels and write her own name.
It took our dog four years to learn to roll over. But by then, he could also do a bunny hop in a circle and play Red Light, Green Light.
I keep reminding myself of these things because sometimes, looking backward is soothing. In retrospect it’s often easier to recognize good times of relative peace and tranquility. In the moment, any kind of stress or drama feels major. Looking back makes it clear which were high mountain peaks and which were merely mild rolling hills.
Looking forward involves more guesswork. We aren’t always very good at that.
The thing about predicting the future is that some things will remain precisely the same - like my parents’ dining room table; I’m pretty sure that will be the same in another five years, just like it was five years ago. Other things will change in a radical way that we never could see coming.
Some of these changes from my own lifetime include voicemail, racecar-shaped VHS tape rewinders, refrigerators with ice makers, Wikipedia, Twitter, streaming Netflix, Crocs, the Instant Pot, and a commercial space industry.
We won’t be able to predict everything about daily life five years from now, in 2025. We can, though, do a lot to predict our own daily lives, by making decisions about how we will live them. This is why I like the five-year span, because it’s long enough to be ambitious but near enough that Future Me +5 is somewhat recognizable.
I can ask myself, what is Future Me 50 going to be like if I do this, that, or this?
If I choose to go to bed now or two hours from now, night after night? If I choose to eat more greens or more sweets? If I schedule that dentist appointment, or not? If I save this amount or if I spend it all on random stuff from Amazon?
Is Future Me +5 going to fit in these clothes I’ve been saving, or not? Is she going to want to wear them at all? Is that version of me ever going to [clear out the storage unit or keep paying for it] or [pay off that credit card or not] or [finish my degree or not] or reach Inbox Zero or go on the vacation I dreamed about in high school?
Most things happen to us when we live in default mode. I recognize this tendency in myself, to hold my phone in my hand and scroll, scroll, scroll. Fortunately, I set my algorithms to include a lot of reptile news, so I probably read more about gator-related events than a lot of people. How many hours of my life, though, am I going to fritter away getting three-minute updates?
When we’re distracted in this way, we forget to reset our strategies for all the major things in life. Are we going to keep working at the same job, train for something else, change careers? Are we going to stay at the same address or pack and move? When are we going to retire? Do we have backup plans for when our parents or kids reach a certain age? Are we ever going to finish our passion projects - or start them?
It’s a mistake to get sucked too much into current events, passive entertainment, and shopping. What I mean by that is that research shows that it doesn’t make people any happier. It also doesn’t change a single darn thing. It’s up to each of us to find interesting and constructive ways to spend our time.
My recommendation is always to look ahead five years and ask, if things keep going along like this, what is likely to happen? Is that what we want for ourselves? Or is it not? And if not, what are we prepared to do about it?
Stuff is changing really, really fast in the world of work. Maybe not fast enough for all of those who have been unemployed most of 2020. I am sorry about that, and the most positive thing I can think to do is to propagate ideas that can help people be employed as safely and as quickly as possible.
This is why I think there are a ton of opportunities in spaces like helping businesses to go paperless and in making tech that can help people be in proximity without breathing germs on each other. Read on, and as I think of them I will continue to blurt out ideas about side hustle ideas that might not have worked in 2019.
I work in the aerospace industry, where almost everyone can work from home. Further, most people on staff are irreplaceable. You can’t just go out and recruit a bunch of subject matter experts in astrophysics from the parking lot of Home Depot. One of our colleagues was out with COVID-19 for months, and I honestly have no idea what her team did without her. We regard the coronavirus pandemic as the threat to national security that it is, and we plan accordingly.
This isn’t just about COVID. It’s about any situation that keeps people from getting in to the office. As a practical matter, it makes more sense for a workforce to be distributed if possible. We are at a stage where the technology is in place, so we shrug and move on, and we run shuttle launches from people’s home offices, and nobody really notices. Because it works.
One area where we don’t have it totally nailed down is security. There are meetings that have to be held in specially constructed rooms and with special secured telephones. This is true for us, and it’s true for the military, and for government, and I don’t even know who else. I just know that there are needs above my pay grade.
This is where I think there’s a place for some kind of custom home-office security phone booth.
(For levels above that, there are going to need to be far more SCIFs. That makes more sense than trying to expand the existing ones to accommodate social distancing).
It’s obvious that homes are going to start having more dividers in them, one way or another. I know a couple of guys who work out of their garage, because there are just too many people trying to be on web conferences in the rest of the house. If everyone who can work from home is going to work from home, there has to be more than just a bunch of noise-canceling headphones.
I’m sure most of you have already noticed what a very loud world we inhabit, in terms of garbage trucks and road maintenance and construction sites and landscaping and fire trucks and helicopters. Absolutely none of that is going to change. But the soundproofing can.
Apparently it’s already possible to blow in soundproofing materials into the walls, and that’s one of many great ideas for businesses that wouldn’t have had much runway before 2020.
I wonder if there might be room for little modular offices, like the storage PODS that you sometimes see sitting in someone’s driveway. Someone comes and delivers a little 6x8 office pod with a built-in wifi router and an extension cord that plugs into the house. Maybe it has a letterbox slot big enough for a pizza. Maybe it also has a little chemical toilet like in an RV.
There are still reasons why it makes sense for people to come in to an office, even if 100% of the work that they do can be done over a combination of computer and phone. Security is one of them, at least for the time being. Some people just really, really want to get out and have a “second location” to visit, so they aren’t climbing the walls at home and so that they have a mental disconnect at the end of the day. In those cases, I think the trend is going to be for retrofitting existing commercial real estate. It’s already started. Just add more interior walls, do some smart scheduling and planning, and upgrade the air filtration systems.
Other jobs have traditionally been seen as only possible in person, even though it would be possible to do them remotely. Visiting a doctor’s office is one of those things. I had email and phone conversations with my doctor when I had COVID, and then when I thought I got it a second time but it turned out to be pneumonia. Quite obviously, this was preferable for both of us than for me to get in a rideshare vehicle and come to the clinic to see him and shake his hand.
Will there ever be doctor visits where a telepresence robot performs a procedure in the patient’s house while the doctor observes from across town? Probably, yes! Although doubtfully within the next twenty years.
Other fields that we think of as obviously needing to be done in person, to a futurist, are not that obvious. The first one that comes to mind is construction. Why not operate earth-moving equipment remotely, if it’s safer for human bodies? Human safety needs to be our first priority (though I would argue it never has been so far) and once our safety is prioritized correctly, then it needs to stay that way. Better to wreck a million-dollar machine than a man.
There are already drones walking dogs, and robots delivering food, and artificial intelligence detecting anomalies on MRIs. The future is coming at us and it’s coming at us fast. I’m able to view this with excitement and anticipation, imagining a future world that is safer and cleaner. I see it as a human-centered model where we buy back the time we used to spend commuting, and instead use it to get more sleep, make art, be with our families, or whatever else we want. Let our work serve us, and let our work build a better world.
It’s already happening. We didn’t necessarily know back in March of 2020 that we were in the early stages of a global pandemic, but we sure do now. Obviously most people have noticed the economic impact. What I think will start to change more radically is the nature of work and the workplace.
What’s it going to be like? What is work after COVID going to look like?
As a COVID survivor myself, I can say that certain things will change on the employer’s side, but other changes will be driven by the employee. For instance, very simply, I will never again show up in person for a company that allows sick, coughing people to come into the building. I can’t. How can I be productive if I’m exposed to respiratory illnesses that are still hard for me to fight - even the common cold?
A lot of people like me, people who have that type of option, will just work from home forever.
On the one hand, this is really unfair for those who can’t. On the other hand, every person who works from home allows just that little bit more physical space for everyone else. Each person who works from home makes the roads a little clearer, the parking spaces a little emptier, the lunch lines a little shorter.
At my work, right around the six-month mark, the lightbulb went off above several people’s heads. Almost nobody in our company needs to be in the building to work, but the reason they do need to come in is to use the labs. We never have enough laboratory space, and a lot of other companies are the same way. Send home even a dozen people permanently, and suddenly there are options to renovate. Remove the offices you no longer need, replace them with lab space, and eventually it’s safe for everyone in the lab to distance.
I talked to my cousin recently, and at his work, the directors go to the office and everyone else works from home. This is interesting, because leadership takes on the physical risk. It’s the first we had heard of this type of arrangement.
It’s easy enough to track productivity and make sure people are staying on task. Look at their work product, measure their deliverables. Install a keystroke tracker if you feel you need to. If people are meeting their deadlines, it’s fine. Who cares if they did it in their bathrobe? Companies that are still hung up about needing to monitor people can learn to do it remotely, perhaps with even greater scrutiny than they showed back in the conventional office.
It’s going to be cheaper, and that will eventually help to lengthen the leash.
One area where working from home makes things more complicated is the issue of security. The reason a lot of our people need to go into the physical office is that they can’t take secure calls at home. It’s not physical materials, it’s the soundproofing and the encryption. There may eventually be solutions for this that can be built into people’s private homes, but this would be quite expensive. Then the next person who lived in that home probably wouldn’t need that feature! More secure “phone booth” type arrangements may need to be set up, either things that can be moved from house to house without too much trouble, or far more external options like mini-coworking offices.
Encryption is definitely going to be an area of greater emphasis and development. If you’re looking for things to do and areas to retrain, that’s something to consider.
Another area where development is going to move very quickly is in converting paper processes to digital. Those who find this annoying or who are nervous about their skills are going to need to reach out for tutorials and coaching to get up to speed.
To me the worst thing in the world is for someone to risk COVID exposure at work just because they’re trapped in an old paper-based system. In most cases, these systems could have been digitized at least a decade ago, it’s just that nobody wanted to.
Another area where I see change and expansion is in retro-fitting vehicles and public spaces, like store countertops. We absolutely must do everything technologically possible to protect anyone who has to work with the public. “Essential” doesn’t matter here. Zero people should be in a position where someone is breathing into their face. The customer is no longer “always right” - and I think anyone who has ever worked retail will agree, they never were! Plexiglass or whatever it takes.
Several years ago, I happened to be with my parents when they dropped by their credit union. There was no teller physically present in the building. Customers went into a little reception area and communicated through a video screen. If that tech was available over a decade ago, then it can be done elsewhere.
Something else security-related that I think we’ll see is that technology will be assigned for security detail. A store employee should not be subject to physical violence from some rabid mask denier. The doors simply shouldn’t open for someone who refuses to obey store dress code. If they can tell us “no shoes, no shirt, no service” or that they “reserve the right to refuse” any customer, then certainly they can enforce public health directives.
Tech developments were already starting to appear in the years before this pandemic, and now they’re going to move faster. Delivery robots for short distances. Customer service and security robots. Tele-medicine. There will certainly be more tech for air filtration and sanitizing surfaces. Once the infrastructure is in place for more transactions to be done safely and death-breath-free, it will most likely stay that way. People are looking for ways to shop, entertain themselves, and socialize in groups, and if it takes special masks to do it, we’ll adapt.
A lot of people are out of work right now, partly because we’re in a state of uncertainty about how long the pandemic will last. Think back to the trends of the 1920s. After the end of the Spanish Flu pandemic, people were elated, looking to party and spend money. The 20th century really only began at that point. The world of 1925 looked wildly different than the world of 1915. Prepare for something similar in the decade that begins with 2020. Start thinking about the jobs of the future. With a bit of trend analysis and a bit of training, it’s not impossible that a lot of people would wind up better off than they were before the pandemic - as long as we stay safe enough to see it all unfold.
Here I am with a case of the sniffles again, just as I thought I was finally getting better and feeling well enough to work out. I haven’t made it two months yet. It put COVID-19 on my mind, and I remembered that I had written up some predictions a while back. Let’s see how I did.
I do this periodically because I think it’s super-important as part of inquiry and intellectual rigor to always admit when you’ve made a mistake. That’s the only way you can improve your cognitive models. If you can’t ever admit you were wrong, then you can never have a solid working strategy for anything in life. You can never be a true adult, and you certainly can’t be a serious person.
The mistakes are more interesting than the accuracies!
What I did was to brainstorm a random list of stuff, much of which I figured would come into play in the 5-10 year range and beyond. That is a stipulation that sounds like a cop-out. On the other hand, what’s the point of predictions if they are only for the near term?
Mentally I try to live in the year 2025 as much as possible. I like it there.
Now, on to the predictions. Most notably, I failed to predict that there would be COVID-19 in the actual White House. This is why predicting events is always a lost cause, because the most significant event is always a wild card - like how Back to the Future II didn’t predict the internet. How could it? That’s why future visions are always so funny in retrospect.
I went back to my post from May 7 and copied and pasted the prediction section. Then I cut some explanatory material. I’m italicizing anything that is still indeterminate and attaching links to anything that seems to have come to pass.
I don’t think we’ll be done with coronavirus until, like, 2023. I don’t think a vaccine will offer long-term coverage; I think one season, like the flu shot, at best. I also think a huge percentage of people would refuse to get it. I don’t think we’re going into the “second wave;” I think the first wave has barely gotten started. I don’t think everyone who gets COVID-19 will have antibodies and I don’t think antibodies will provide immunity for more than a few months, if at all. I think the predictions that at least 100,000 Americans will have died by the end of May 2020 are probably a little on the sunny side.
I am stone-cold certain that the statistics of who died, and when, will still be actively being updated at least a year from now. There are vast areas of the world where an accurate count would not be possible due to infrastructure, and in those areas we will never know. At time of writing, over 270,000 people have been confirmed to have died of COVID-19, about 77,000 of those in the US, and I believe the true numbers are at least 10% higher [*cough* up to 100% higher *cough*].
Regardless of hospital capacity, there are people who, if infected, will not survive. We simply don’t have the interventions yet that might save them. This is why I think the fatality rate isn’t really going to drop much [WRONG!] even if we supposedly “flatten the curve.”
Okay, what else?
I think a lot of companies, especially in tech, are going to move to permanent WFH and then they are going to want to unload their commercial real estate.
I think a lot of investors have already realized that they need a different formula if they want to live off passive income. Investing in the market or buying rental properties are a totally different game now.
I think a lot of people in the service industry are going to get shafted out of unemployment, disability, or death benefits because there is no “proof” that they have/had COVID-19. I think in the near-to-mid future we’re going to be relying on people for certain jobs (food service, warehouses, deliveries) who would have been considered unemployable (even in the gig economy) just six months ago.
I think AR/VR could actually become a thing in entertainment if the price point for the rig is low enough.
I think certain communities will get delivery drones/robots and most won’t.
I think a lot of people are going to want to relocate or change their housing situation if this keeps up for another year. Some will want roommates or want to combine forces with broke/lonely family members. Others would rather live in a tool shed than stay where they are.
I think attempted burglaries will be up [our apartment building has been burglarized twice since I posted this!!!], and I also mentioned the word ‘brigands’ in casual conversation with my husband recently.
I think there will be a significant turnover of people working in the health care industry, some who will run screaming (if they still can) and others who will enlist and seek out ad hoc training.
I think travel will go back to being as expensive and exclusive as it was in the 1920s-1960s. Wealthy-ish people will buy some kind of suit, helmet, or connector hose to get their own clean air supply, and then go back to normal. (The “really” wealthy will just cheat and use personal transport/yachts/private jets).
I think a LOT of people will return to normal levels of socializing, and the toll of that will always take a month to reveal itself.
I think certain parts of the world, starting with island nations, will achieve total eradication and then require at least a two-week quarantine before anyone can visit.
I think the “immunity passport” will definitely become a thing, and will definitely be hacked, and will definitely lead to sickness.
I think society will polarize even more than it already was, specifically in the area of “health expertise.” Those who would drink bleach will start doing even dumber stuff, and those who were already inclined to get their shots will start seeking out deeper reality-based knowledge of scientific and medical topics.
I think philanthropists will start funding vaccine research, not just for COVID, but also for diseases that arguably kill a lot more people, like TB.
I think a lot of people will quit smoking and vaping, and a small portion will also drop weight and work toward getting off their meds (asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure).
I think 2020 is going to be a great year for conservation and species reintroduction. (Cite white-tailed eagle, storks in Britain, beavers, tortoises, etc). [Worth its own post]
I think residential construction will move toward isolation-ready floor plans with larger pantries and more home-office alcoves.
I think a lot of people, like my personal household and our techie friends, will just shrug and stay home for the next couple of years. People on the other extreme are already experiencing crisis fatigue to the point that they will quit following coronavirus news, and accept a background fatality rate of 2,000-3000 deaths per day (and up) in the same way that they previously accepted traffic fatalities and gun violence.
I think the Pacific Northwest will be mostly clear by fall [FALSE!], but my part of Southern California will continue to heat up. Most deaths in my state are right here in my county, and as far as I can tell, most of the local community doesn’t even care.
I was totally wrong about a couple of things, namely that COVID-19 would basically be eradicated in Oregon and Washington, and that case fatalities would remain steady. Sad about the first, glad about the second. Looking back at my trend analysis, I’m surprised at how much of that seems to have been borne out by reality in the relatively short term.
I wish I could predict when my stuffy nose would clear up, or whether I’ll ever feel fully recovered from COVID-19, or how long the pandemic will last, or when I can see my family again. *sigh*
It finally happened. Someone stole one of our packages before we could go get it.
This is a chronic problem in our area. People have been complaining about it on a daily basis the entire time we’ve lived here. It’s not like we didn’t know it was a thing. It’s even happened in our building before, in a pretty dramatic way.
Earlier this year, pre-COVID, there was a group of young people squatting in the clubhouse of our building. The locks were finally changed in that room and we haven’t seen them around. This may or may not have had something to do with what has happened more recently. A young couple used a key to get into the lobby of our building, stole all the packages, then took the elevator down to the garage, broke into a bunch of cars and stole more stuff, and then finally drove away in a stolen vehicle.
That was a few weeks ago. This is a condo building, and the Board had arranged to have the locks changed, but they were waiting on materials - and last night, it happened again. The only differences are that this time they didn’t steal a car, but they did force open one of the mailboxes, which is a federal crime.
Among the stolen packages was something for me, an anniversary gift: a cardigan sweater for a middle-aged COVID survivor who keeps getting the chills, even in high summer.
Okay, work with me here. Who would even want my frumpy old $34 sweater besides me?
It’s out of stock, too.
This is a minor annoyance for us. It’s not like they stole my antibiotics. That’s not the point.
The point is that package theft is interesting for a lot of reasons.
For people of our social class, petty crime is worse than stupid. There is no object you could steal that could possibly be as valuable as your professional reputation and clean background check. Go to prison and it’s all over - your career, your social network, probably your marriage and your relationship with your kids, and thus your house, retirement, savings, and credit score. You’re done.
For what, though? What could possibly be in these seductive packages?
This is the huge mystery to me. I know from our own orders that these little brown cardboard boxes are full of a lot of inexpensive, random stuff. Volume 5 in a fantasy paperback series. Men’s socks. A parrot toy. A power strip. A case of instant oatmeal. After all these years, surely it’s common knowledge that most deliveries are mundane.
What is the resale value of this stuff? What are the chances that a thief would pick up something they personally found relevant?
I highly doubt the 20-something girl with the glossy waist-length hair from the security video is going to be excited when she opens the package with my missing sweater. Maybe her boyfriend will want to wear it.
Where does it all go?
My husband says they probably throw it all out. Package thieves must spend a lot of energy tearing open boxes and pouches full of stuff they don’t want, hoping for a few categories that they can sell. We can only guess what those might be. Electronics? Prescription narcotics? (Do they even send those through the mail?) Jewelry?
I think he’s wrong. This has been going on in so many cities for so long, there must be an adjacent opportunity.
I’m willing to bet that someone takes all the random junk to... the flea market.
Where else would people go to dig through a weird assortment of towels and dog toys and clothes and housewares?
If I were running that kind of operation, I’d have various kids and elderly relatives opening the packages and sorting and repackaging everything every week.
The thing about package theft is that it’s stochastic. Guaranteed, there are a lot of people who have stolen a package once, when the opportunity struck, only to realize it was a waste of time. The crews who do it regularly only have to change neighborhoods every night and they’re nearly impossible to catch.
Packages on so many doorsteps, day and night, are creating this externality of the appealing opportunity. There are probably dozens or hundreds of people who never would have engaged in petty theft if they hadn’t been walking by at the wrong time. Then there are the organized forces, like the young couple that has hit our building at least twice, hopefully in something other than a Requiem for a Dream scenario. If it weren’t for this widespread availability of doorstep deliveries that they’ve been seeing since they were in grade school, maybe they’d be doing something else.
There is no way this continues for another decade.
Or, will it? My husband has had two bikes stolen since we moved to this area, both from supposedly secure parking garages. Bike theft has probably been a chronic problem since the very invention of the bicycle, which would be over two hundred years. The circle of Hell that is dedicated to bike thieves (the 12th, since you ask) must be pretty full by now.
As a futurist, I often wonder what kind of phase change or technological development would put an end to something that is currently an ordinary part of daily life.
There are a bunch of different things that could happen to put an end to package theft.
The most obvious would be some kind of personalized, secure aspect to the delivery cycle. Either an autonomous delivery bot goes around on a circuit, and the user needs a complicated security key to get the package, or packages are delivered to some kind of coded lockbox. Possibly both. It would be easy to imagine one robot bringing the package to a building, and another taking it inside. Or a drone could drop it off on the roof, which I think is less likely, not that that would stop someone from pitching it to a lot of VCs.
Another obvious way this problem could come to an end would be the advent of inexpensive, reliable 3D printers around the price of a television. People could make their own stuff and the only deliveries would be whatever medium goes into the replicator.
The most likely way would be for package delivery to become prohibitively expensive. Either the fuel costs get too high, or inflation drives up the price of most consumer goods, or fewer people are willing to work in the warehouses and delivery trucks because some other kinds of competing job opportunities become available. Or it simply becomes impossible for consumers to trust that they can ever get their stuff before someone comes along and steals it. The seagull/lobster roll problem.
Another model that might make sense would be to have neighborhood distribution centers around the size and availability of corner stores. In fact that’s almost guaranteed to happen, that wherever the package center was, snacks and drinks would be sold too. These would be like any other convenience store, except that the contents would be more highly personalized.
I remember back to when Amazon only sold books. I also remember thinking it was stupid when they began to branch out and sell other consumer products, like shampoo. And I remember debating whether to buy AMZN at around $600/share - too rich for my blood; I bought AAPL and TSLA instead. Back in the early Nineties, routine package theft was not a problem we thought of, just like social media trolls and cracked phone screens were not problems we thought of.
The interesting thing about futurism is that, while we’ll surely be wrong whenever we try to imagine one specific thing about the future, we’ll also be wrong if we assume that the future will look like today. Package theft is going to quit being a problem one day, but why exactly?
And when? I sure wish I had that sweater.
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.
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