All right then. Assuming you can have literally anything you ask for, that someone else will do all the associated remodeling, cleanup, installation, and furniture moves at your direction, what do you actually want?
This is where we are right now at my work, imagining what we want work to look like. We’re stuck in the imagination stage because the majority of us still don’t know when we can get our vaccines. We’re on mandatory work-from-home.
Want to know something funny? I designed a survey and built in a “no preference” response and about 10% of the respondents chose that.
No preference, really?
You have no preference whether you commute or not, or whether you have your own office or not?
I believe there are people like this in the world, people whose least favorite thing is to have to choose something. I am not one of these people. Maybe what we need is a benevolent AI that keeps track of decisionless people and randomly assigns them to things.
Further, I think almost everyone is so hung up on all the annoyances and things that we dislike about working that it hasn’t occurred to us to wonder what we actually DO want.
Personally I like variety. I like to be able to get up and work in different places, maybe outside, maybe on the bus, maybe in a cafe, maybe even on the library stairs or something. All of that has been extracted from my life by the pandemic. The best I can do is to occasionally work on my blog from an inflatable chair at the park.
Right now I am sitting at my desk, which I normally reserve for work-work, because I dropped my phone on my iPad and it’s in the shop.
Note, shouldn’t all Apple products be immune to each other? Why is it possible for me to do $330 worth of damage to one of my products with another one of my products?? (At least I didn’t shatter both of them at once…)
I’m willing to bet that a lot of people are leaning toward working from home because we have become accustomed to the convenience of doing household chores while in meetings.
(I do a lot of mine either while I’m waiting for my computer to warm up or while I’m in the process of making my lunch).
Okay, let’s think bigger. What if our homes are modernized as quickly as the office? What if algorithms and robots are reliably taking care of more of our bandwidth and we’re actually able to do the fun, creative, intellectually stimulating stuff ourselves?
What does THAT look like?
I’m still waiting for an AI that can work as a companion, listening genially as I ramble on and on, ideating and shifting between completely unrelated projects, circling back, changing the subject with no warning, the way that my human friends have come to expect and
OH, that reminds me
By the time an AI can keep up with a creative, non-neurotypical person such as myself, it will be able to do virtually anything.
The only way that will ever happen is if we keep dreaming bigger, learning to hand off more and more mental tasks, and thus incrementally training this concept of an artificial brain.
From experience working with the chronically disorganized, I can say that problems at work are similar to problems at home, which is, the routine parts are too boring to get done, but the non-routine parts are often too confusing.
Who do I call to handle this? How do I describe it? What actually needs to get done? How much of it am I expected to do myself and how much can I delegate to someone else? What order do the steps go?
I used to have a social services job in which, every day, I would get calls from people looking for a completely different department or a completely different branch of government. If I didn’t help them myself they would just call me again.
Almost nobody on Earth will actually Google something on their own, even if it was faster and easier and came with cute photos. They’d rather Talk to a Real Person (TM) so they don’t have to engage System 2 thinking.
This is why I am torn between thinking that AI will never happen, or that AI will eventually save us all.
What if AI convincingly sounded like that proverbial “real person”? An endlessly patient and useful person, who knew every answer, never asked you to repeat yourself, and read your mood perfectly? What if that “real person” was always available and you never had to wait on hold?
I think it’s possible.
Because, even though many of us carry incredibly powerful computers with vast search engines in our pockets round the clock, we aren’t using them to further our knowledge or understanding of the world. Instead we use them to spy on each other, argue with each other, and look at video clips. If we genuinely had this helpful and eager “customer service rep” waiting there to do more of the steps for us, maybe we would take advantage of that opportunity?
Or is it more like, the more things are automated for us, the more things will feel like “work” even though they are less work than what came before?
I have a desk job, but I know a lot of people who don’t. They are gradually adopting more and more automation, from power tools to GPS to digital levels, etc. Who doesn’t enjoy using a pressure washer?
That’s what I’m personally looking for, a work experience that feels more like playing with a toy or having a fascinating conversation. Does that feel possible?
Or do we really all just want to go back to commuting, honking at each other, rushing to stand in line to buy coffee in disposable cups, scrolling through hundreds of emails, and tapping our pens in endless meetings? Do we miss normality so much that it actually looks like it was ever a good idea?
It was brought to my attention how much apps run my life when I found myself awoken by my alarm on a work holiday. Why, I thought, can’t there be an AI that notices when there is a holiday and reminds me to turn off my alarm?
This is something I think about a lot. When will artificial intelligence be able to take over more of my mental bandwidth, and what would it look like when it does?
Right now the focus seems to be on consumer habits and passive entertainment. Whatever algorithms are in place right now, they do a decent job. I actually like it when an ad for something I’ve bought recently, like a bedspread, follows me around the internet for months. It then displaces whatever advertisements might have filled that spot and enticed me to buy things I didn’t know existed.
The algorithms in my news reader are fantastic. It hasn’t taken me long to get all the gator news a girl could ever want. I also use this as a source for my little tech newsletter, which not only makes me look awesome at work but probably got me the job in the first place.
If there were ever one solitary thing that artificial intelligence improved in my life, it would be this. I can find an endless supply of articles about robotics and drones and other tech innovations while scarcely lifting a finger.
On the other hand, this constant access to valuable information is like drinking from a firehose. I realized some time ago that scrolling through my technology newsfeed has become my default mode, eating far more of my day than I ever intended. What did I do about it? Why, I turned to an app!
I went into the settings on my phone and set a one-hour time limit on my news app. This has been in place for one day and I already feel like I am levitating against a glass ceiling. I also expanded the quiet hours on my phone, so not only will it not ring or show me text messages, but I can’t open most apps after 10:00 pm.
It is helping but also it is really not helping
What I’d really like is for AI to help with more of my day-to-day. I lost an hour of sleep because I set up an automated alarm clock and neither I nor my electronic backup brain realized that I should temporarily turn it off. In how many other areas could I be living a more optimal existence with a little artificial assistance?
One of the biggest and most obvious ones, to me, is the gathering of the stuff. Is there an app yet that reminds people to put certain objects in a pile and make sure they are carried out the door? This would be one of the greatest memory aids of all time.
I think I’ve actually figured out a way to do this, although if it works the way I think it will, it’ll take a bit of setup.
I went to a grocery store in person the day I wrote this. Trader Joe’s! Why do you not work with delivery services! Because you don’t have to, okay, I get that! But still! Anyway, I was quaking in my shoes but I figured, with careful planning, I could do a “smash and grab” speed run and spend fewer than 15 minutes in the store.
(I was right, because I am a logistics master and an experienced trail runner and also because I felt the hounds of hell breathing down my neck the whole time).
I used a paid app called Morning Routine. Normally I use it in the morning and at bedtime, so I remember all the dumb things I normally forget, like locking the door and turning on the dishwasher. You can add items to a list and give each a time limit, and then the app runs the timer for each task and switches to the next task when the time runs out. If you’re skillful about your time estimates, this timer will keep you on track. The key feature is that you can set it to read each new item aloud.
I made my shopping list, with each item listing the item I wanted followed by the next item, so the app would read both. For most people this might look like: “front door to bread, bread to eggs, eggs to milk, milk to cereal, cereal to toothpaste.” Since I knew the layout of the store, I was able to do this in the most streamlined path between items, and I had everything on my list in six minutes. The list is still in the app if I find myself having to go in again.
(In two masks and a plastic face shield)
I think the Morning Routine method would work for getting ready for work, loading kids’ backpacks, packing for a trip, and generally getting out the door. If you take the time to keep tweaking it, and actually listen to it, it will keep you from flitting back and forth between rooms. You can keep adding items as you remember them, from sunblock to permission slips to bridge toll. The app then becomes like a butler or personal assistant.
It’s a short jump from that to an actual robot that tootles around the house, loading your suitcase for you and carrying it to the car.
Eventually it will happen. Within our lifetimes, I bet it will. The potential payout is so, so high, and once one person has one, it’ll be like smartphones all over again. Everyone will want one to the point that people will camp out overnight in a tent in order to be first in life.
Until, that is, our robots can go out and do that for us.
The question, whenever we welcome new tech into our lives, is whether we’ll allow it to be a boon or a curse. Will we use it to free up our time and mental bandwidth, giving ourselves an overall lifestyle upgrade? Or will it just be a monkey on our backs?
This is why I pause every now and then to ask, if apps run my life - which obviously they do - which ones are in charge this week? Is this what I would have wanted? Can I make adjustments so that I am impressed with the results?
People keep asking about flying cars, but would you really want one?
Let’s do a quick Google image search on “car through roof” and take a look. Those right there are regular old ordinary Earth cars that drive on the ground.
Explain me how making them airborne will be an improvement?
As I was skimming through these, I noticed that my search for “through roof” had brought up at least one story about car insurance payments going “through the roof.” That’s a point that I hadn’t even considered. Any of you who think you want a flying car, have you thought out what it would cost to insure one?
Do you want your teenagers driving it?
I think about three things pretty much all the time, and they are futurism, wishing, and capybaras. This story is only going to include two of those.
I think it’s extremely interesting when people express a heartfelt wish. I always want to know what those wishes are. They say a lot about a person.
I also happen to believe that almost all wishes are easily attainable. They exist within the laws of physics. Some wishes may take longer than others, but even then they can probably be construed to have been granted in some way.
The trick is that wishes always include technicalities.
Technically, you can make any car into a flying car. You can even drive it for a few seconds.
Oh, you mean you want it to fly all the time, in a way as ordinary as a commute in a traditional coupe or sedan today?
You want the sky to look like it did in The Jetsons?
...are you sure?
To me, this is sort of thinking too small. You get the ultimate dream image of THE FUTURE - a flying car, for goodness’ sake - and you want to copy what you were already doing in the past?
You want seventy years ago, only a few hundred feet further up?
Let’s imagine everyone who currently owns a car is popped into the future and now owns a personal flying vehicle instead. Internal combustion engine, room for passengers and cargo.
Is it the same size as a regular car, only it has wings or helicopter blades?
Okay, where are you going to park it?
You’re going from your house to... where was it, exactly? Work? The grocery store? The movie theater?
Okay, you were thinking you were... going to hop out and leave it hovering outside while you went in to eat dinner and enjoy your movie?
Okay, no. I understand. You were thinking you were going to... park it on the roof like a helicopter landing pad?
And then take an elevator or escalator down to the food court level?
What about all the other flying cars that your neighbors bought? Are they parking on the roof, too?
Are you sure? No retrofitting involved?
Oh, I see. You were just going to park it in the parking lot the way you used to with your regular old Earth car.
Except for the wing part. Do they retract? Into the chassis? Or where do they go? You remember in the showroom how they explained that your flying car needs a more powerful engine and more fuel, of course.
I guess you’re right. You would need a way bigger parking space than you used to.
That probably explains why you now have to walk so far from your parking spot to the main entrance.
Remember when we were talking the other day about how we wished we could have flying cars so we could just fly above all the traffic? Remember, you were mad because you were just in a fender bender and the other guy turned out to be uninsured?
Isn’t it a bummer how everyone else had the same idea and now we’re stuck here, hovering in traffic?
But at least we have plenty of time to laugh about how we used to always say we wished we had our flying cars.
Flying cars and jet packs. Those were the most futuristic things we could imagine.
The trouble with trying to create the future is that it’s so hard for us to picture something that is wildly different than the way we live now.
We think of the future and we picture a mid-20th-century suburban neighborhood, complete with single-family dwellings and personal vehicles. That means long commutes. Studies show over and over again that commuting is humankind’s least favorite activity.
(Dancing is #1 across cultures).
If we’re going to reimagine a better, cooler, and more interesting future, why would it have commutes in it?
Personally I want no part of a flying car. I doubt I would get in one. I don’t care how much training the driver (pilot?) has, I just don’t feel the need. If I did, I already would have gone on a helicopter ride somewhere, and I have no desire to do that.
I’m the kind of person who walks my bike down steep hills because I don’t like going that fast. I remember how I got my chin scar and that’s plenty for me, thank you.
When I sit and wonder what I would want my future to be like, if I got to be principal designer and I had unlimited funds, I realize that I don’t usually have an instant, clear answer.
I do know that the first thing I would want was a better quality of life, and flying cars aren’t particularly part of that image for me.
I picture a future where I am certain of the general well-being of the people I care about. I picture a future where I have interesting things to do all day, without the stress or anxiety or burnout or the Sunday scaries. I picture a future where I can spend ample time in pristine wilderness, where I am continually delighted and amazed by the activities of the wild creatures who live there.
In that future, I have the coolest smartphone you’ve ever seen. Want to hold it?
We went for a walk and vacuumed at the same time. This isn’t all that interesting in itself; we’ve had a robot vacuum for over a decade now, and we almost always run it while we’re off doing something else so we don’t have to listen to it.
What was different this time was that I realized I had forgotten to move something out of its way. I was able to whip out my phone, pause it from a quarter mile away, and mark off the area as off-limits.
(It turned out not to work, but that’s a story for a different time).
This is a feature that I used to joke about, and now it’s real. (Kinda?) I also used to joke about it emptying itself, and now that’s a real feature, too.
Yet another robot joke I used to make was about getting a robot lawnmower. We don’t have a lawn anymore, because we live on the 5th floor, but that is indeed a robot that somebody can buy now.
What I’ve learned is that I am really, really good at predicting consumer tech that will be available in the 5-10 year range.
(Now if I can just learn to design and sell it, we’re all set...)
The obvious question is raised. What else could a home robot do if we let it?
The case for robot vacuum cleaners is very strong, from my perspective, which is why it is a total mystery to me that so many people resist the very idea. Well what if someone gave you one?? Would you totally refuse to use it?
They’re cost-competitive with other vacuums, they go under the bed and the couch, and if something like a Lego or an earring accidentally gets picked up, you can get it out with much less mess than a traditional vacuum. The only real issue is that you have to go around and arrange your cords and cables in advance.
The robot mop is a little higher maintenance, in that it can’t drive itself on and off the charger, but it is much faster and quieter and doesn’t try to eat the bath mat, so that tends to make up for it.
Talking about chores in terms of robots was good for our marriage. We could play a game - “We live on a space station with robots” - rather than argue about housework. Because of this, we refer to dishwashers and washing machines and dryers as robots, too. Dishbot! Washbot! Drybot!
We would stroll out the door on the way to the movie theater, chortling about how All the Robots were Doing All the Chores. Laundry, dishes, and floor all at the same time.
There’s a natural transition from this concept to the question of what else a robot could do to help.
For us, the next natural transition was, how many of these features could be built into a home’s infrastructure?
My dearest wish has been to have a robot that can fold the laundry. I didn’t even care whether it put the laundry away somewhere, I just wanted the socks all matched up. It turns out that this is on the very far end of difficulty for an AI. Something that a preschooler can do - match socks - can defeat the same robot that can play chess and solve differential equations.
By the time a home robot can fold and put away laundry, it will basically be capable of doing everything.
Not just everything around the house, but basically everything a person can do.
It’s obvious why robots should do certain things instead of people, like sanitizing public restrooms or washing adult diapers. What isn’t so obvious yet is all the things that will be automated, say, fifty years in the future.
Dude! Did you know the dishwasher was first patented in 1850???
And it took 120 years before they were common in the suburbs?
The microwave oven was invented in 1946, but wasn’t all that common until the 1980s. At that time, they cost an average of $425, which is like $1300 now.
The reason all this matters is that anything a machine can do frees up a person to do something else.
You can go ahead and mock me for my foo-foo robot mop, but it is one of the reasons that I will be able to go back to school for my doctorate.
Other people will unblushingly share that they have a maid/housekeeper/cleaning service come in. But hey! That is also a person who could be doing something else! I cleaned houses once upon a time, too, and I’m a Mensan, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Coming back around to the problem of the missing laundry-folding robot, there are actually a bunch of different ways to get around this problem. 1. Reintroduce the lovely and flattering toga. 2. Do everything virtually with an elegantly dressed avatar, and just walk around nude. 3. Buy only wrinkle-free fabrics and some extra laundry baskets, and just shake everything into them. 4. Have only one outfit, like a space unitard, and have it sanitized while you sleep. 5. Print outfits on demand, then drop them back into the unit to be melted down into something fresh for the next day. 6. Spray-on body paint.
Probably more also. In the meantime, folding laundry takes 15 minutes per load, and when else would we listen to podcasts?
Something I learned when I was working with hoarders is that a lot of people are conceptually married to the idea that you do chores the 1920s way. Grimly, no music, no modern cleansers or tools, for your sins. It astonishes me to this day how resistant people are to changing up their routines. Rather than gratefully accept modern improvements, it’s more likely that people will quit doing it entirely.
Is some of this financial? Sure, of course. At the same time, the robots that I’m talking about are in the same price range as the gaming consoles and stand mixers that I often see. They’re also far cheaper than automobiles, a modern convenience that we have chosen not to own for four years now.
The question behind the question “Could a robot do this?” is, Is there a better way to do this? The question behind *that* is, If this didn’t have to be done personally by me, what else would I be doing with my time?
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?
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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