NEW YORK — There are no iPods in this report.
There are also no digital e-readers, no flat-screen televisions, no snowblowers, or lawn mowers that will, we are promised, “revolutionize” some part of American life next year. When we asked experts across the globe to flash forward and imagine the big forces shaping 2010, we found something better: sheer surprise.
Africa, the perennial land of famine, may be the next breadbasket. Europe, where France banned the head scarf in state schools and the Swiss outlawed minarets, will emerge more tolerant of Muslims. Chinese babies will have siblings, and the new Russian political elite will be chosen, “Idol”-style, through a nationwide talent hunt.
If it sounds improbable, consider this: In 1950, Popular Science published an article describing the America of the next century. In a lot of ways, it was pretty off. We do not, as predicted, dissolve brewing hurricanes by setting oil ablaze on the ocean waters beneath them. Nor do we sell our disposable rayon underwear to chemical factories that wish to make candy out of it.
More telling, though, may be how eerily familiar the rest of the vision is. The editors predicted men would use a chemical to wipe beards from their faces (men don’t, but some women do precisely this to their legs). They thought women would melt disposable dishes under hot water, instead of washing them (recycling Chinet might come close, and the inflation-adjusted price tag is within $1). And they got it just right with one particular cartoon: A household matriarch shops, over the phone, for items she sees on television.
“The future is not a place,” says Patrick Tucker of the World Futurist Society. “It changes every day as we add to it and subtract from it with our actions, which is why it doesn’t actually exist. It’s a phantom we continue to pursue.”
Sometimes, we have good signposts. If recent trends hold, for example, senior citizens will play more video games, and teenagers will pick up more books. Birthrates in the United States will go down, and life expectancy in Burundi will go up. Fresh water will get scarcer everywhere, and desert land, drier. If money is no object, and imagination no obstacle, some say it’s possible to see corporations buy up artificial islands and become countries, or our cellphones play matchmaker at the coffee shop, alerting us to a nearby customer with a digital profile that matches our interests.
That’s the fun stuff, but the decade of the ’10s is also serious. As climate change continues to make contentious politics, rising temperatures could bring a 50 percent increase in armed conflict to Africa. Meanwhile, warlords will feel the increasingly tight grip of the International Criminal Court, which will finally define the crime of aggression, the last of the three crimes under its jurisdiction, at meetings in Uganda in 2010.
Closer to home, the year’s big issues – the environment and the economy – may get, well, closer to home. After a year of national and international flourish for environmentalism, eco-activism will look more local, says Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. The national political “system as a whole appears to be failing,” she says, “so I think you’ll see more grass-roots environmentalism.” It’s already started, she adds, pointing to the push back against clothesline prohibitions in some of the country’s 300,000 private communities.
We may not all be environmental activists, but when it comes to that other broken system – the economy – we’re all consumers. What we buy probably won’t change that much, but our purchasing power may be in for a boost. “We’re not going to see any movement on iPods, big-screen TVs, or even real estate,” says Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel and a professor of contracts law at Harvard University. “I think the big shift is going to come in credit.”
That’s if the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which Ms. Warren advocates and President Obama has endorsed, gets through the Senate in 2010 (it passed the House in less-sweeping form in 2009). It faces stiff opposition from, among others, the banking industry, but if it succeeds, Warren says the agency will “watch out for consumers on credit products, the same way there are agencies that watch out for the safety of toasters, refrigerators, car seats, water – all the things that consumers touch and taste, smell and feel.”
Whether good credit will mean we’ll all need an android shopping assistant when we go to the mall – all the rage in Japan – remains to be seen. But the 21st-century country that 1950s America envisioned should give us faith – and pause – as we imagine 2010.
As philosophers and pundits weigh in on what the next year, and the decade it announces, will bring to the world, we can be certain of one thing: They are bound to be right – and wrong.