Exactly twenty-two years ago, I walked into the Fry’s Electronics store in Palo Alto to get a few items, and I was faced with this cheerful cover on the magazine rack:
The cover boldly declared that we were in the midst of a “long boom” of “25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment”, and it sneeringly asked any doubters: “You got a problem with that?“
I’ve always suspected the editor-in-chief at Wired actually wanted to demand on this cover, “You got a problem with that, asshole?” but cooler heads prevailed. They had made their point: if you didn’t think the world was in the midst of a period of joy and goodness that had decades left to run, you were a pitiful curmudgeon and probably didn’t even deserve to read their cool, hip magazine. For myself, I just rolled my eyes and headed farther into the store to do whatever it is I came there to do.
I never forgot that cover or my reaction, and I was reminded of this last week when a gentleman came up to me during a live presentation I was doing in Hollywood and handed me that exact magazine. He knew of my writing and my work (and, I suppose, my cynicism), and he thought I might appreciate the artifact. I certainly did, and I took it upon myself to do something I had never done before, which was to actually read the cover story and see how their vision panned out.
I’m not typically at a loss for words, but this time I’m close. It’s not just that their optimism was wrong or that their predictions didn’t pan out. It was gloriously, completely, and screamingly wrong. Virtually everything upon which they speculated, conjectured, and wild-assed guessed failed to transpire, and in a perverse coup de grace, even the sprinkling of pessimistic guesses they had about the future didn’t transpire either.
Wired batted a zero on this one, and I want to walk you through the core morsels of the article just to give you some grounding as to how baseless and wrong-headed these kinds of doe-eyed utopian pieces tend to be. So slip on your hip boots and join me.
The End of History
We begin with the core premise which, in short, declares that everything is awesome and is just going to get awesome-er:
We are watching the beginnings of a global economic boom on a scale never experienced before. We have entered a period of sustained growth that could eventually double the world’s economy every dozen years and bring increasing prosperity for – quite literally – billions of people on the planet. We are riding the early waves of a 25-year run of a greatly-expanding economy that will do much to solve seemingly intractable problems like poverty and to ease tensions throughout the world.
Just to give you some grounding as to the timeline, Wired’s hypothesis was that the era from 1980 to 2020 would be a transformative age. Thus, in 1997, they concluded that they were in the “early waves” of a 25-year run (that is, from 1995 to 2020). Thus, we in the present are approaching the terminus of this timetable. Let’s read on:
These two metatrends – fundamental technological change and a new ethos of openness – will transform our world into the beginnings of a global civilization, a new civilization of civilizations, that will blossom through the coming century.
Can you hear the unicorns singing yet? Is there a twinkle in the eye of the person sitting across from you? OK, good. For the sake of my readers, I’ll organize these glistening predictions into easy-to-consume categories of wonderfulness. If you feel the need to turn away and dry-heave, or maybe have a bucket nearby, I understand. You do what you need to do.
Around 2012, a gene therapy for cancer is perfected. Five years later, almost one-third of the 4,000 known genetic diseases can be avoided through genetic manipulation. By about 2005, animals are used for developing organs that can be donated to humans. Superproductive animals and ultrahardy, high-yielding plants bring another veritable green revolution to countries sustaining large populations.
Last time I checked, cancer was still alive and well. And I’m not sure how many of the 4,000 genetic diseases have been extinguished, but I’m guessing a figure close to zero, which is a sum you’ll be very acquainted with by the end of this article.
By the end of the transitional era, around 2020, real advances begin to be made in the field of biological computation, where billions of relatively slow computations, done at the level of DNA, can be run simultaneously and brought together in the aggregate to create the ultimate in parallel processing. So-called DNA computing looks as though it will bring about big advances in the speed of processing sometime after 2025 – certainly by the middle of the century.
I live in the Silicon Valley, and I’ve been deeply into technology since 1979, but even I never heard of a freakin’ DNA computer until this goddamned article. Maybe I should swing by Fry’s again to see if they’re on sale.
Then comes the fourth technology wave – nanotechnology. Once the realm of science fiction, this microscopic method of construction becomes a reality in 2015. Scientists and engineers figure out reliable methods to construct objects one atom at a time. Among the first commercially viable products are tiny sensors that can enter a person’s bloodstream and bring back information about its composition. By 2018, these micromachines are able to do basic cell repair.
Good. I could use some for the synaptic damage being done by reading this article. Let’s push forward, crew.
Computers and Transportation
Quantum computing, rather than DNA computing, proves to be the heir to microprocessors in the short run. In working up to the billion-transistor microprocessor in 2010, engineers seem to hit insurmountable technical barriers: the scale of integrated circuits has shrunk so small that optical-lithography techniques fail to function. Fortunately, just as the pace of microprocessing power begins to wane, quantum computing clicks in. Frequent increases in computing power once again promise to continue unabated for the foreseeable future.
Spoiler alert: there are no quantum computers. Still.
Then comes the third and final stage: hybrids using hydrogen fuel cells. The simplest and most abundant atom in the universe, hydrogen becomes the source of power for electric generators – with the only waste product being water. No exhaust. No carbon monoxide. Just water. The basic hydrogen-power technology had been developed as far back as the Apollo space program, though then it was still extremely expensive and had a nasty tendency to blow up. By 2010, hydrogen is being processed in refinery-like plants and loaded onto cars that can go thousands of miles – and many months – before refueling.
I’m sorry if this is getting somewhat repetitive, but my hand to God people, you’d think they’d nail at least one prediction in this entire thing, even by sheer chance. But every ball that comes toward the plate is a swing and a miss.
China manages to avoid severe internal disturbance. By 2010, the sense of crisis has dissipated. China is generally acknowledged to be on a path toward more democratic politics.
Oh, so the same China that is putting every citizen into their Social Credit Score system? The same China that tortures, detains, and kills political prisoners and has concentration camps for ethnic minorities? The same China that hundreds of thousands of people in Hong Kong are at this very moment protesting because of forced extradition? That China? OK.
But after almost two decades of wide-open Mafia-style capitalism, Russia emerges in about 2005 with the basic underpinnings of a solid economy. Enough people are invested in the new system, and enough of the population has absorbed the new work ethic, that the economy can function quite well – with few reasons to fear a retrenchment.
OK, we need to give Wired a point for this one. Because, let’s face it, Russia has become such a straight arrow with respect to ethics, decency, and sense of fair play, it’s starting to give the Scandinavian countries a run for their money. Even Putin is in on this societal revolution, although the moniker “Transparent Vlad” is one I find clumsy and ill-conceived.
Just to mix things up, Wired doesn’t make 100% of the article about perfection and joy. They do have one dark prediction. Let’s read it:
The advent of hydrogen power clearly undermines the centrality of oil in the world economy. By 2008, with the auto industry in a mad dash to convert, the bottom falls out of the oil market. The Middle Eastern crisis comes to a head. Some of the old monarchies and religious regimes begin to topple.
An even more disturbing crisis hits Africa. While some parts of the continent, such as greater South Africa, are doing fine, central Africa devolves into a swirl of brutal ethnic conflict, desperate poverty, widespread famine and disease. In 2015 the introduction of biological weapons in an ethnic conflict, combined with the outbreak of a terrifying new natural disease, brings the death count to unimagined levels: an estimated 5 million people die in the space of six months – this on top of a cumulative death toll of roughly 100 million who perished prematurely over the previous two decades.
Uh-huh. Jesus Christ, Wired, even when you try to be a cynical realist, you fuck it up.
Our Prosperous Government
By about 2000, the United States economy is doing so well that the tax coffers begin to swell. This not only solves the deficit problem but gives the government ample resources to embark on new initiatives. No longer forced to nitpick over which government programs to cut, political leaders emerge with new initiatives to help solve seemingly intractable social problems, like drug addiction. No one talks about reverting to big government, but there’s plenty of room for innovative approaches to applying the pooled resources of the entire society to benefit the public at large. And the government, in good conscience, can finally afford tax cuts.
I want to stop here and apologize to my readers. I want to apologize for anyone who ruined their screens or keyboards spewing liquid out of their mouths. I want to apologize for anyone who just died laughing. And I want to extend that apology to the loved ones they leave behind. Anyone who has survived this far, let’s push on:
Nevertheless, the shakeup of the welfare system coincides with the revving of the economy. Vast numbers of welfare recipients do get jobs, and the great majority eventually move up to more skilled professions. By 2002, the end of the initial five-year transitional period, welfare rolls are cut by more than half. Former welfare recipients are not the only ones benefiting from the new economy. The working poor hovering just above the poverty line also leverage their way up to more stable lives.
Here ya go; I’ve marked with an arrow the publication date.
Even those from the hardened criminal underworld migrate toward the expanding supply of legitimate work. Over time, through the first decade of the century, this begins to have subtle secondary effects. The underclass, once thought to be a permanent fixture of American society, begins to break up. Social mobility goes up, crime rates go down.
Immigrants are seen as valuable contributors who keep the economy humming – more able hands and brains. By the first decade of the century, government policy actively encourages immigration of knowledge workers – particularly in the software industry, which suffers from severe labor shortages. This influx of immigrants, coupled with Americans’ changing attitudes toward them, brings a pleasant surprise: the revival of the family. The centrality of the family in Asian and Latino cultures, which form the bulk of these immigrants, is unquestioned. As these subcultures increasingly flow into the American mainstream, a subtle shift takes place in the general belief in the importance of family. It’s not family in the nuclear-family sense but a more sprawling, amorphous, networked sense of family to fit the new times.
I can’t. I just can’t. It’s just too much.
Beginning around 2001, the widespread use of vouchers triggers a rapid expansion in these types of schools and spurs an entrepreneurial market for education reminiscent of the can-do ethos of Silicon Valley. Many of the brightest young minds coming out of college are drawn to the wide-open possibilities in the field – starting new schools, creating new curricula, devising new teaching methods. They’re inspired by the idea that they’re building the 21st-century paradigm for learning.
The excitement spreads far beyond private schools, which by 2010 are teaching about a quarter of all students. Public schools reluctantly face up to the new competitive environment and begin reinventing themselves. In fact, private and public schools maintain a symbiotic relationship, with private schools doing much of the initial innovating, and public schools concentrating on making sure the new educational models reach all children in society.
No. Nope. Not even close. Total fail.
In 2020, humans arrive on Mars. It’s an extraordinary event by any measure, coming a half century after people first set foot on the Moon. The four astronauts touch down and beam their images back to the 11 billion people sharing in the moment. The expedition is a joint effort supported by virtually all nations on the planet, the culmination of a decade and a half of intense focus on a common goal. A remarkable enough technical achievement, the Mars landing is even more important for what it symbolizes.
As the global viewing audience stares at the image of a distant Earth, seen from a neighboring planet 35 million miles away, the point is made as never before: We are one world. All organisms crammed on the globe are intricately interdependent. Plants, animals, humans need to find a way to live together on that tiny little place. By 2020, most people are acting on that belief.
Uh-huh. Yeah, so, I’m not getting the sense that the entire planet is basking in harmonic bliss. Maybe it’s just me. Although that Mars landing was pretty fucking awesome, I admit.
But to nitpick – – 11 billion people. What? Where the fuck did they get that? I mean, even an idiot can get a pretty accurate count as to future population growth. How do you get this wrong by almost 4 billion people? At this point, I think they’re just trying to piss me off.
The images from Mars drive home another point: We’re one global society, one human race. The divisions we impose on ourselves look ludicrous from afar. The concept of a planet of warring nations, a state of affairs that defined the previous century, makes no sense. Far better to channel the aspirations of the world’s people into collectively pushing outward to the stars. Far better to turn our technologies not against one another but toward a joint effort that benefits all. And the artificial divisions we perpetuate between races and genders look strange as well. All humans stand on equal footing. They’re not the same, but they’re treated as equals and given equal opportunities to excel. In 2020, this point, only recently an empty platitude, is accepted by almost all.
What Could Go Wrong?
Just to hedge their bets, Wired provided one thin column on the far-fetched stuff that could get in the way of their utopian vision. What’s hilarious to me, in a gallows humor kind of way, is that just about every single one of these has taken place. In other words, the only thing that Wired got right was the list of stuff they thought couldn’t happen. Here it is, word for word.
- Tensions between China and the US escalate into a new Cold War – bordering on a hot one.
- New technologies turn out to be a bust. They simply don’t bring the expected productivity increases or the big economic boosts.
- Russia devolves into a kleptocracy run by a mafia or retreats into quasi-communist nationalism that threatens Europe.
- Europe’s integration process grinds to a halt. Eastern and western Europe can’t finesse a reunification, and even the European Union process breaks down.
- Major ecological crisis causes a global climate change that among other things, disrupts the food supply – causing big price increases everywhere and sporadic famines.
- Major rise in crime and terrorism forces the world to pull back In fear. People who constantly feel they could be blown up or ripped off are not in the mood to reach out and open up.
What are we to conclude from all this? That being an optimist is for fools? Well, no, not necessarily. But, let’s face it, humanity is always going to have problems, some of them insurmountable, and it’s really misleading to push the idea onto the public that everything is suddenly going to be Super Duper just because you’ve got a hard-on about some new technology (in the case of 1997, the Interwebz).
Of course, context counts. Looking back, the folks in 1997 were way better off than we are now. The national debt was 75% lower, and the Clinton administration actually ran a surplus for a short while (which seems like science fiction in this trillion-dollars-of-loss-every-year government we have now).
But here’s the real capper: as much as I’ve slammed just about every paragraph, word, and punctuation mark in the Wired article, I actually agree with it in one very broad sense: the years 1980-2020 were incredibly transformative and, relative to what I believe is coming, will indeed be remembered as The Good Times. Some good things happened here and there (although none of them predicted successfully), and Earth is sorta-kinda stable and sorta-kinda doing all right.
But the pieces are in place for calamity. And I think the principle force that is keeping people from anticipating it is the same kind of dewy-eyed panacea which folks always assume is just around the corner. Our patron saint George Carlin named it “The American Okey-Doke.” But I strongly suspect if George were still with us today, he’d agree with me that what’s coming in the years ahead is going to be a terrifying bookend to the Long Boom which Wired was so convinced we would all be enjoying right about now.