THE BLOG
09/20/2010 03:32 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Year 3010 Seen From Today

"Why would any sane person want to think about the human condition a millennium from now?" is a question I have heard every time the subject has come up. So, why bring it up?

Perhaps some reasonable speculation might help inform us today about how to lay foundation stones for the lives of our descendants. For example, simple math shows that, if each member of each generation between now and then produces two offspring, their descendants will aggregate in 3010 some 17 billion people! Surely we should care enough about those distant descendants to spend some time and effort imagining, and hopefully helping, the world they will inherit from us.

A few years back, a visit to the Vatican Museum in Rome revealed an amazing map room which dates from around the 1100s. It is about as long as a football field and high and wide. Around its well-windowed walls are large, detailed maps of the inhabited places around the Mediterranean. The popes of that time could stroll about and visualize their empire and make their plans. It seemed more like a map room in today's Pentagon than the center of a church that, 1,000 years ago, was far flung and growing. This prompted a lingering question: could those Popes have even remotely imagined the world of 2010? And, if they had, what might they have done differently?

In those days the popes, though they evidently thought they knew the whole world inside and out, really didn't. There was a lot going on in Asia they knew very little about. North and South America existentially had not crossed their horizon. The printing press, locomotion, accurate navigational tools and anything resembling modern medicine were still to be discovered.

Today, though we think we know just about everything there is to know about our world, we still do not know what we do not know, for instance, about the mysteries of the oceans, the innards of earth and the environs of our solar system. Smart people everywhere are working on all those questions, to be sure, but mysteries abound. For example, we are increasingly uncertain about some of the key fundamentals of time and space; we now know there are lots of exoplanets around stars like our sun; we know there are limits to our current main sources of energy, but we do not yet know how to tap efficiently either solar energy or deep center of earth energy. We do know that for millions of years earth has had repetitive cycles of about 100,000 years' length in which it slowly warms and then suddenly cools. We do not know quite where we are in the current cycle, but we believe man has raised our present point on the warming curve enough to create new challenges to the sustainability of the future of earth.

Our imaginations are, of course, limited by our experience and our perspective. Fully believing in the supremacy of the church and the literal truth of scripture, the twelfth-century papacy would have found it impossible to conceive the discovery of a heliocentric universe or the disaffection that spurred the Reformation.

Given a crystal ball of sufficient power, might the popes have taken steps to standardize language and education in hopes of knitting together the disparate peoples of their empire? Might that have avoided the carnage and misery that emerged from the struggles for local identity and dominance which occupied so much of the Middle Ages? Or, are such struggles not only the price, but indeed the essence of progress?

Surely the popes could not -- would not -- have imagined the transformation which did occur in the ensuing thousand years, particularly the technological innovations that have more than any other factor shaped the world as it exists today. Yes, there were geniuses like Leonardo, Copernicus and Jules Verne who came later but, even at their best, their imaginations fell short.

Technology is fundamental -- the way the future is always created. Therefore, a good starting point in thinking forward a thousand years is to ask what technologies and evolutionary developments are likely to emerge.

What are some of the things which far-thinking people might find some agreement about today, assuming that the basic conditions of life have not been changed, eliminating cataclysmic collisions from outer space from the equation?

  • Population. Today the world is home to about 6.8 billion people. By 2050 the number is expected to reach more than 11 billion. By many measures we already have a non-sustainable sized population. Perhaps by 3010 we will have learned how, using many methods which today are unthinkable, to shrink and hold population to a manageable, sustainable size.
  • Life Expectancy. Most people on earth are living a lot longer than their forbears thanks largely to modern medicine. By 3010 there may be a need for many people to live much longer lives to be able to take long space voyages and return with time left to transfer what they learned to younger people. Perhaps life for some might become virtually endless by slowing aging and repairing (or recreating) and replacing worn out parts, including hearts? Average age might get well into hundreds of years. That, of course, raises big questions of opportunity for the young and others: if too many people hang on forever, innovation, opportunity and vision could disastrously decline.
  • Daily Life. Daily life most probably will not change too much; people will still be diurnal and will want to sleep, eat and reproduce much the way they do today. But there are likely to be some big differences too. People will consistently eat better and more healthful foods. They may have some genetic mapping to help in picking their mates in order to ensure the right skill sets are being developed on earth. Perhaps copulating will become mere entertainment and reproduction with planted eggs and sperm will be delegated to women who are professional surrogate mothers?
  • Communication. It is difficult to imagine that there won't be a single global language a thousand years from now. The techniques of communication, though, are likely to be far different. This is an area where the sci-fi fantasies are likely to come true: embedded communication chips, practical telepathy and mind reading and near universal and instantaneous access to the full breadth of accumulated human knowledge, if not wisdom.
  • Government. The nature of government is almost certain to change radically in the next thousand years, much as it did in the last thousand. Where feudalism gave way to the modern nation state, with nationalism and sectarianism as basic building blocks, the future will deliver a global system of governance centered on the allocation of resources -- food, minerals, fuel and people. Such a system will require a high degree of local autonomy to give cohesion and sense of belonging to local population centers, which will, with carefully designed systems of taxation, support global needs with a global currency, other resources and human talents. Cultural differences among the many local centers will have shrunk, yet people will compete globally to participate in the exciting opportunities to be explorers in the many dimensions and directions of space and be elite leaders in all aspects of global life. Perhaps there will be term limits on many activities to create opportunity for everyone?
  • Culture. Music and art in all its forms will be thriving. More and more people, particularly the older and retired, will take up activities they had no time for earlier. Movies, books and other forms of entertainment will thrive. Moreover, the means to access them will become seamless through something like eyeglasses, which will tune in whatever media, wherever and whenever. Payment, will of course, be debited automatically, and most assuredly not with a piece of plastic.
  • Money. Currency will exist but it will not be physical. Everyone will have an implanted (or evolved biological) chip from which the medium of exchange is debited and credited automatically at the mental will of the host. All one will have to do is think to instruct the chip what is wanted and ask what the available resources are and they will hear the answer.
  • News. News will still be streamed via the global web 24/7/365, but there will still be a need for journalists to interpret/edit news sources and commentary for those who are interested -- and most people will be interested because of their far better education. One significant benefit of life one thousand years from now: no Geraldo! And, advertising, as we know it, might give way to subscription fees for information sources. For example, Google then will be the biggest company in that world and will cost perhaps $500 a year in today's dollar terms.
  • Religion. From the beginning of time, religion, in one form or another, has been one of the key ways people have both explained the mysteries of the world to themselves as well as tried to manage like minded people. At the same time some of the most virulent problems among the world's people have been caused by perceived differences of religion. Witness today's clash of civilizations. A thousand years hence, it makes sense to believe that as one language will likely have emerged, so may one religion, which could give people perspective and direction to help guide them deeper into their still unfolding future.
  • Economics and Finance. The dismal science will have become a thing of beauty. With information about everything constantly available there will be feedback loops that will constantly adjust behavior and largely eliminate what we call the business cycle. That said, the human emotions of fear and greed will still create opportunity and risk.

Obviously no one can do more than suggest the general directions of the future. The only real limitations on imagination should be the immutably powerful laws of gravity and physics. Therefore, almost everything imaginable is possible.

Most people shrug off the future, seeing it as irrelevant to their lives today. A lot of those same people in fact do read/study history simply because it is interesting and because they know they are otherwise doomed to repeat it. As the popes one thousand years ago might have tried to standardized language and education, today our popes might try to steer the world towards a unified planet where people everywhere come to value the entirety of humanity as the people they want to share the future with.

If we give more attention to the future, even though no one alive today will live to complain or contradict anything surmised today, perhaps the future might eventually reflect some of the wisdom of these speculations.