450 million guns and other predictions for 2050
When you gaze into the crystal ball, the crystal ball gazes back.
Photo cred: my dad.
People turn kooky when they imagine the future. They either envision wonderlands of flying cars, domed cities, and cure-all pills, or wastelands of roving biker gangs, toppled statuary, and poisonous skies––the same visions their ancestors saw in 1990, 1950, and 1920. These utopias and dystopias never seem to arrive; the world of tomorrow is always a day away.
We can prognosticate better than that. We’ve seen enough fanciful and falsified predictions from the past to know that the future is rarely as different as we expect. We know that predicting more than a few decades out is mostly an exhibition of our current obsessions. And we’ve got way better data to ground our forecasts than we ever have before.
But the most important way we can improve our predictions is to clarify why we we want to gaze into the crystal ball at all. Some may do it for fun, others for profit, but I think the best reason to imagine the world to come is to better understand the world that’s already here. As the neuroscientist and author Erik Hoel points out in his own predictions, the next few decades are baked into today. Predicting the future, then, actually means close-reading the present. This requires placing a stethoscope on the pulse of the world and distinguishing between harmless murmurs that will pass and concerning arrhythmias that will not. And like a routine physical, it’s a meditative and clarifying exercise, and one that ought to be done regularly, or whenever insurance allows.
So here’s my attempt. I’ve stuck mostly to the US, topics that I think aren’t obvious (you don’t need me to tell you that temperatures are going to rise), and a year (2050) that’s distant enough to be interesting but close enough that I have a shot at getting some things right.
(EDIT: My friend at Slime Mold Time Mold have some provocative predictions for 2050 themselves, check them out.)
Virtual reality will not be more fun than regular reality
The Ready Player One dystopia will not come to pass. Virtual reality is just a combination of hanging out with friends and playing video games. Both are already really fun, and neither has gotten more fun despite improvements in technology.
When you’re with good friends, it doesn’t matter what you do: go for a walk, drink a beer, watch a terrible movie––it’s all good. If anything, technology has only made all activities worse by distracting people with their phones and saddling them with an impossible array of choices; witness the modern agony of three friends trying to figure out which movie to watch. When VR allows you to teleport to the top of a volcano and play shuffleboard or whatever, it will simply be one of many fun things you can do with the people you love, just like regular video games are now.
And those VR games won’t be better on average than the games we already have, just as PlayStation 5 games are not on average better than PlayStation 2 games. That’s because the fun of video games comes from compelling stories, interesting characters, cool puzzles, or addictive design, none of which require advanced technology. The best-reviewed video game of all time is not the latest greatest technological achievement, but 1998’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Here’s what IGN said about it:
Call us crazy, but when the final version of Zelda 64 arrived in the IGN64 offices, we stopped working, locked ourselves into a room with a big-screen TV and a surround system and played 17 hours straight. After only a few hours of sleep, we were back for more and we couldn't stop until we finished the game. Then, we started over again to find all the secrets.
If improving tech specs unlocked ever-better gaming experiences, the IGN editors would be long dead from lack of sleep.
Of course, we’re going to get lots of stories of kids addicted to VR games, or teens who would rather hang out in VR spaces than stock shelves at the grocery store, or nursing home residents who spend all their time inside their Oculus 10s. But kids are already addicted to Minecraft, teens already would rather look at Instagram than work menial jobs, and nursing home residents already spend all their time watching TV. The only difference is that, in 2050, the screens they’re staring at will be strapped to their faces.
AI will force humans to up their game, and a lot of interesting art will result
AI can already write Shakespearean sonnets, paint pretty pictures, and develop apps. Computers will do more and more things we used to think could only be done by humans, including art. Hoel says this will be so terrible we should have a jihad against it.
I disagree. When technology automates art, good artists innovate. This is what happened to painting when the camera arrived, and it will happen again. The biggest disruption will be in writing, which AI is arguably best at, and which hasn’t had a technological kick in the pants since Gutenberg.
Some good writing will come from collaboration with the machines. AIs don’t spit out beautiful prose unprompted, just like cameras don’t walk around taking great pictures. Coaxing the right words out of the models takes skill. There’s an emerging wave of writers who are more like interlocutors and curators than wordsmiths, like my friend’s DeepLeffen bot, a Twitter account that uses GPT-3 to generate fake quotes from a popular Super Smash Bros. player. (All the facts in that sentence would have been totally unintelligible thirty years ago, and they are only barely intelligible now, but they will be totally normal by 2050.) And that’s exciting! Some paintings are cool because the artist needed a lifetime of skill with the brush, but other paintings are cool because the artist needed a lifetime of skill to know what to put on the canvas. Right now we only have the first kind of writer, someone who has to both imagine and implement. We’re about to see a new kind of writer who only needs to imagine.
Other good writing will come from reaction to the machines. Authors will have to figure out what they can do that computers can’t, and I suspect it will be something like “turn experiences into words”. Great writing captures what it feels like to be a person, something a computer can never know. An AI can’t kiss its crush, find out its dad had a secret second family, or nail a half-court buzzer-beater. The rise of AI-generated prose will refocus at least a few writers on what they do best, and we’ll all benefit from the results.
Speaking of which:
People will still read about as many books as they do now
We are now in the third year of the Television Age. And our people are becoming less literate by the minute…as old habits decline, such as reading books and thinking thoughts, TV will absorb their time. By the 21st Century our people doubtless will be squint-eyed, hunchbacked and fond of the dark...But why am I carrying on like this? Chances are that the grandchild of the Television Age won't know how to read this.
Van Horne was wrong. The data isn’t perfect, but people have reported reading about the same number of books for forty years. Other studies find small declines reading literature or reading for pleasure, but these seem to miss the rise in audiobooks (which now make more money than e-books) and might miss changes in what people read and why.
It turns out people actually like reading! It may be hard to believe, but even when they could be watching YouTube or playing Apex Legends, people sometimes prefer to look at a bunch of words typed onto sheets of paper.
Part of this may come from the surprising and under-appreciated amount of innovation in the written word. Love them or hate them, Malcolm Gladwell, J.K. Rowling, and Dan Brown perfected their respective genres and spawned legions of imitators, some of whom are pretty good. That’s why I’m optimistic that people will keep finding ways to make words interesting, and companies will keep finding ways to profit by selling those words to people.
[EDIT 1/11/22: Gallup just released some new data showing a decline in the percentage of people reading 10 books or more from 2016 to 2021, although the percentage reading no books at all has held steady for 30 years. Unfortunately their measure gives no insight into how much time people actually spend reading––the question asks how many books they read in full or in part, regardless of how long the books are or how far they got. Anyway, I would rephrase this prediction: I think the proportion of people reading no books at all will be less than 25% in 2050.]
Popular culture will be boring. Unpopular culture will thrive.
Movies are a stultifying slurry of remakes and cinematic universe expansions. The Billboard Top 100 is mostly a collection of sonic memes ghostwritten by 30-person committees or one Swedish guy and fronted by people who look like Fortnite characters come to life. News media is an outrage machine stoked by a cadre of professional hand-wringers who write insipid articles like “Where Have All the Grown-Ups Gone?"
But none of that matters to me. Most of what I read, watch, listen to, and play is narrow-cast to audiences between thousands and millions of people. This trend is just beginning, and two forces will propel it forward.
First, media companies are squeezing data out of us and using it to produce tailor-made content for each demographic slice. Unlike traditional TV, which had to broadcast everything to everyone, Netflix will know how many people will watch, say, cerebral Scandinavian movies, produce them proportionally, and pipe them directly to the people who want to see them.
Second, and much more exciting, populist patronage platforms will let independent creators do interesting things without having to please the average person or the gatekeepers who guard them. As long as you can convince a few thousand people to give you a few bucks a month––like mini-Medicis––you can make a living doing your weird thing. Right now the people succeeding at this are mainly politically incorrect comedians, conspiracy theorists, and VR pornographers. A cultural skid row to be sure, but skid row is where most cool new trends start.
The result will be many little vibrant unpopular cultures and one big dismal popular culture. With so many narrow-streams, anything mainstream will have to appeal to everyone and offend no one, which virtually guarantees tedium and mediocrity. But that’s fine. In 2050, the savviest consumers will just ignore popular dreck and spend their time reading, watching, and listening to their favorite niche creators, all for just a few units of cryptocurrency. The downside will be more hateful subcultures––a proliferation of QAnons––but the upside will be lots of interesting stuff that would never make it into theaters, radio stations, or The New York Times.
Most Americans will still believe in a higher power
98% of Americans said they believed in God in 1944; today it’s still a whopping 87%. Religious affiliation is falling faster, but probably not as fast as you think. In 1992, about 40% of people said they went to church in the last seven days; it was still at 34% in 2019.
I’m working on a post exploring this more in depth, but I think predictions of religion’s extinction rely on the faulty premise that faith recedes as knowledge progresses. This hasn’t happened throughout history, it hasn’t really happened in the past few decades, and it doesn’t happen when people go away to college. That’s why I think it won’t happen in the future. Religious belief may morph from specific convictions into abstract feelings, people may go to church less, the power of religious institutions will probably wane, but most Americans will retain a sense that there’s something God-like out there, no matter how much science we produce.
Cities will be unhappier places to be, unless you’re rich
(I explain more in The Traffic Apocalypse, the False Messiahs, and the Muncie Plan)
In developing countries, city-dwellers are happier. In developed countries, it’s the opposite. This happens for lots of reasons: traffic, an exorbitant cost of living, the daily inhumanity of having to pretend that you didn’t see that guy on the sidewalk who might be dead, etc. Rich people can buy themselves out of the problems of city life; poor people can’t.
The US population is projected to increase over the next thirty years, so population density will too, and so will the unhappiness of cities. I don’t see anything on the horizon that will reverse or mitigate this trend. More people might work remotely, but this will mainly benefit richer folks. Economic opportunities will continue to concentrate in already concentrated places. We don’t build enough housing and there are no signs we’re about to pick up the pace.
I think one solution is to fund ambitious people to follow their dreams in less-dense places, which I call the Muncie Plan. But given that I can’t find anyone else even talking about this right now, I think this problem is only going to get worse between now and 2050.
The United States will not fight in another world war
Since 2000, about half of Americans have figured we’re heading for World War III. That number is even higher than it was during the Cold War, when the US and USSR both had their fingers hovering over the big red button.
Source: General Social Survey
This should tell us that we’re way too sensitive about the possibility of war. If we keep making the same wrong prediction for decades, we ought to adjust. Here, Hoel and I agree.
World War III is less likely than ever because our lives depend on the whole world working together. Making an iPhone requires miners, manufacturers, and suppliers coordinating across over 50 countries. Airlines moved about half a billion people in 1970; now that number is 4.4 billion. Some of those people are zipping around their own countries, but lots of them are flying internationally to vacation, do business, see family, and go to college. Netflix pipes us TV from South Korea, clubs play us trance from France, cafes serve us tea from Côte d’Ivoire. If countries start shooting at each other, trillions of dollars evaporate instantly, millions of jobs vanish, and people can’t get their Starbucks. Who’s gonna go for that?
Of course, some lunatic might get a nuke. Climate change may displace millions of people and countries might fight over where those people go. Cyberattacks may take down missile defense systems and ruin the whole Mutually Assured Destruction thing. Maybe we’ve just gotten lucky for decades. But if it feels like the world is on the brink of war, know that it’s felt that way for a long time. Maybe that’s just how it feels to be alive.
Guns will still be about as available as they are today
I know from my own research (forthcoming) that people think Americans are way more in favor of gun control than they were in past decades. Unfortunately, they’re wrong. Only 19% of people think handguns should be banned, down from 60% in 1959. 47% of people favor an assault weapons ban, down from 57% in 1996. 42% of people are “satisfied” with gun laws in the US, and only a minority of those who are dissatisfied want them to be stricter.
That might be pretty surprising, considering the increasing pace of mass shootings. But if it is surprising to you, it’s probably because your reaction to mass shootings is “guns are dangerous, people shouldn’t have guns”. Most people’s reaction, however, is “the world is dangerous, people should be able to have guns”.
If frequent mass murders of innocent people––even children––is not enough to turn Americans against guns, it’s not clear what is. Young people and old people have similar positions on gun policy, so we can’t simply wait for Boomers’ funerals. The anti-gun movement would have to upend public opinion, get a favorable Congress and president in office, and then survive inevitable legal challenges with a Supreme Court that currently has a young and healthy conservative supermajority. Then they’d have to somehow round up the 393 million guns in the US from the 32% of Americans who own at least one. I don’t see any realistic scenario in which this happens in the next 30 years. Instead, the proportion of gun owners will continue to shrink but the size of their arsenals will continue to grow, a trend that will probably get us to 450 million guns by 2050.
People in 2050 will say that people were nicer in 2022
I’ll unpack this more in a future post, but one of my research projects explores how people believe that morality has declined and how there’s very good evidence that it hasn’t. What’s especially remarkable is that people think the decline began when they arrived on Earth regardless of when that was. They even think kindness is dying off so quickly that you can tell the difference between today and a few years ago.
So take a look around. Do you think people in general are nice? Is your life full of neighborliness and respect? I bet it’s a mix. Probably most of the people you know are great, a few are bad, and your interactions with strangers tend to be positive but every once in a while you run into a jerk. That will be true in 2050, too. But our future selves and our descendants will look back on today and wonder where kindness and civility went.
2050 won’t feel like the future. It will feel like today.
Every vision of the future strongly implies that everything will feel different. We’ll be constantly elated because mechanical servants will do our housework, or we’ll feel constantly paranoid because the government can read our brainwaves.
But it won’t feel like that, and we ought to know. Our ancestors dreamed of being able to talk to people from thousands of miles away, or landing on the moon, or eradicating polio and we get to live in a world where all of that happened. Yet it doesn’t feel like we live in a magical futuristic wonderland. It feels…fine.
The future will feel that way too. We might get everything delivered by drone, or live on Mars, or cure cancer, and all those things will be pretty darn cool. But soon after they happen, they’ll feel normal. Humans have an almost limitless capacity to adjust to their circumstances; the hedonic treadmill does not seem to have a maximum speed. We’ll complain that the drones take too long, that there’s no good restaurants on Mars, and that anti-vaxxers refuse to get their cancer shots. It’ll feel…fine.
And fine is good enough for me. If it’s not good enough for you, take heart––by 2050, we’ll finally be only a few years away from flying cars!