2050: Imagining the Impossible?

jeff/ August 12, 2020

When I started college, the 21st century, the year 2000, seemed so far away: 16 years. For students today, 16 years from today (2036) must seem so far away though as we age we realize that the years go quickly. Indeed, after age 50 we accept the rapid pace and realize that 16 years isn’t that long at all.

I always ask my college students, “How old will you be in the year 2050?” There’s nothing magical about 2050. It’s a nice round number, the midcentury mark. College students today will be about 48 – 52 then.

I know that they can’t even imagine themselves at 30, and surely not at 50. But I want to plant that thought in their mind: the midcentury. I stress to them, “You, your generation, gets to create what the world is like in 2050. You get to create the technologies, the new industries, the lifestyles, the governments of the midcentury.”

The path towards doing that starts today. Now.

Someday, you will live in what Haruki Murakami calls “this unimaginable world”. You will bring your unique perspective to that world. There is only one you in this world. Sure, we all have similarities. But each of us has a perspective, a lived experience, that is only ours. That insight, along with our skills and knowledge, allows us to craft unique experiences for ourselves and for others.

Think about the others. When we talk about technology, we often talk about the user experience: UX. That’s how we design the interfaces, the ways that people interact with technology. It requires us to understand the experiences of others: empathy. It requires understanding the possibilities of the technology while also thinking deeply about the limitations of human behavior. Out of that emerges design patterns: commonalities among software that people immediately grasp, like the concept of a “button” that needs to be “pressed”.

In imagining the impossible midcentury you have to break free of today’s conventional tools: these laptops and phones that we carry around with us. When I was in college the computers were massive with monochrome screens. Video games were incredibly simplistic. Don’t assume that the future will be like today. A lot of it will be incredibly similar. We probably will still sleep on beds and wear clothes but will we drive cars? Or will the cars drive us? Will we carry a phone? We didn’t in 1990, thirty years ago. We’ll have some other kind of device in thirty years.

But I know it’s possible to foresee some of the technologies that will impact life in 2050.

Research labs are exploring the possibilities. The technologies of the midcentury are being imagined today. Some of those are even being prototyped, though in crude and rudimentary ways. Many of those ideas are not yet ready to come to market because the scale of manufacturing is still too high, or computing power has not yet evolved to that level. The limitations are often more restricted by hardware, by mechanical & electrical engineering, than by software. Large companies are filing patents everyday about ideas that might come to market.

The first step in imagining the midcentury is accepting that you can imagine.

The second step is empathy, recognizing the experiences of others. And the most important part of this step is having a desire to improve those experiences, to craft new and exciting experiences.

The third step is understanding the possibilities, which can be done through reading the technical literature of computer science and engineering. You don’t need to understand all the technicalities. You are reading for concepts. I’m going to dive much deeper into how to explore the tech literature at another time.

The fourth step is intentionality. This is the key if you want to not just imagine but to create the future. A lot of people have great ideas, but few act on those thoughts. It’s highly important for the world that there be people, like you, who take deliberate, intentional, action steps towards making a vision a reality.

Let’s demonstrate by looking at two examples: Netflix and the iPhone.

Netflix

The scenario applies to any streaming video company but Netflix has done the best job of implementing this concept.

By the late 1970s cable TV was available across many parts of the US, even in very small towns. Cable TV was a huge step forward, a big advance over the aerial antennas that people had stuck on top of their homes. With cable you suddenly had a clear picture (not subject to the weather interfering), you had a lot of channels (not just the local 3 or 4 stations in your areas), and a choice of movies. There was no video on demand then. But movies were slated to show at various times, just like at the cinema.

In the early 1980s the video cassette recorder (VCR) emerged, video stores blossomed everywhere, and people could go to the store and rent whatever videotape they wanted and watch it in the privacy of their own homes.

I vividly remember in the early 80s, when I was a boy, reading an article in a magazine that described how, one day, video stores would become obsolete because any movie would be available on demand and delivered through the cable line connected to their homes. I remember thinking, “Wow!”. I would tell people about that, and they would laugh and say, “No way! Never going to happen.”

Most people do not understand the possibilities.

Throughout the 1990s video stores became giant businesses, most notably Blockbuster. Even when the DVD largely replaced videotape by the late 90s, the video rental store was the place to go. In 1997 a 36 year-old entrepreneur named Reed Hastings founded Netflix. The company then was hardly like it is today. Originally, Netflix was a mail-order business through which you could rent DVDs.

The intentionality behind growing a product, a business, an initiative is taking incremental steps. Netflix started establishing expertise in the distribution of film, which include a range of activities: logistics, inventory control, fulfillment, shipping, marketing, intellectual property, etc.

As network bandwidth evolved to the point that it could more than adequately deliver an enjoyable experience for watching movies, Netflix had positioned itself superbly to be the leader in streaming video. Today: Netflix, and similar companies, embody a vision that had existed for decades.

The iPhone

It’s almost hard to believe that smartphones have not always been around. The iPhone came out in 2007. At first, it was a rather exclusive device and took a few years, and the growth of Android phones, for the smartphone to become a part of everybody’s hand. We think we can’t live without it. Someday we’ll laugh that we carried these chunky things in our pockets.

December 2000: I was in San Antonio for a conference. It’s a lovely city. In my pockets as I went from meeting to meeting at the conference hotel: I had my cell phone, which actually was clipped to my belt; a pocket camera; and an HP Jornada. The latter was a state-of-the-art digital device, a personal digital assistant, functioning as a tiny (but heavy) computer. I was really proud of it. Many people at the conference wanted to see my Jornada.

I remember my phone ringing. After ending the call and while juggling the phone, the Jornada, and also my pocket camera, I commented to a friend, “I need a utility belt to carry all these. Someone should invent something that has all these things combined.” My friend and I grinned at each other at the unlikelihood and difficulty of that.

That same year, I was living in Miami Beach, actually in South Beach. While browsing a music store, I noticed that they had a new device in which you could listen to a playlist of songs from albums for sale (in the form of CDs). I knew enough about technology then, to know that the songs were digitized into mp3 format and stored on a server in the backroom of the store. I thought it was a great concept. I wondered then, in 2000, how long it would be until all songs were available online. The technology then was available but it was really legal issues that delayed the evolution of online audio.

But back to talking about devices and the evolution that took us to the smartphone. Apple released the iPod in late 2001. It was just an mp3 player but a very well designed mp3 player, of course. Steve Jobs had a very clear strategy at Apple: produce a device that could play audio, then add a large screen and more computing power to the device, and then add cellular capabilities for phone. Hence, the iPhone evolved out of the iPod. And the iPad evolved out of the iPhone. Essentially, the Apple Watch is also just another variation on those devices. In Apple’s super secretive research labs, I’m sure they are working on the next generations of devices.

I suspect some type of glasses will be on the horizon as well as a totally reimagined television set. Holograms and virtual reality present broad possibilities ripe for the imagination.

So, as you go about learning technology, keep the future in mind. And if you want to pursue your imagined products, make a strong effort towards developing intentional habits that incrementally move you towards your vision over time.