What is the world going to look like in 28 years?
The year 2050 is as distant from us as 1994 is. This somewhat startling fact inspired the essay Futurists have their heads in the clouds, in which Erik Hoel criticizes the way smart people typically try to predict the future — “geeking out about technological possibilities,” which tends to create “a sci-fi book without the plot” — and instead takes an incrementalist approach. He writes:
If Cicero were transported from ancient Rome to our time he would easily understand most things about our society. There’d be a short-term amazement at various new technologies and societal changes, but soon Cicero would settle in and be throwing out Trump/Sulla comparisons (or contradicting them), since many of the debates we face, like what to do about growing wealth inequality, or how to keep a democracy functional, are the same as in Roman times.
That sounds about right to me. Things change, but not so much that the world becomes completely unfamiliar. The world has changed since 1994, but it’s mostly still the same world, and we should expect that to be true for 2050 too.
With this in mind, Erik makes 18 predictions for 2050 based on trends that already exist today. This method was recognized as interesting by many, such as Scott Alexander, and encouraged a number of bloggers to make their own. The anonymous authors of the blog Slime Mold Time Mold are among them; they keep a helpful list of what has come to be called “the 2050 Project.”
At the moment of writing this, the 2050 Project includes ten writers. It is not, of course, an incredibly rigorous exercise in forecasting, but rather a snapshot of what a particular subculture — scientific-minded, English-speaking bloggers in 2021-2022 — thinks the future will be made of. In addition, the humility inherent to the incrementalist approach they take makes this genre more interesting than the outlandish futuristic scenarios commonly portrayed in science fiction and popular media.
I read all ten writers and put all their predictions in a big table to get a nice overview. I categorized them by theme and then according to the layers in the pace layering model, a way to see the various speeds at which change happens in a civilization. For instance, clothing styles follow a very different rhythm than deeply-held cultural views on religion or marriage. Most predictions fall into the four middle layers: commerce, infrastructure, governance, and culture. This makes sense considering the time scale we’re looking at, almost three decades. Fashion usually moves too fast; nature, too slow, except for the climate.
Then I decided to try my hand at it too, especially on themes that seemed neglected, or that fit The Classical Futurist’s ethos. I predict, for instance, that demographic trends will make China less relevant than we might commonly expect today; that no new city-states will appear, but that existing cities will get better; that climate change will be mostly solved yet still a frequent topic of debate; that we will see the rise of at least one completely new architectural style.
We’ll start at the bottom layer and work our way up.
Climate. Barring some unexpected disaster (a supervolcano, a cosmic impact, etc.), the only part of nature that is expected to change in a few decades is the global climate.
We don’t seem to be on track to avoid global warming. As of last year, the IPCC scientists expect a rise in global temperatures of 1.4 °C by 2040 and 1.6 °C by 2060, under an optimistic scenario, while the two numbers are 1.9 °C and 3 °C under a pessimistic scenario. Averaging all that, the world will be somewhat warmer in 2050.
It will not lead to disaster.
It will lead to various costly, annoying, and sometimes tragic consequences, but the world will be generally rich enough to deal with those. Poorer countries will be worse off, of course, but most of them will be getting wealthier, alleviating some of the worst problems. Meanwhile, technology will be improving. There are currently many reasons to be techno-optimistic in the field of energy: attitudes toward nuclear power are becoming more positive, solar is developing fast, and even futuristic nuclear fusion is less and less of a science fiction dream. By 2050, energy and carbon-capture technology will be sufficiently developed for many smart people to declare climate disruption as a mostly solved problem.
On the other hand, fossil fuels will still be used, in part due to low cost. Temperatures and the sea level will still be rising, natural disasters will still be happening at an ambiguously higher frequency than in the past, and alarmist predictions will still be commonplace. Politically, the discourse on the environment will be very similar to today: much talk of an emergency, little appetite for transformative action.
The most important datum to understand the world of today and tomorrow is demographics. How many people there are, and how they are distributed among countries, cultures, and languages — those are key questions to ask, and amateur futurists do not ask them enough.
Fortunately, many organizations do make high quality projections of population growth, so we can get a plausible picture. The 2019 edition of the United Nations’ World Population Prospects, for instance, projects a world population of 9,735,034,000 in 2050 (in their “medium” scenario). More interesting are the projections for individual countries, because they inform us on the future state of global politics and culture.
Fertility. If you want to understand the future, first understand this map of the Total Fertility Rate — an idealized measure of the number of children per woman. Blue countries will see their importance decrease; red and purple ones will become far more important than today. (Looking at you and your 7 kids per woman, Niger!)
In the West, many people worry about China. Will it invade Taiwan? Will it become (or is it already) a totalitarian surveillance state? In 2050, there will be far less of those worries, simply because China’s power will be declining due to its shrinking population. Studies show that China’s population may be peaking this year and decrease by half within the next 45 years or before 2100. By the middle of the century, the Chinese Communist Party will be trying everything they can to reverse the trend (there won’t be anything like a one-child or two-children-policy, for instance; maybe there will even be a three-or-more-child policy!), but historical evidence tells us that natalist measures don’t work very well, so the trends won’t be reversed. In his 2050 predictions, Sasha Chapin wrote that “China will sort of stall out.” That sounds about right.
It won’t be just China. Japan, South Korea, and Russia will be in even bigger trouble with extremely aged populations and all of what that entails for productivity, innovation, entrepreneurship, etc. Western countries will keep accepting immigrants and will avoid some of that trouble, but not all of it, and immigrants will change their cultures even faster than they do now, with unpredictable consequences.
Places like India, Southeast Asia, and especially Africa will become much more present in geopolitics. But fertility will be decreasing in those places also. It will be decreasing everywhere — even in Niger.
In 2050, this will be widely recognized as a humanity-sized challenge. Human extinction will not be on the table, thanks to groups with high fertility like some religious denominations (such as the Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Mormons, or Amish) and perhaps new subcultures fueled by strong pronatalist memes. But the long-term extinction of specific cultures will be a worry for many.
In France between 1870 and 1940, natalité was a “national obsession”: the country had undergone its demographic transition before any of the others — it grew by only 60% while Great Britain had a 500% population increase, for instance — and its low population growth threatened its power and economy. Near the year 1900, writers like Émile Zola published novels about fertility. Family values and having babies were very much part of the political discourse, which led to the adoption of restrictive abortion laws and delayed the acceptability of women’s suffrage.
In Rome under Augustus, the capital was struggling with excess deaths over births, and relied on immigration from rural areas to keep growing. The Julian laws of 18-17 BC attempted to alleviate the decrease of the upper class population by encouraging marriage, forbidding inheritances and public games to celibate people, and offering benefits to the parents of three sons. These laws were also meant to reinvigorate traditional Roman morals.
Expect more moralizing legislation across the world to come.
Language. Language will follow demographic trends: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and most European languages will become less important; the reverse will happen to Spanish and Portuguese (in Latin America), Arabic, and (thanks to Africa) French. Mandarin Chinese is sometimes, today, thought of as being the next lingua franca after English. Nobody will think that in 2050.
Machine translation will have developed to a degree that most people will be unable to tell the difference from human translation. This will reduce the need for language learning and reduce the prestige of English somewhat. The language will still be growing, and keep its status as the global lingua franca, but its comparative advantage over other languages will be waning.
Many of the world’s 7,000 languages will have disappeared, bringing total linguistic diversity down, but efforts in preservation and translation tech will consolidate the position of those that survive.
Cities. Although I’m generally enthusiastic about renewing the idea of city-states, I’m a bit pessimistic as to whether such projects — or similar ones, like charter cities or web3-based cities — can pan out in the short term. In 2050, there won’t be any meaningfully successful new city-state, where “successful” means a new sovereign country, or a quasi-sovereign entity with laws that differ from the state it is officially part of, like Hong Kong. At most there will be a few places that have carved partial legal exceptions from the nation-states they are based in, similar to special economic zones.
People will still try to build new city-states. In 2050, we’ll be just about to get a successful one, but that will also have been true of 2040 and 2030.
As a corollary, nation-states will still be powerful. They will, however, face challenges to their legitimacy, from powerful companies and internationally networked communities. Governments will respond in all sorts of ways — from cool space projects to expanding their surveillance apparatus — to make sure they remain relevant.
The cities that already exist will have overall improved. To the extent that governance can progress, local politics is where advances will happen. You can see the seeds of that in my own city, Montreal, where a people-centric, quality-of-life-focussed philosophy has all but taken over in the past decade. Urban planning will be more in tune with what city dwellers want; there will be less violent crime, fewer cars in urban cores, more housing.
Canada. Almost everyone else made very US-specific predictions on society and politics. Allow me, then, to predict Canada and Quebec’s future.
Canada is one of the countries that accepts the most immigrants as a proportion of its population. This will continue. In 2050, having a majority race will be a distant memory, and very few people will find any issues with that. The cost of living in the cities will be absurdly high due to a growing population with insufficient housing. What little distinctly English-Canadian identity currently remains will be gone, and the country will be culturally distinct from the United States only to the same extent that different American regions are distinct from each other.
Overall those factors will create an unstable society, but things will overall remain harmonious and Canada will keep its stereotypical reputation of being full of nice people.
I’d say there’s about a 50% chance that somewhere along the way, Quebec has finally seceded. If it does, it will be because Quebecers got spooked from seeing their weight in the federation inexorably decrease as the province has kept accepting fewer immigrants. As of 2022, support for independence is close to an all-time low, but national sentiment can change fast. Ironically, I predict that being released from the cultural pressure of English Canada would make Quebec become more like it, except in French.
Infrastructure & Commerce
Infrastructure and commerce are where most predictions by the other writers happen, since they are often about technology: the internet, health, education, etc. It made sense to merge the two layers together since tech can follow more or less rapid cycles depending on how foundational it is.
Artificial intelligence. The elephant in the room, here, is the potential for something truly transformative to happen. An intelligence explosion, for instance, means an AI that becomes performant enough to self-improve, becoming far better than humans at everything. This might create peace and plenty for all of us, or destroy the world.
I don’t like to think about this. It’s not fun. It also ruins the entire point of writing predictions, because such a radical event, either good or bad, would make an incrementalist approach moot. This may be why none of the ten bloggers of the 2050 Project predicted it, and a couple predicted that it wouldn’t happen. Unfortunately, yes, there’s a significant chance that it will happen in the next few decades. Text-based models (GPT-3 and soon, GPT-4) are improving really fast, among other advances that I’m far from fully aware of.
Assuming that there is no intelligence explosion, AI will still have an outsized impact on our daily lives. Creative work will be impacted to the level that factory jobs are today. In the arts, there will be a nascent dichotomy between AI-assisted productions and authentically human ones. AI art will be generally more competent at achieving some stated purpose, like “tell a heart-wrenching love story,” and will be used abundantly by big commercial studios, e.g. in Hollywood. Authentic human art will rarely match the technical quality of the other kind but many people will see it as “truer” in some sense. There will be endless debates about which kind is better.
Virtual and augmented reality. VR and AR will keep improving and will have become widespread by 2050. Erik Hoel coined the term “supersensorium” to describe the merger of all entertainment media — games, TV, films, books, and VR/AR — into a hyperstimulating and ubiquitous network, accessible to all. I believe this is mostly correct, but I want to add an important nuance.
The more AR and VR will be difficult to avoid, the more doing so will be a sign of status. The rich will signal their power by not partaking. Acquiring physical objects, as opposed to NFTs in the metaverse, will be much more tasteful. We will have high-resolution simulations of Rome and Athens, but visiting the real Rome and Athens will be a sign of wealth, even more so than it is today (even though the cost of travel is likely to decrease over time). As I wrote a few months ago, reality will become a status symbol.
Space. On space I alternate between circumspection and optimism. On the one hand, the recent decades have taught us that progress in space technology is slow and expensive. On the other hand, it was really fast in the 1950s and 60s, and there’s no reason why we should be less able now than we were then.
It is in fact a matter of motivation. During the Space Race, the barriers to entry were absurdly high, but the US and USSR were highly motivated to outdo each other. Today there is no such competition — but the barriers to entry are getting much smaller. When SpaceX puts their first Spaceships in service, within a couple of years, it will be far less costly to send anything in space, from people to cargo to construction materials. As this post argues, we might not be far from creating the equivalent of the Berlin Airlift that supplied West Berlin during the Cold War, but for the Lower Earth Orbit.
A major shift in space tech would make the incremental predictive approach perform poorly. In his post, Erik recognizes that, and consciously makes the not-so-conservative prediction that there will be a Martian colony by 2050. I agree, and I add that there will also be a Lunar colony, as well as a significant number of people staying in orbit at any given time.
However, let’s keep in mind that this will all be new and undeveloped by then. After Columbus (re)discovered America, it took several decades before there were any impressive European cities in the New World. Twenty-eight years from now, our settlements on literal new worlds will be small and not quite profitable. But they’ll be growing.
Agriculture. Only one of the ten writers, Rohit from Strange Loop Canon, made a prediction about agriculture: he believes that we’ll feed cities with vertical farming. It is interesting that none of the others even mentioned the topic. Food is at the core of the human experience, and yet it seems so mundane (at least in rich countries) that we pay very little attention to it.
I predict that this will still be true in 2050; but so will the current trend of developing constant improvements to the way we grow and prepare our food.
The Honeycrisp apple, now widespread across grocery stores and considered by many to have superior taste over other cultivars, was first commercially produced in 1991. In the same decade, Dutch scientists figured out why Brussel sprouts were bitter, and Brussel sprouts have tasted better ever since. As of last year, we now produce strawberries locally in the Quebec winter, thanks to investment in greenhouses. The food world of tomorrow will be full of small quality of life improvements like this — minor enough that we don’t really notice, until we take them for granted.
It also seems likely that we’ll have found meat and dairy replacements that are good enough to fool most people. The milk replacement produced by NotCo, which I tried as research for this article, is getting reasonably close to the real thing; so are various imitations of meat. Lab-grown meat is also likely to be commercially viable in the coming decades. As a result, we won’t have to kill animals to eat an omnivore diet anymore. But of course, we still will: as with anything pleasant that becomes unnecessary, eating real meat will become a sign of status. The good news will be that factory farming, widely considered to be the worst part of agriculture, will have begun declining.
It would be a fool’s errand to predict fast-paced trends in the world 28 years from now, and indeed few of the ten bloggers tried. But there is at least one field where it makes sense to try, because fashion moves more slowly there: architecture.
Architecture. Gradual change will make the architecture of 2050 noticeably different from the fashions of the early 21st century, although it won’t be possible to pinpoint a specific shift. The dominant styles will reincorporate features from the olden days, including more ornamentation as well as innovation on classical Greco-Roman architecture, which after all has been a constant for all of Western history — but they won’t look traditionalist either.
General attitudes toward buildings from the 2000s and 2010s will have soured somewhat. On the other hand, the new urban developments of today will look better then, in large part because of their mature trees. Brutalist buildings won’t be loved exactly, but they will be almost 100 years old and will be seen as quaint. There will be fierce debates on whether to preserve the ones that are decaying (which will be most of them).
At least one new completely unforeseen architectural style will have appeared and spread throughout the world. It will be something, in spirit, like the Neo-Andean style of Bolivia:
Classics. This is The Classical Futurist, so let’s talk classics. Antiquity has always held a special place in the psyche of Western civilization; educated people would learn Latin and Greek and read the foundational texts of Western literature. Today this is less common, yet not entirely gone. Classical antiquity remains a niche interest, but not a rare one.
Let’s make a boring prediction: this will still be true in 2050. In fact there will be a minor renaissance of interest in the classics. Latin and Greek will make a modest comeback. We see this already in unlikely places, like China. The scope of “the classics” might also broaden to take into account other ancient literature, from other Mediterranean civilizations like Egypt or Mesopotamia, but also from any long-lived cultures around the world; there will be more Westerners studying the Chinese classics, for instance. New archeological finds will rewrite some of the narratives we take for granted.
In a world of increasing individualism and diversifying subcultures due to wealth and widespread internet usage, the study of our ancient roots will be more and more regarded as the solid rock upon which we can build stable societies.
The world is likely to keep getting better
After I wrote my agriculture prediction, I realized that two of the examples I gave, the Honeycrisp apples and Brussel sprouts, came in fact from a post by Gwern called My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s. It lists an impressive number of small things that have not exactly changed the world, but made life better by small steps, from comfortable movie theater seats to smarter board games to the invention of guacamole that doesn’t instantly spoil.
This is what is going to keep happening. The big stuff is important, of course. But our civilization is good at subtle, gradual self-improvement — and that’s also important.
In 2050, we’ll stand at the end of the decade that will have been the closest we’ve ever been to a golden age. It won’t feel like that. There’ll be plenty to complain about. But, unlikely disaster scenarios aside, it will be true. I, for one, look forward to it.