The First Decade of the Future is Behind Us

By Kyle Munkittrick | December 31, 2010 1:00 pm

In just a few days, the first decade of the 21st Century will be over. Can we finally admit we live in the future? Sure, we won’t be celebrating New Years by flying our jetpacks through the snow or watching the countdown from our colony on Mars, and so what if I can’t teleport to work? Thanks to a combination of 3G internet, a touch-screen interface, and Wikipedia, the smartphone in my front pocket is pretty much the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I can communicate with anyone anywhere at anytime. I can look up any fact I want, from which puppeteers played A.L.F. to how many flavors of quark are in the Standard Model, and then use the same touch-screen device to take a picture, deposit a check, and navigate the subway system. We live in the future, ladies and gentleman.

But you may still have your doubts. Allow me to put things in perspective. Imagine it’s 1995: almost no one but Gordon Gekko and Zack Morris have cellphones, pagers are the norm; dial-up modems screech and scream to connect you an internet without Google, Facebook, or YouTube; Dolly has not yet been cloned; the first Playstation is the cutting edge in gaming technology; the Human Genome Project is creeping along; Mir is still in space; MTV still plays music; Forrest Gump wins an academy award and Pixar releases their first feature film, Toy Story. Now take that mindset and pretend you’re reading the first page of a new sci-fi novel:

The year is 2010. America has been at war for the first decade of the 21st century and is recovering from the largest recession since the Great Depression. Air travel security uses full-body X-rays to detect weapons and bombs. The president, who is African-American, uses a wireless phone, which he keeps in his pocket, to communicate with his aides and cabinet members from anywhere in the world. This smart phone, called a “Blackberry,” allows him to access the world wide web at high speed, take pictures, and send emails.

It’s just after Christmas. The average family’s wish-list includes smart phones like the president’s “Blackberry” as well as other items like touch-screen tablet computers, robotic vacuums, and 3-D televisions. Video games can be controlled with nothing but gestures, voice commands and body movement. In the news, a rogue Australian cyberterrorist is wanted by world’s largest governments and corporations for leaking secret information over the world wide web; spaceflight has been privatized by two major companies, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX; and Time Magazine’s person of the year (and subject of an Oscar-worthy feature film) created a network, “Facebook,” which allows everyone (500 million people) to share their lives online.

Does that sound like the future? Granted, there’s a bit of literary flourish in some of my descriptions, but nothing I said is untrue. Yet we do not see these things incredible innovations, but just boring parts of everyday life. Louis C. K. famously lampooned this attitude with his “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy” interview with Conan O’Brian. Why can’t we see the futuristic marvels in front of our noses and in our pockets for what they really are?

Jean Baudrillard, an impenetrable post-modern French philosopher who lived long enough to see his predictions in Simulacra and Simulation come true, described our current situation as hyper-reality. The present is overloaded with information and everything becomes meta-ironic-underground-mainstream-old-retro-cool faster than we can process. As all the sources of meaning get their wires crossed, the past is mined for the Next Big Thing because we know what worked once before, where as no one has any idea what the future actually holds. Patton Oswald describes the phenomenon as “Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was–Available Forever.” The past can become new because we didn’t have enough time to understand it’s value the first go around.

And therein lies the the terror of the 21st century. The era in which “the future” means anything is behind us. It no longer works as a concept because that for which “the future” used to stand – a world of wonder, scientific innovation, and marvel – is here, now, all around us. Others have noted that the Singularity is “In Our Past Light-Cone” and that our current visions of the future are actually outdated in relation to current technology. But this creates something of a problem: if it’s already the future, then what comes after the future? This question is the wrong one. It’s like asking what comes after history? More history, of course. The more interesting question is this: now that the future is here, how do we survive it?

Our Baudrillardian hyper-reality is one in which world-altering inventions must be instantly integrated into our lives or we begin to fall behind, to fall out of reality. If you met someone who didn’t use a cellphone or computer and had no idea what the internet was, would you say that person shared your reality? Really? In addition to the risk of being outrun by reality, the strangeness, the alienation of our daily experience of the future comes from the fact that our future is partial. Yes, we have smartphones and internet-everything, but we don’t have genetic engineering or neural-implants or human clones or surgical nano-bots or teleportation. Different areas of science enter the future at different rates. We don’t notice the current wave of innovation we’re riding, only the fields lagging behind. The future is here, but it’s incomplete.

If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that though technological progress is guaranteed, its direction is impossible to discern, pace Ray Kurzweil. A breakthrough in one technology can cause explosive progress in relation to other technologies. Because cellphones and the internet went through such exponential growth, even with huge advances it looked like genetics, biotech, neuroscience, and nanotech just plodded along. It’s no longer a question of when the future will get here but which future is next? A future of space flight and interplanetary colonization? A future of androids, cyborgs, and AI? A future of genetically enhanced and near-immortal transhumans? A future of nanotech based post-scarcity production? My argument is that while any one of these futures is a real possibility, only one will come into being at a time. If pressed to guess, the breakthroughs in genomics and genetic engineering point to the next couple decades being dominated by biotech. Just as you’ve managed to shake off the awe and wonderment of your smartphone, in a decade or so you’ll be bored with gene therapies, $50 genomic sequencing, designer babies, and clones. Or maybe I’m completely wrong and it’ll be nano-tech replicators and graphene-based space elevators that you grumble about not getting your orbiting cubical fast enough.

We’re making our way through the future, one decade, one technology, at a time. Try to stay excited.

Image “We’ll All Be Happy Then” via the ever amazing

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Comments (28)

  1. Robert

    “[O]ur current visions of the future are actually outdated in relation to current technology.”

    This depresses me. It means we have no imagination anymore, and I think that might be true. Although it could also mean our imaginations are just as powerful as ever, but unable to cope with the complexity of the modern world.

  2. Kate

    “a rogue Swedish cyberterrorist is wanted by world’s largest governments and corporations for leaking secret information over the world wide web”

    A small correction: if you’re referring to Julian Assange, he’s actually Australian.

  3. Miles

    You’re sci-fi aura is spot on. A rogue international “cyberterrorist” actually incriminating major governments and powerful corporations on the primetime news is something I used to dismiss as too utopian for reality. Reminds me of the Outer Limits episode made in the early 90s about a black President commemorating the Gettysburg Address in 2013. And now we have one who’s from Illinois to boot.

    May I suggest replacing “everyone (500 million people)” with “anyone (500 million users so far).”

  4. Messier Tidy Upper

    The problem with the future is its always just a year or two away .. 😉

    Today is yesterday’s tomorrow and yesterday is tomorrow’s today.

    The future is an undiscovered country like the past.
    Neither one is accessible today – we’re still waiting on the invention of a time machine tomorrow .. or are we?

    @3. Miles :

    Reminds me of the Outer Limits episode made in the early 90s about a black President commemorating the Gettysburg Address in 2013. And now we have one who’s from Illinois to boot.

    And a Muslim socialist President at that! 😉

    (I jest! But who would’ve thought in 2001 say that someone with such a foreign first, middle and surname would be elected POTUS in 2008? Not saying its bad, just observing the fact.)

    Also we’re now past the (second) sequel year (2010) for Clarke / Kubrick’s Space Odyssey – and wa-aay behind schedule! Where’s the wheel space station, the Tycho moonbase, the monolith mystery – and what’s Jupiter doing still around and not becoming a second sun! Sorry, what was that you said about “just science fiction?” 😉

  5. Chris

    One thing you forgot. The ice caps are melting.

  6. What I think is most interesting is that four months ago I referred to Ray Kurzweil’s _The Singularity is Near_, which I first read in ’06, to see how well we’d gotten along. I noticed he mentioned that computers would disappear by the end of 2010, and I thought he had been wrong (although I did notice his predictions seemed infinitely less revolutionary to me now than they did in 2006). But four months later, after I got an iPad, after i watched raise a million bucks to put a touchscreen computer on a wrist, after I read about the recent breakthrough in light-based computing, kinetic battery recharging, the other breakthrough in computing electron spin or whatever, I realized that four months can make a lot of difference. He’s a smart guy, kurzweil. I’m in a coffee shop tapping on a flat tablet of glass half an inch thick. I havent pulled out my laptop in ages. Have computers disappeared?

    Kurzweil agrees with the writer: biotech first, then nano tech, then robotics. Should be interesting.

  7. Matt B.

    Goodbye, 201st. Hello, 202nd. What, we can number the years, centuries and millennia, but not the decades?

  8. Mark Plus

    Eh, a lot of this “futuristic” stuff looks like transhumanist feng shui to me. How about something “futuristic'” that matters, like giving everyone a guaranteed income and health care instead of just letting the ruling class enjoy that benefit (Bushes, Kennedys, Dick Cheney, etc.), while they lecture the rest of us about the virtues of hard work, self-reliance and suffering?

  9. Guy

    ““a rogue Swedish cyberterrorist is wanted by world’s largest governments and corporations for leaking secret information over the world wide web””
    “A small correction: if you’re referring to Julian Assange, he’s actually Australian.”

    A bigger correction: he’s not a terrorist.

  10. Jeff Altaffer

    If we would get out of our monetary system and into a resource based economy like what The Venus Project says then we could develop even faster with technology.

  11. Mark Plus

    @Jeff Altaffer

    I read Jacque Fresco’s book “Looking Forward” nearly 30 years ago, and I talked to Fresco on the phone a few times in the 1980’s and 1990’s. His Venus Project exists mainly in his deteriorating brain, despite all the alleged skills and occupations Fresco lists after his name.

    Fresco suffers from the same problem displayed by his friend, the futurist FM-2030 (whom I got to know slightly in the 1990s’s, before his cryonic suspension). They both came of age at a time when the dominant ideas in the intelligentsia included central planning, rule by experts, social engineering and the unlimited plasticity of human behavior through environmental conditions, like the myth of the New Man allegedly created under Communism. These ideas led to the utopian belief in imposing a rational order on human societies.

    We know now that those ideas don’t work.

    So it surprises me that Peter Merola has dusted off Fresco and turned him into an internet celebrity with those “Zeitgeist” films. Merola should feel ashamed for exploiting a 90-something man like that who really has nothing better to do than wait for death.

  12. buraianto

    @John Gilmore: Have computers disappeared? Ha ha ha. No, you were still typing on one. It just happened to have a sexy glass screen. When computers have disappeared, then will be the great revolution. They’ll have become a part of us and a part of our world.

  13. CAS Rose

    Great article Kyle ~ Thank you ~
    The best part of the future, that our ship we set sail on now leaving site of shore in 2011,
    is we will be leaving ” Behind” as ” Waste” “Garbage” the “one-way” media and academia power and control Trash. Which is all these left brain attitudes “I am better then you and I know more then you, behind”. False inflated sense of entitlement , power and control…

    Hellish world we were in… That individuals always have to argue and find fault..
    Rather then being in touch with self at core to know their beliefs and objectives deeply.
    The Ego has been so dominant there sadly is NO Human in the physical body and they will become acknowledged for the Trash they are… Lost souls in this Universe that refuse to face self and get clear that humans are only a consciousness… not a brain or muscle…

    The best part of 2 way media is the intelligence it is bringing.
    The person who does not know how to have a 2 way relationship of equality or converse or communicate as a Human Being are finding themselves on outside looking in… As no one wants to listen or read their ” I am God” and your a opinion thinking, feeling does not count. Ridicule, manipulation, games, lies, one upmanship of the 20th century has been left at shore… due to the transparency the technology is bringing, it is all ” dead weight” ~

    Yes the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy is a perfect ananology.
    For if you stay attached to your thinking … You do not keep up with the singularity…
    One has to be light on their feet with the GOAL in mind…
    Seeing the much bigger picture and objectives for everyone or else they cannot keep up..

    It is Not being RIGHT ( USvsTHEM ancient ideology proven not to work).
    It is being Explorers learning as we go in a consensus that will allow success of individual…

  14. “Imagine it’s 1995: almost no one but Gordon Gekko and Zack Morris have cellphones” Cellphones were pretty common by ’95. Gekko’s “brick” phone was from a movie made in ’86-87. So a president who “uses a wireless phone, which he keeps in his pocket, to communicate with his aides and cabinet members from anywhere in the world” would not have made someone back then faint from future shock. It was the 2G era. Kids didn’t have cells, but if you worked in business or govt in the mid-nineties, you likely had a Nokia or Motorola flip phone in your pocket.

  15. What an intriguing post: I appreciated your wonderful contextualization. If your readers are at all familiar with Douglas Englebart’s 1962 research paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,” they’ll note the similarities to your projected futures.

    Every once in a while, the sociocultural haze clears enough for some smart folks to see that our future is already happening and has been doing so for decades. What we do with it is up to us.

  16. anonymous

    Computers have started to disappear. Our phones are computers, but no one calls them that. And there used to be a company called Apple Computer. Now they’re just Apple.

  17. Ronnie D

    So, the future is cell phones? This is the most blindly written article i have ever read. some apple geek thinks his IPHONE is gonna change the world. That’s blasphemy.

    the fact is there is still much slavery throughout the world. racisim, and other prejudices, are widely accepted in the west.

    technology mostly brought us convenience, not progress.

    my life has not changed because now there is a facebook, cellphones, hi-def tv, and Xbox 360. I was just as happy with Playstation, VHS, home phones, and AIM.

  18. Unfortunately this is clearly NOT the true 21-st century. Two of my septoes explain everything;

    a) The Future Shock was amortized by irrationality.

    b) The 21st Century is the 12th, resurrected

    We have a sound basis for healthy pessimism. Take a look to my Ego Out blog. Thanks!

  19. Alistair

    Einstein: “We suffer from a perfection of means, and a confusion of ends.”

  20. Becky

    Am I the only one who realizes that the “first decade of the 21st century” was done well over a year ago? The first decade has been over since New Years Eve of 2009.

    Although the story is interesting, it’s a year late. We’ve been enjoying the second decade of the 21st century for a while.

    1. 2000
    2. 2001
    3. 2002
    4. 2003
    5. 2004
    6. 2005
    7. 2006
    8. 2007
    9. 2008
    10. 2009

  21. Joseph

    Let’s just make something clear:
    MTV *NEVER* played music.

  22. This is so materialistically written that it’s almost ridiculous. What about fuel sources? In America we’re still using oil for everything and letting the sun and wind go to waste. Slavery and racism in our world’s forever-developing countries don’t sound too futuristic either, neither does an idiotic public that hardly understands anything that happens in their country’s domestic or foreign affairs, listening to their african-american president speak slowly in simple words. A century and a half ago political candidates spoke with finesse, using vocabulary and phrase structure 95% of us wouldn’t be able to follow today. How in the hell is this the future? Our fundamentals are still all askew.

  23. Kyle Munkittrick

    @Becky: Thanks for your relevant and useful contribution!

    @Jordan & Ronnie: My point exactly. Granted, I view “The Future” through a lens of technological and scientific progress. But to see my social views, check out this article.

  24. Kate

    Derp a derp I KNOWS AUSTRALIANS!!!

  25. Richard Woods

    @20 Becky:

    You’ve treated our calendar year numbering as though it were odometer numbering, starting with 0 as the first year. But there was no year 0 AD!

    If the first decade of the 21st century ended on the last day of year 2009, then the first decade of the 1st century (_exactly_ 2000 years earlier) would’ve ended on the last day of the year 9 — which was only the ninth (not the tenth) year following the last day of the BC era.

    There was no year 0 AD. The first year AD was year 1 AD, not year 0 AD. The last year of the first decade AD was, therefore, year 10 AD, not year 9 AD. Similarly, the last year of the first century AD was 100 AD, not 99 AD. The last year of the first millennium AD was 1000 AD, not 999 AD. The last year of the second millennium AD was 2000 AD, not 1999 AD. The first year of the 21st century AD was 2001 AD, not 2000 AD.

    The last year of the first decade of the 21st century AD was 2010 AD, not 2009 AD.

    2011 is the first, not second, year of the second decade of the 21st century.

    … unless we define “decade” as “usually ten, but sometimes nine, years”.

    (Perhaps the inventors of our calendar should have defined a year 0 AD between year 1 BC and year 1 AD — but they didn’t, and we’re stuck with that decision.)

  26. Richard Woods

    Additional notes:

    2010 was the last year of the first decade of the 21st century, but it was the first year of the “2010s decade”.

    2000 was the last year of the 2nd millennium, the last year of the 20th century, the last year of the last decade of the 20th century, the last year of the 200th decade AD, but the first year of the “2000s” decade. The “2000s decade” had one of its years within the 2nd millennium and the other 9 of its years within the 3rd millennium.

    Awkward, but that’s the way our calendar year numbering and terminology is.

  27. Ben

    i know im just as bad for doing this but kate, you’re a moron for correcting thm on julian assanges nationality. it is totally irrelevant. you obviously have nothing to say that isn’t just being said to try and be a part of something so please… leave it to people who have brains.

  28. Brandon Johns

    Richard, how do you know there wasn’t a year 0?? And even if there wasn’t, it doesn’t make the year 2000 a part of the 20th century and 2nd millennium.


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