The Roaring 2020's
Five themes I am optimistic about for the next decade - and more open questions I have no idea about.
When we close the history books on the 2020's, what will we say about the decade we have just begun?
It's obviously too early to say anything, but I'm cautiously optimistic. Much of 2020 seemed like a godforsaken hellscape driven by the Coronavirus Recession. But November has led to some hope for reversal in both politics and healthcare.
First, the obvious. If we see a successful vaccine rollout (there are logistical hurdles ), lockdowns will end and the economy will roar back due to deferred spending. This is very similar to the recovery in the 1920's after World War I from 1914-1918 and the Spanish Flu pandemic from 1918-1920. History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes.
But even apart from the short term rebound, I think there are longer term trends that offer some hope for the 2020's. Here are some
wishful thinking themes I am focusing on for 2030:
- Self Driving Cars: Yes, Uber has had well documented trouble recently. But I don't doubt that by 2030 Level 4 autonomous driving will be the majority of car miles. We could view manual driving as a hobby like we do horseriding today. The 124 traffic deaths per million that happen every year will plummet closer to 1. Parking becomes a thing of the past, freeing up real estate.
- Plant-Based Meat: With even McDonald's testing plant based burgers today, the potential for PBM to capture the popular consciousness on ethical and environmental grounds by 2030 is too great. I don't think we see full replacement but it will probably become a part of our regular diet.
- Climate Action: The Paris Agreement will probably fail to meet its already heavily moderated goals. But sincere, earnest action from business leaders like Stripe and Microsoft, cultural and religious leaders like TED and the Vatican give hope. There will be more extreme climate disasters in 2030, but there will also be more Greta Thunbergs and Climate Angels. My sister is 12 years younger than me, and every member of her generation I've met is keenly aware of the absolutely disastrous situation handed to them by their elders. Even if we don't manage to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, we'll hopefully not increase it, and perhaps achieve some noticeable reduction by sheer collective social will. This is contingent on Asian and African countries managing their environmental impact alongside their demographic boom (by 2100, India and Nigeria are projected to overtake China in population).
- Man on Mars: While we wrestle with our Climate bill coming due, our Earth Insurance Plan needs to continue apace. The overall goal is a full Mars colony by 2050. SpaceX appears to be doing well and there is a game plan for all the intermediate steps:
- 2022: First cargo to Mars
- 2024: First crewed mission to Mars
- This leaves plenty of leeway for the first human Mars landing by 2030
- Universal Basic Income: UBI has famous skeptics and famous believers and remains to be proven at large scale. Yet nearly every country turned to some form of financial support during 2020, and the policy probably helped in bad times. The remaining assessment to make is whether it also helps in good times. I suspect it does. I suspect multiple countries will try it in the 2020's. Primarily I view UBI as a form of Progressive Tax regime where the y-intercept just so happens to be negative. This isn't necessarily inflationary and offers the neediest among us a living wage, pulling people out of debt cycles and providing a cushion for risk takers.
Mostly optimistic, but less certain and/or less impactful.
- Urban Primacy Reversal: Primate Cities are dominant cities that are "at least twice as large as the next largest city". Fewer people will want to live in a crowded, dense city if they can work mostly remote, and effortlessly commute into the city as needed. I don't expect full urban->rural migration reversal, but I could certainly see more Megalopolis urban patterns instead of urban primacy.
- Death of the Mediocre University: The University bubble will pop as the stigma of online education goes away and the pedagogy and technology improve. The top tier will continue to do well, but there are no longer any reasons for mid/bottom tier colleges to exist. Education will experience the Economics of Superstars, to a far greater extent than already exists today. Accordingly the uniquely American student debt crisis will abate as society readjusts. The Biden administration may make a symbolic first move on this.
- Generative AI: Generative tech will continue to improve at an aggressive rate. Our expectations have adjusted significantly from 2019 when things like these were "too dangerous to release". Generative tech will pass limited Turing tests, but mostly as a society we will be on high alert for fake news. I am optimistic about the potential for Generative AI to serve as a "bicycle for the mind" rather than a replacement or threat to humankind.
- I do not think we reach any sort of "Singularity" by 2030 because AI is still shockingly inefficient compared to humans.
- Has the American Century permanently ended or will there be a resurgence of American soft power in the 2020's? I want to believe that there will be a new hegemon in the 21st Century, but other countries are perhaps even more lacking in global leadership.
- Modern Monetary Theory appears to be consensus today but probably won't last the moment the US Dollar loses reserve currency status (if it does, Bitcoin probably wins). I don't think this happens by 2030 (due to the above) but I also don't think this has a good end in the final examination.
- Genetic Engineering. 2020 awarded Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier their inevitable Nobel Prizes for CRISPR-Cas9. I have a few smart friends who are doubters but the overall consensus seems to be that this is the start of a revolution. What are the implications? I have no idea at all and I really want to form an opinion here.
- Society is still not dealing well with Social Media. The next generation will be brought up to deal well with it, but families are being torn apart and platforms and companies are being torn in to Red and Blue filter bubbles. When does the current Civil Cold War boil over into an Uncivil Hot one?
- The "Roaring 1920's" wasn't just about the economy and technology. It was also about the arts and cultural revolutions. It marked the start of the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, the feminist movement empowered by worldwide suffrage victory, but also saw the rise of the 2nd Klan. What new music, movie, arts, and political cultures and countercultures arise in the 2020's? I hold out mild hope for a return in originality - if the 2010's were marked by tiresome remakes and sequels in movies, the 2020's could register our hunger for original material inspired by the likes of Hamilton and financed by the new masters of Hollywood. The "Creator" or "Passion" Economy offers some hope for a revival in independent, niche, original creation, though I am not so bullish that it will have impact beyond the socioeconomic elites (because it is so hard to do, as I can attest).
This is less me gazing into a Crystal Ball, and more me writing a letter to my future self in 2030. I hope I get at least some of these right, because the world will be in a more optimistic place than in 2020, I think.
- "Zoom towns" - when Remote goes mainstream