What will change everything within forty to fifty years (optimistic assumptions about my longevity, I know)? One way to start to think about this is to look at the last “change everything” innovation, and work back fifty years from it. I would focus on the Internet's generalization into everyday life as the relevant baseline innovation that changed everything. We can locate its emergence to widespread use to the mid-1990s. So what did we have that existed in the mid-1940s that was a precursor? We had mature telephone networks, networked radio stations, and point-to-point radio communications. We had the earliest massive computers. So to me the challenge is to look at what we have now, some of which may be quite mature; other pieces of which may be only emerging; and to think of how they could combine in ways that will affect social and cultural processes in ways that will “change everything,” which I take to mean: will make a big difference to the day to day life of many people. Let me suggest four domains in which combinations and improvements of existing elements, some mature, some futuristic, will make a substantial difference, not all of it good.
We already have handsfree devices. We already have overhead transparent display in fighter pilot helmets. We already have presence-based and immediate communications. We already upload images and movies, on the fly, from our mobile devices, and share them with friends. We already have early holographic imaging for conference presentations, and high-quality 3D imaging for movies. We already have voice-activated computer control systems, and very very early brainwave activated human-computer interfaces. We already have the capacity to form groups online, segment and reform them according to need, be they in World of Warcraft or Facebook groups. What is left is to combine all these pieces into an integrated, easily wearable system that will, for all practical purposes, allow us to interact as science fiction once imagined telepathy working. We will be able to call upon another person by thinking of them; or, at least, whispering their name to ourselves. We will be able to communicate and see them; we will be able to see through their eyes if we wish to, in real time in high resolution to the point that it will seem as though we were in fact standing there, next to them or inside their shoes. However much we think now that collaboration at a distance is easy; what we do today will seem primitive. We won't have “beam me up, Scotty” physically; but we will have a close facsimile of the experience. Coupled with concerns over global warming, these capabilities will make business travel seem like wearing fur. However much we talk now about telecommuting today; these new capabilities, together with new concerns over environmental impact, will make virtual workplaces in the information segments of the economy as different from today's telecommuting as today's ubiquitous computing and mobile platforms are from the mini-computer “revolution” of the 1970s.
It is entirely plausible that 110 or 120 will be an average life expectancy; with senescence delayed until 80 or 90. This will change the whole dynamic of life: how many careers a lifetime can support; what the ratio or professional moneymaking to volunteering; how early in life one starts a job; length of training. But this will likely affect, if at all within the relevant period, only the wealthiest societies. Simple innovations that are more likely will have a much wider effect on many more people. A cheap and effective malaria vaccine. Cheap and ubiquitous clean water filters. Cheap and effective treatments and prevention techniques against parasites. All these will change life in the Global South on scales and with values that they will swamp, from the perspective of a broad concern with human values, whatever effects lengthening life in the wealthier North will have.
We are already have unmanned planes that can shoot live targets. We are seeing land robots, for both military and space applications. We are seeing networked robots performing functions in collaboration. I fear that we will see a massive increase in the deployment and quality of military robotics, and that this will lead to a perception that war is cheaper, in human terms. This, in turn, will lead democracies in general, and the United States in particular, to imagine that there are cheap wars, and to overcome the newly-learned reticence over war that we learned so dearly in Iraq.
Free market ideology
This is not a technical innovation but a change in realm of ideas. The resurgence of free market ideology, after its demise in the Great Depression, came to dominance between the 1970s and the late 1990s as a response to communism. As communism collapsed, free market ideology triumphantly declared its dominance. In the U.S. And the UK it expressed itself, first, in the Reagan/Thatcher moment; and then was generalized in the Clinton/Blair turn to define their own moment in terms of integrating market-based solutions as the core institutional innovation of the “left.” It expressed itself in Europe through the competition-focused, free market policies of the technocratic EU Commission; and in global systems through the demands and persistent reform recommendations of the World Bank, the IMF, and the world trade system through the WTO. But within less than two decades, its force as an idea is declining. On the one hand, the Great Deflation of 2008 has shown the utter dependence of human society on the possibility of well-functioning government to assure some baseline stability in human welfare and capacity to plan for the future. On the other hand, a gradual rise in volunteerism and cooperation, online and offline, is leading to a reassessment of what motivates people, and how governments, markets, and social dynamics interoperate. I expect the binary State/Market conception of the way we organize our large systems to give way to a more fluid set of systems, with greater integration of the social and commercial; as well as of the state and the social. So much of life, in so many of our societies, was structured around either market mechanisms or state bureaucracies. The emergence of new systems of social interaction will affect what we do, and where we turn for things we want to do, have, and experience.