Prophecy is a thankless thing. No one knows anything unexpected unless it’s a guess.
So it’s almost never clear what’s going to happen in advance. Here is an example:
During the fifty years from 1919 to 1969, there were numerous science fiction stories about landing on the moon, some of which clearly described the necessary conditions for rocket flight and the actual state of the moon.
By 1948, there were also many novels written on television; after that, there were also some novels written on satellites.
Until 1969, none of the three events had been linked together in a novel; no one predicted that hundreds of millions of people would be able to watch the landing on television when they first landed on the moon.
As far as I know, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many visionaries predicted that cars would become very common in the future, but no one had ever thought about air pollution and parking. Many people have speculated that humans will be able to use atomic energy, but no one has ever thought about the treatment of radioactive dust. Many other people had speculated about what the post-war world would be like during World War II, but I can’t recall any brother who had predicted that African colonies would become independent within 15 years of the post-war era.
Let me give you an example to illustrate that in the process of forecasting, we often lack some key elements. I call it the elevator effect.
Suppose it’s 1850, and I’m trying to predict what the information market will look like in a hundred years’time. If a good wizard came back from the twentieth century on the Time Machine to help me and brought me some pictures of Manhattan in the twentieth century for my reference, then I know that there will be many buildings over twenty stories high, and at least one building is one hundred stories high.
If I can really see these pictures, my job is to use my life experience in the 1850s to carefully predict what the city will look like.
First of all, I can easily imagine that it will be very hard to climb over the height of six or seven stories, so people who live on the upper floor of skyscrapers must be very reluctant to leave the building. So every skyscraper has to be as self-contained as possible.
The building must have restaurants, tailors, barbers, hostels, gyms and all the other related things necessary for civilized life, and these things recur every few floors. Each building will be equipped with a tractor operated by a steam engine to transport all the necessities of life. Then there will be some special doors on the side of the floors, which can be transported in. If some items are not delivered to the building, the life of the building will be disordered.
In addition, there will be some bridges on some floors between buildings. When you go to other buildings, you only need to walk a short distance, not too far up and down.
If people occasionally have to leave the building for social or work reasons, people who live on the fifth floor below will be more relaxed, so they assume that the rent they pay will be more expensive. But how can the poor living in the upper strata go upstairs and downstairs?
Still, there’s a way. There’s a spiral slide in the building that allows people to slide down. Although this approach is not dignified and newcomers may feel dizzy and nauseous, it will eventually get used to it for those who live in tall buildings.
But going upstairs and going home is likely to take more than half a day. Smart people stop every five stories they climb, then sit in the lounge for the upstairs, have a drink and read the newspaper. In the end, I will return home.
In accordance with this logical thinking, I will continue to predict, and more and more carefully describe how the house was built, which materials were used to build and so on.
But the question is, why didn’t I think of the elevator? If you hadn’t thought of the elevator, all these predictions would have been wrong, totally wrong, and ridiculously wrong.
I’m sure most people don’t think of elevators.
So, let’s go back to the present. What will New York look like in another 40 years, about 2020?
That’s not necessarily true. It depends on what human decisions have been made during this period of time, doesn’t it? If mankind decides to fight a nuclear war, New York in forty years will probably become a ruin that emits only low doses of radiation. If mankind decides to deplete all its oil reserves and fail to produce enough alternative energy, New York may become a chaotic city, with bad gangs everywhere on the streets, searching for what they can find.
If human beings act irrationally (or even foolishly), then we can imagine that all these things will happen.
But I also want to find out if there are any “unexpected” things. Besides, I will also consider the elevator effect.
This raises the possibility that we may not have thought about. Maybe human beings have always been rational and rational. Therefore, we will not have nuclear war, nor will we foolishly waste our energy stocks. Instead, we may all be able to accept international cooperation at that time, and there will be a global drive to conserve energy and develop more advanced energy technologies.
The reason for this prediction is not that love and brotherhood suddenly sprang up. (Although this may be the “unexpected” we want, it’s useless to expect such a miracle.) On the contrary, the reason is that everyone is afraid of death and destruction and wants to find a way to survive. This kind of cooperative relationship, which we call “unexpected” because we want to survive, can also be regarded as an elevator effect.
If that’s the case, we can expect that meat science and technology will continue to make progress for 40 years. Examples of these advances are as follows:
- Computers have been progressing, with more and more diversified functions, smaller and smaller size, and more convenient to use. Therefore, in 2020, the home computer will be as popular as the home TV.
- Communications satellites continue to enter and use laser beams instead of current and radio waves to transmit signals. Laser beams of visible light have wavelengths millions of times shorter than radio waves, and can accommodate sound and video channels millions of times more than radio waves. Everyone will have a dedicated channel then.
Third, the international community will work together to develop outer space, build solar power plants in orbit around the earth, as well as space observation stations, laboratories, factories and space migration bases. Maybe 40 years later, it’s still in the early stages of development, but it’s clear that you will continue to work in this direction. This also encourages people to think of themselves as Earth people, not as nationals of a country.
Fourthly, nuclear fusion will provide controlled and practical endless energy sources, by which time some important nuclear fusion power plants may have been built.
In addition to these advances in science and technology, there may be some important changes in society, and the global birth rate may decline.
This assumption is reasonable. First of all, we have had quite a lot of discussions about the possible crisis caused by the unlimited growth of population. Therefore, most governments in the world will recognize this crisis and do their best to encourage people to reduce the birth rate.
But before the crisis gets better, the problem of population expansion will only get worse and worse. By 2020, the global population will reach 7 billion, and energy will be scarce. In addition, the production of oil is in short supply, and alternative energy sources such as shale oil and coal can not make up for this big gap. Although nuclear fusion power plants already exist, they cannot generate enough energy. In addition, even if solar energy is to be used, there must be enough solar energy collection stations.
Then the earth will have a hard time. However, if it can reduce the population and increase energy, things will hopefully get better, so couples will be encouraged to have children later.
Similar things happened in the United States during the Great Depression, but they were criticized at that time. Some people said it was “racial suicide”. But in the future, you’ll be happy that the birth rate is falling.
If we put all these together, what conclusions will we draw? Let’s ignore all the obvious conclusions and look directly at the final results. The conclusion is that cities will be abandoned.
Over the past 10,000 years, the pace of global urbanization has become faster and faster. In fact, after the Second World War, it has been on the verge of runaway. But that trend is coming to an end soon.
This is the result of scientific and technological progress. Long in the most technologically advanced places, urban abandonment is the most obvious, such as the Northeast and Midwest of the United States, among which New York City is the best.
Even this trend has begun. Older American cities are declining, and the population is losing. There are some obvious reasons for this, because since the beginning of the Second World War, the poor have flocked to cities in large numbers in pursuit of comfortable urban environments, such as job opportunities, social welfare and stimulating life. At this time, the middle class has moved out of the city and moved into the effective areas. Although the rise in social welfare expenditure and the decline in taxation sources are enough to show that cities are going downhill, these are only early signs of urban decline.
The reason why a city exists is to gather a large group of people, because it can only accomplish certain things after gathering, and it can not be done separately. The primitive form of the city is to gather a group of people behind the walls so that they can fight the predators together.
But in the end, because of the city, human beings began to form a social pattern of division of labor and cooperation. Craftsmen and artists come to the fore because of the dense population and colorful life in the city. Wealth and prestige can accumulate in large quantities because cities have dense masses. Cities have become centers of religion, commerce, literature and art because people can interact with each other.
But looking at human history, only when the body can actually contact, or there are ways to contact, can human beings interact with each other. In order to achieve this, the distance between people must be within reach, or within hearing of each other. Therefore, we have to gather together. And even as the cluster grows larger and larger, progressive technology can keep it going, and cities become larger and larger.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, humans learned to communicate over long distances by telegraph, and then by telephone, radio and television. On the other hand, humans have also learned to use the railway system, travel easily, and then learn to use cars and airplanes. Even if the distance is very far, people can contact each other very quickly. Sounds and images can be seen in seconds, and they can arrive in person in hours.
By the twentieth century, people have been able to cross the continents and oceans at will and make the necessary contacts and stimulations. Why do we need a large group of people to gather? Is the size of the city getting bigger and bigger?
First, not every part of the world has made the same progress in science and technology. In some parts of the world, people still can not use long-distance communication or travel. Therefore, cities still have positive and irreplaceable advantages.
Second, the power of inherent habits and old traditions is still great. We all know that even if some of the oldest institutions do not need to continue to exist, they will stand firm. We can take the example of the British monarchy and the American Electoral College of the Presidents and Vice-Presidents. (Of course, some wise people who are nostalgic and don’t care about practicality can easily find sufficient reasons for their existence, although these reasons are often plausible.)
Finally, the population of the earth has been increasing, and the increase in this century is greater than ever. Therefore, although there are many reasons for people to gradually abandon the way of life in the city, these reasons are offset by the influx of people from the countryside into the city for some benefit or potential benefit. Even now, in most parts of the world, the size of cities continues to expand, but as a result, cities become more and more disorderly and painful.
Although these factors have allowed cities to survive, or even become larger and larger, in the United States, we can already see that this trend has begun to stop, and the current trend is population migration to the affected areas. Why is the ineffective zone? Living quarters are no longer very convenient. You can live in the neighborhood, but still connect with the city. Living anywhere 45 minutes away from Broadway is no different. In Cohan’s time, New Rockell could only be reached in forty-five minutes from Broadway, but now it can reach Boston in forty-five minutes.
Isn’t that good? No, it’s normal, and the trend will continue.
Just as elevators allow the city’s buildings to continue to climb, the ease of communication also allows the city’s population to gradually migrate outward.
If communication satellites allow everyone to communicate with others by means of sound and image, or even by means of “three-dimensional holography”; if factories and offices can be fully automated and computerized so that they can be operated from afar as easily as on the spot; then you can live anywhere on earth without having to run around.
No matter where you live, whether for social or work reasons, you don’t have to leave home to see other people, at least you can see three-dimensional images. You can also have meetings with many people at the same time, as if they were all in the same conference room – although those people are just images, their real lives are all over the continents. And any document, article, newspaper or book can be transmitted to you, and all cultural activities can be transmitted to you. Monitoring data shines on your screen, and your instructions can easily control the operations of distant offices or factories, just as scientists at the Houston Space Center can control the excavation arm of the Virgin spacecraft on Mars.
If you really have to see someone in person, if you are anxious to see the real wonders on the surface, if sometimes the images can’t satisfy you, you can still travel in the traditional way. Because most other people don’t have to go out at the same time as you, you’ll be more comfortable going out.
So why do we have to live with millions of other people? Why don’t you live where you want to be? Distance will not hinder your work, social or cultural activities. At the same time, transportation and roads are no longer crowded with people, plus full computerization and automation, no matter where you live, you can easily access any necessities of life.
Will all this happen in forty years?
I don’t think that will be the case at all, but the trend will be more definite. When distance is no longer a problem and the population begins to decline for a long time, the population of cities will gradually decrease. (It is certain that humans will begin to migrate into space, and one day the population will increase again, but probably not on Earth.)
New York City will be much more empty in 2020, that is to say, there will be more space. Slums will be uprooted to allow space for more open space, parks, gardens and small farms.
Taijia need not oppose this matter. When the city begins to shrink and disappear, it means that the whole earth has gradually become a city (if we are as rational then), and the city is spread on the surface, between parks, farms and wilderness, and the space migration base will become the effective area of the city.
If it takes decades to centuries, space migration bases will become more and more widely distributed, possibly reaching the asteroid belt, then outward, reaching the farthest planet, and then outward. In the end, it is likely that the whole earth is deserted and that humans spread out and occupy the whole universe. At that time, humans, like other advanced civilizations in the universe, will eventually leave the planet that gave birth to them.