Friday, 8 January 2016

Back to the 2050s

This being the first week of the New Year, all the notable writers on any topic at all are posting predictions for this year. The more prudent ones are saying what they’ve been saying all along – expect 2016 to be a continuation of 2015, but with a few more bumps and steeper gradient. For those who are hoping now is the time for some miraculous piece of technology or sudden revolutionary awakening of human consciousness to save the impending doom of our civilisation, this year is once again going to disappoint. I can’t add much of value to the predictions already made by Greer or Kunstler, so I think I’ll probe further into the future.

This slightly-further future is going to be very different to the one that has constantly been predicted by tech-fetishizing cheerleaders. Let’s take the year 2050, when I will be 55 years old. I expect that world to be very different from the one we find familiar. The ravages of war, depletion and climate change is going to result in a world, if parts of it are functioning at all, more resembling that of my grandfather’s time and earlier – perhaps like the year 1950, a century earlier. I'm going to (very roughly) outline how the forces of engineering and economics will shape the trajectory of the future ahead of us in terms of some features central to the lifestyles of people inhabiting developed societies right now.

Personal Computers and the internet: Expect these to disappear from the home, from your backpacks and pockets. To produce these devices, we need a strongly globalised economy with ample inputs of fossil fuels to extract, process, and manufacture raw materials into the highly precise pieces of circuitry required for digital computing. This massive embodied energy cost will be economically inefficient for functions that can be fulfilled with printing presses and radios. On top of that, the continuing pursuance of planned obsolescence production by most of the major tech companies means that plenty of valuable material is simply being wasted instead of being reused. As our current culture is obsessed with constantly producing and consuming ever more high-powered and resource consuming devices, regression to more sensible, low powered earlier computers will also no longer possible as our entire computer systems infrastructure is constantly ‘upgrading’ to better produce the sort of needlessly overpowered devices we use today.

By 2050 vast cost of manufacturing personal computers will make them inaccessible to average households once again. Emails will once again be a luxury, probably costing several times regular ‘snail’ mail. Computers will only be affordable to rich companies, government departments and academic institutions who will use them for what they were originally meant for – processing large amounts of data and complex calculations, instead of watching cat videos. As explained by John Michael Greer, the internet will morph into something more resembling the older DARPA-net, used only for essential tasks.

Cars: People living in many western societies can’t fathom life without their personal oil burning machine – I mean, car. Our cities are all structured around this gargantuan form of wastage and pollution. The advent of the car was a sign of a huge surplus of energy that our society had in the 20th century, and similarly future shortages of such energy will do the opposite. When filling up your car is going to cost a quarter of your weekly income, and you have to juggle rent and soaring utility costs, you’re likely to ditch that gas-guzzler and live closer instead. No matter how much people try and cover up, facts are that personal transport is simply infeasible in a society where people have to pay the full costs of energy usage.

Take the graphic below, for example. Apart from just noticing the congestion issues, notice that each vehicle expends most of its energy in making itself move, and that moving passengers is a much smaller marginal energy input. Obviously a mode of transport that can move the most people is going to be more efficient in variable cost (per person), than one that spends a majority of its fuel in just making the frame and associated parts move (the extremity of that being a car with one person in it).

Secondly, think about systems costs. Cars and buses both require several lanes of gravel and tar, which is really energy and cost intensive. Compared to that, one set of rails with loose gravel, and cobblestone roads (that can be made with human labour) is going to be far easier to build and maintain. Any sensible administration will make the cost-effective choice, that is, ditch conventional roads once the huge subsidies governments have set up for them are ditched.

Along with this, I also expect that the time of sprawling suburbia with associated highways and malls is going to end as well. More competent administrations will invest in better urban planning and public transport, such as light rail. Long commutes are going to be unaffordable and thus undesirable (thankfully). Already built large suburban areas are going to turn into desolate ruins, be stripped down to make way for agriculture if possible, or turn into smaller towns and hamlets.

Phones: More and more of our communication infrastructure is tied to the internet, so the demise of the internet will bring about the phasing out of mobile phones associated nick-knacks like video calling. Rolling out wires for a telephone line operated by humans with switchboards is considerable, but a lot less than building mobile towers every few kilometres and keeping satellites in the sky just so you can find the nearest restaurant. It’s far easier to just use your local telephone to keep your loved ones notified when increased mobile costs mean that texting or calling on the cellular network costs as much relatively as it did in 1990.

Expensive cellular network costs will increase the demand for substitutes such as regular mail, or maybe a cost based email system. Even amongst those who could potentially afford the luxuries of mobiles, such as the elite, I expect that the most functionality the average phone will have will be calling and messaging. Mobile data networks are likely to disappear altogether, especially when the internet of the near future won't be even near as large as it is today. You’ll have to look up city directories and magazines to find a nearby restaurant, or rely on word of mouth again. And perhaps learning to read a map will be of value as well.

Flying: I myself have been very guilty of this particular form of waste, having travelled across the world in the past few months. Of course, not only are jet aircraft very fuel consuming, the also require huge amounts of embodied energy to produce and maintain. In terms of domestic transport, a country that wants to remain connected will have to resort to a lower capital and higher labour input level form of mass transport, such as railway or boats. There might be a narrow window of opportunity where airships can be a competitive substitute to both rail and flight, however due to our cultural obsession with needle-shaped heaver than air devices, I highly doubt that airships will gather sufficient investment to be developed before things get worse. I could (and hope to be) wrong – several militaries have been working on airships as heavy-load transport, and will perhaps have some sway over civilian transport policymakers.

Entertainment: When things regress, it’s often not in the same way backwards as it was forwards. The shifting of mass-entertainment from TV to the internet affected a profound cultural shift where people are now used to being instantly gratified with whatever form of entertainment they want. 

Gone is the patience of pencilling down a show you want to see at 7:30pm on a certain channel. Furthermore, most inhabitants of currently ‘developed’ societies are going to be overburdened with work to just feed themselves and therefore are unlikely to find TV worthwhile in terms of time or money. I find the return of TV as a mass medium unlikely in such circumstances. Perhaps old-fashioned movies combined with news reels will be the most viable form of visual entertainment and become popular as they were during World War II and after, as it’s far cheaper to pay a few dollars to walk into a short news and TV show than to buy a TV set and subscription.

Books are still relatively popular and will have better demand as handheld devices become less common. Although this also means that personal music will also disappear, the demand gap will be picked up by a renaissance of radio media, which has been surviving somehow through all these years of increasing on-demand digital entertainment. Radio is a much cheaper alternative as all it requires is a few microphones, maybe a recording player or two and a transmitter, rather than huge servers and factories needed to keep tablets and iPods going. The same can be said of newspapers; the printing press has been around since the 13th century and isn’t going to be upstaged by internet news in terms of energy and cost input - ever.

Usually predictions of the future done by my fellow millennials are an assortment of their preferred techno-fantasies. However, most millennials are also completely oblivious of the unfolding crises that are going to wipe out industrial civilisation a few lifetime from theirs. Most see their current difficulties as a temporary set of circumstances that will improve once all boomers die and more ‘efficient’ or ‘equal’ policies are enacted as part of their utopian revolution. The fact that economic decline is going to be a permanent feature of their lives which they can adapt to or flounder in hasn’t struck home. Of course, the school of hard knocks is expected to make many students over the next few years. Being more realistic about the future ahead, can help preparation.


  1. Keep it up, YCS, you're on the ball.

  2. Instead of instantaneous tech-supplied music, we may see the return of music you make yourself: voice, piano, instrumentals. Not long ago every middle-class family had a piano in the parlor, someone who played the piano, who sang, etc. Also, amateur theatricals in the home were very popular, giving outlet to creativity.

    1. I sure hope so. I feel like artistic pursuits are slowly on the upswing again in most households after two decades of stagnation.

  3. No, dude, you’ve got it all wrong! Where’s the flying self-driving cars? Colonies on the Moon and Mars? The cure for cancer? Life expectancy of 200 years? The end to wars and poverty? The Singularity? And fusion? Regarding the latter, granted the scientists back in the 1960s were promising that fusion would be possible in 30 years, but they simply jumped the gun – surely they must mean it this time! I mean, when are scientists ever wrong?

    More seriously, I think you’ve provided a nice analysis of the gradual state of collapse in the fields of transportation and communication and how they are wedded to the economic unravelling of which we seem to be in the early stages right now. Of course, there are many other matters that could be described regarding 2050, such as the likely break-up of large countries, radical changes in the production and distribution of agricultural goods, societal attitudes towards “progress” and “science”, etc. But one should write about the topics that one has a good grasp of, and by the sounds of it, you have put a fair bit of thought into what you have written.

    I do hope you are right about the continued survival of movies and radio as primary forms of “mass” entertainment and the demise of the television and internet. Radio is so much less invasive (and hypnotic) a medium; and listening to a radio play is great for the imagination! Nice graphic, by the way. Keep it up!