What are the biggest ways in which the world 20 years from now will probably be different from today? What are the biggest “X factors” (changes that are not probable, but are possible and could be huge)?

To look forward, we must first look back.

Our culture is deeply tied to technological advancements.  Every new technology has a significant impact on the way we spend our time, the way we connect with each other, and even what we value.  It was recognition of this fact that has inspired the Amish to avoid much of modern technology [1].  When technology changed slowly, culture changed slowly too.  A thousand years ago, a 20-year span would have brought much fewer cultural changes than it brings today.

Therefore, in order to predict the rate of change for the next 20 years, it is very useful to look at the rate of change that occurred in the most recent 20 years.

Culture and Technology of 20 Years Ago (1996)

Most used giant desktop computers to search the budding internet and play minesweeper.  Cell phones had just one purpose, to make phone calls, and pay phones were still widely used.   Blackberries weren’t introduced until 1999 [2].

[Cell Phone Technology In 1996 Was Stone Age, Brick-Shaped Ugly]

Wifi was in its infancy, having developed slowly since its first conceptualization in he 1970s [3].  2G was just coming into use as the first digital cellular network [4].   Walkmans had just been phased out in favor of portable CD players [5].  MP3 players weren’t available until 1998 [6]—the same year Google was founded [7].

[Evolution Of Music Players]

Dating was still dependent on friends and bars.  Internet dating had just started to enter the mainstream with the founding of Match.com in 1995.  Craigslist.com—also founded in 1995—went live in 1996 [8].  Amazon.com, Mecca of Internet shopping opened as an online book seller in July, 1995.  In 1996, they had 151 employees [9].

In 1996, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube, Reddit, Skype, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Imgur, Instagram, and Foursquare did not exist, they were not even on the horizon of possibility.  These are all cultural icons of today.

[vintage social networking]

Looking back at the world 20 years ago, how much of the world today could have been predicted?

In 1995, a computer networking pioneer, Robert Metcalfe said “I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”   In April, 1997, he ate his words as his prediction turned out to be hilariously false [10].  Predicting the future is notoriously difficult for even the most technologically savvy, especially in these times of massive changes.

I will give it a shot anyway, but I won’t promise to not eat my words if I am wrong.

Culture and Technology of 20 Years in the Future (2036)

Customization is the future.  Technology has a major effect of making each individual self-sufficient.  And when people don’t need each other to survive, there is less need for conformity.  This will have a huge effect on our cultural future.

There are many emerging technologies which will further drive the trend of individualization.  One of the most exciting is additive manufacturing (or 3D printing).  There are quite a wide variety of techniques used for this type of manufacturing, and more are being developed every day.  According to the American Society for Testing and Materials, there are currently 7 categories of additive manufacturing: Vat Polymerization, Material Jetting, Binder Jetting, Material Extrusion, Powder Bed Fusion, Sheet Lamination and Directed Energy Deposition [11].

But, within each of those broad categories are dozens, if not hundreds, of distinct technologies.  There are 3D printers that can make hinged joints and unsupported geometries by printing a temporary water soluble material in the gaps [12].  There are 3D printers that are being developed to print food [13].

[Natural Machines: The makers of Foodini — a 3D food printer making all types of fresh, nutritious foods.]

And even more amazing, there are 3D printers that can be used to manufacture custom organs for transplants [14].  This is quite amazing.  Provided sufficient motivation and funding, I have no doubt that 3D printing will be commonplace in 20 years.  And I have no doubt that motivation and funding will be sufficient for these efforts.

I expect that in 20 years, 3D printers will be as common and ubiquitous as conventional paper printers are today.  In the next 10 years, I expect food printers to become available for home use as a normal kitchen appliance.

One of the most exciting things about this technology is that designs can be easily shared by the Internet.  Already, CAD designers have created online libraries to share designs [15]  [16].  These types of sites will be as popular as recipe websites or craft sites in 20 years.

In accordance with the trend of customization is the issue of selective exposure which is a growing concern which could pretty significantly affect our global cultural identity [17].  People are now able to pretty well define to which information and viewpoints they will be exposed.  This is not necessarily a new thing, but it is becoming easier and easier to find others who agree with any particular view point and these groups are all too happy to point to the opposite view point as misguided and uninformed.  In the next 20 years, I don’t expect this trend to change.

  [chainsawsuit — three panels daily]

Internet companies already heavily customize content to the preferences of the user.  Google already customizes your search results by your history and your Google+ friends preferences [18].  Internet news sites willfully choose to preferentially publish negative news content in an effort to increase viewership [19].

I expect a long term effect of this trend, along with a mobile population, is increasing cultural differentiation between different locations.  This has historically been seen in the population movement between city and suburbs and back to cities.  Right now, this trend can be seen with the global recruitment for ISIS [20].  People with a common mentality will gravitate together and try to establish their own world order.

[Foreign fighters flow to Syria ]

This is an “X” factor in a big way.  In 20 years, we may start to see a lot more of this geographical separation of groups based on cultural ideals.  Of course, the counter to this is anti-immigration laws and sentiments.  It will be quite interesting to see how selective exposure and confirmation bias shape our world in the next several decades.

To summarize, my major prediction for the next 20 years is that we will see a surge in customization technologies and services.

One of the major technologies I expect to be really prolific in a couple decades is 3D printing of a variety of mediums.  Judging based on the changes from 1996 to now, I expect a lot of technologies developed around 2026 to still be popular in 2036, but not too many that are currently prominent.

One of the major social changes I expect to see is the cultural separation by Internet confirmed ideologies which may or may not result in mass migrations and formations of unique culture-based countries.  This is the “X” factor.


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