Predictions for 2050: Black Swan Edition
You heard it here first!
From fellow pseudonymous bloggers SlimeMoldTimeMold:
Erik Hoel makes a list of predictions for 2050.
This may seem like the far-flung future, but as Hoel points out, it’s only 28 years away. Making predictions for 2050 based on what we see today is just like sitting in the early ‘90s and predicting what the world will look like in the 2020s.
Hoel makes his predictions based on a simple insight: change is incremental, and the minor trends of today are the institutional changes of tomorrow. If you want to know what 2050 will look like, think about the nascent trends of the early 2020s and project them into the future:
If you want to predict the future accurately, you should be an incrementalist and accept that human nature doesn’t change along most axes. … To see what I mean more specifically: 2050, that super futuristic year, is only 29 years out, so it is exactly the same as predicting what the world would look like today back in 1992. … what was most impactful from 1992 were technologies or trends already in their nascent phases, and it was simply a matter of choosing what to extrapolate. For instance, cellular phones, personal computers, and the internet all existed back in 1992, although in comparatively inchoate stages of development. … The central social and political ideas of our culture were established in the 1960s and 70s and took a slow half-century to climb from obscure academic monographs to Super Bowl ads. So here are my predictions for 2050. They are all based on current trends.
We think this approach is really smart. In fact, we like it so much that we wanted to take it for a test drive. In this post, we make our own set of predictions for 2050, using Hoel’s method of picking out trends that we suspect will go on to shape the 2020s, 2030s, and 2040s.
Projects are more fun when you do them with friends, so we invited a bunch of other bloggers to make their own predictions for 2050, using the same approach of extrapolating trends that they think are important today.
The (pathological) contrarian in me finds this all much too reasonable. Therefore I will eschew the extrapolation approach and make predictions that are not based on current trends (though you could probably argue that some of them still are).
Consider this an exercise in Black Swan prediction. Go big or go home. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Throw some shit at the wall and see what sticks. Go with your gut. Don’t think—prophesize.
The tide of secularity will begin to recede, including the whole quasi-buddhist-mindfulness-as-productivity-hack spirituality that’s all the rave right now. Infused with a new vigor and dynamism, the Abrahamic religions will see a significant resurgence in popularity (in the US and abroad). The 2050s will also see a burst of new religious movements, bringing an end to the so-called “cult deficit”; in retrospect, the period between 2000 and 2040 will stand out as a time of unusually low religious creativity. Ross Douthat (now age 70) rejoices—the age of decadence is behind us.
There may be a few factors that could return us to something like the spiritual milieu that provided such fertile ground for cults in the 70s and 80s. First, we might wonder at the psychological, cultural, and political fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and how this may affect the nature of religious belief in the 20s and beyond. The rise of AGI may play a role similar to that of the atom bomb and the moon landing in promoting a more imaginative milieu—it would not be entirely surprising to see the formation of various “techno-cults” based on AI and other advanced technologies (e.g. a cult-like group that centers around some particularly powerful cognitive or physical modification). Some would say there are already a few techno-cults in their incipient stages—proponents of the technological singularity have been accused of cultishness and it is reasonable to think that ever-more powerful AI will only inspire more cult-like devotion (apparently a “Church of AI” was founded in 2015, but it has already shut down). There is a tongue-in-cheek Mac community website called Cult of Mac; would it be shocking if 30-50 years from now there in fact was a real cult of mac (and a cult of PC)?
Out of this bubbling religious froth will come a new major world religion, rising to prominence sometime between 2060-2080.
An opening scene in Mission Impossible: Fallout centers around a rogue nuclear scientist who plans to set off a nuke in Jerusalem. Though maybe (read: hopefully) not quite that extreme, we will also see the first significant atheistic act of terror in this time period.
Thinning family trees will leave more and more people alone and adrift in society until a kind of breaking point is reached which catalyzes a new era of social experimentation and innovation. The branches of the human tree, though fewer in number, will find new ways to grow and support each other.
From Douthat’s Decadent Society:
Human beings are relational creatures. We depend on community for everyday happiness, and we imagine and encounter the future most our own progeny, our flesh and blood. But in a world with fewer children and, as birth rates drop and marrying age rises, still-fewer grandchildren or none at all, when people look ahead into their countries' future, they inevitably see less than previous generations to recognize immediately as their own. And this alienation is heightened when the descendants they do have seem to be faring worse than they did—as in those white working-class communities where opioid addiction, worklessness, and family breakdown have advanced apace.
This combination of small families and social disarray feeds a grim vision of the future, in which, after you've passed, your few kids and fewer grandkids will be beset, isolated, and alone. Sudden crises can have a profound effect: if you have just one child or grandchild (or your neighbor or friend has just one), and he or she dies or gets wounded in a foreign war, gets knocked into bankruptcy or foreclosure by a major recession, or ends up addicted, jailed, or dead during the opioid epidemic, your perspective on the future can be altered more dramatically than someone whose social web is larger, whose ties to the future expand instead of narrow.
I. Friendships will grow in importance and become organized and formalized in new ways. The Oath of the Peach Garden (perhaps with slight modifications) will become a popular friendship oath.
The Oath of the Peach Garden is a fictional event in the 14th century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. This event is set at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty around the time of the Yellow Turban Rebellion in the 180s A.D. Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei took an oath of fraternity in a ceremony in the Peach Garden (believed to be in present-day Zhuozhou, Hebei), and became sworn brothers from then on. Their goal in taking the oath was to protect the Han Empire from the Yellow Turban rebels.
When saying the names Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, although the surnames are different, yet we have come together as brothers. From this day forward, we shall join forces for a common purpose: to save the troubled and to aid the endangered. We shall avenge the nation above, and pacify the citizenry below. We seek not to be born on the same day, in the same month and in the same year. We merely hope to die on the same day, in the same month and in the same year. May the Gods of Heaven and Earth attest to what is in our hearts. If we should ever do anything to betray our friendship, may heaven and the people of the earth both strike us dead.
II. The return of the village
III. Erik Hoel predicts that throuples will be mainstream by 2050.
Polyamory, the fastest growing cultural movement when it comes to novel forms of relationships, will continue to increase and become more open in the public eye and likely be legalized nation-wide by 2050. It is difficult to see what in the USA’s current legal system or culture firmly naysays why a man and two women, or two women and a man, or any combination thereof or on the spectrum, could not effectively raise a child or form a married family unit. In the city of Cambridge in Massachusetts domestic partnerships with more than two members are already legal. The admittance of gay marriage and gay adoption in the early 2000s created an inexorable form of logic, which will continue its advance to apply to relationships that are currently considered extremely experimental.
I’ll go a step further: the 1960’s will blush thinking about the sexual and romantic experimentation of the 2050s. Polygamy, polyandry, and a range of sexual activities that most of us today would regard as deviant, depraved, or just downright evil will become mainstream (and all of it will be recorded and made available for your VR viewing pleasure).
There will be an explosion of new psychoactive drugs. Thomas Metzinger claims the explosion has already begun, but advances in neuroscience and AI-enabled drug design in the 30s and 40s will put this trend into overdrive in ways that are hard for us to now imagine. Entirely new classes of drugs and other powerful neurological interventions will open up new vistas in the landscape of consciousness. The effects of this psychological diaspora on society will be profound and wholly unpredictable. I give it a 42% chance that we see a new black swan drug in the 60s or 70s, comparable to the development of LSD in significance but not pharmacological effect. Certain drugs, some existing now and some not, will become central to particular religions and communities. The best model for what this might look like is something like the Mysteries of Eleusis. From Andrew Sullivan’s essay, “The Psychedelic Election”:
"What he [Brian Muraresku, in his book “The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name”] shows is the centrality of psychedelic use for the ancient Greeks, in an elaborate and mysterious once-in-a-lifetime ceremony at the Temple of Eleusis, a short distance from Athens. We’ve long known about this temple of the Mysteries, as they were known, and the rite of passage they offered — because it’s everywhere in the record. Many leading Greeks and Romans went there, including Plato and Marcus Aurelius. Here is Cicero, no less, in De Legibus:
“For it appears to me that among the many exceptional and divine things your Athens has produced and contributed to human life, nothing is better than those Mysteries. For by means of them we have been transformed from a rough and savage way of life to the state of humanity, and been civilized. Just as they are called initiations, so in actual fact we have learned from them the fundamentals of life, and have grasped the basis not only for living with joy, but also for dying with a better hope.”
It is widely believed that kykeon usually refers to a psychoactive compounded brew, as in the case of the Eleusinian Mysteries. A kykeon was used at the climax of the Eleusinian Mysteries to break a sacred fast, but it is also mentioned as a favourite drink of Greek peasants.
Don’t Look Now
Fueled by advancements in plastic surgery and other body modification techniques (e.g. powerful obesity drugs) and bored rich people who need a new progressive cause, lookism—discrimination against the ugly and bias towards the beautiful—will become a major societal issue. All of the developments discussed above (religious revival, social innovation, and sexual revolution) will interact to create contentious debate on lookism; groups of people (and entire societies) will differentiate themselves by their position (Is it okay to be ugly? Should we try to make everyone beautiful?).
Turning Back the Clock
Not everyone will be cool with all of the drugs, sexual experimentation, and body modification. Tyler Cowen asks, “How far are we from wishing to return to the technologies of the year 1900?”. My answer: about 28 years. By 2050, there will be a sizable and influential neo-luddite movement: a growing number of communities, counties, and entire countries will begin opting out of certain technologies or all of them. There will be at least one neo-luddite group that venerates Ted Kaczynski as a saint. Extreme cultural diversification along with mounting economic/technological pressure towards decentralization will create new frictions which ultimately lead to the fracturing of the EU and the eventual dissolution of the United States federal government (the coming age of American anarchy as Balaji Srinavasan calls it).
In a desperate attempt to maintain power, the US government will annex Greenland (now very clearly starting to look like it will become prime real estate in 25 years). A tender smile curls upon Donald Trump’s cold, dead lips in the MAGA mausoleum (the Taj Mahal looks like a Mcdonalds in comparison).
The China Prediction
I have no idea what the fuck is going to happen with China, but it feels like it is a popular topic for prognostication right now so I guess I will make a prediction. That being said, I’m 96.9% sure that there will be a black swan event in China before 2050. I wrote about my favorite wildly implausible scenario in the essay “China is Playing Video Games with God”:
The youth video game ban of 2021 foments a revolution that topples the CCP.
The restriction sows seeds of discontent—a deep-seated bitterness, a latent anti-authoritarian streak—amongst a generation of gamers. Given the gender imbalance (119 boys per 100 girls for ages 10-19), this translates to a large number of angry young men in China (some evidence shows a link between population of young men in a country and political instability, however this may not be linked to marital rates as is commonly supposed). This is dangerous enough for any society, but it may be especially dangerous for one like China. In The Cult Deficit: Speculation and Analysis, I referenced a recent simulation study by Muthukrishna and Schaller (2020) that suggests tighter (i.e. stronger enforcement of social norms) and more collectivist cultures are prone to rapid cultural transformations that “may proceed at a pace that more closely fits the subjective perception of a “revolution”. From a blog post that Michael Muthukrishna wrote about the study:
The researchers devised a computer model which aimed to replicate these different types of societies. The societies were built with varying degrees of certain characteristics, such as an individual’s tendency to connect with others, and how liable they were to be influenced by their peers.
The initial results that came out of the model showed its credibility; if societies are more collectivist and conformist, they tend to consolidate majority opinion more quickly, explained by the tight connections and influence over peers.
The researchers then tested what would happen if a well-connected messiah-like figure started to promote the kind of radical ideas that could lead to a revolution. Would they be more likely to see it succeed in a conformist, collectivist society like China, or in the looser and more individualistic United States?
The results showed that the ‘messiah’ would have a difficult time making a breakthrough in a country like China. But if they did succeed, their ideas would spread quickly, with cataclysmic and transformative results, potentially building to a revolution.
In an individualistic country like the US, the messiah figure would find making an initial breakthrough less difficult, but the upheaval would be confined to small groups within a society, rather than spreading rapidly across the entire nation.
Dr Muthukrishna says: “In the US, there are many examples of cults that attract a small number of loyal followers. They achieve a small-scale breakthrough but don’t engineer the kind of transformative social change we have seen so many times in places like China.” (note: e.g. the Boxer Rebellion, the Cultural Revolution)
“The irony of these results is that in a collectivist and conformist society, these vast, highly disruptive revolutions are more likely. Their culture leads to the paradox of long periods of stability followed by rapid change.”
In the 2050s, a gamer messiah—a Jesus of the Joystick, a Buddha of the Button—will rise to prominence and lead an insurrection against the CCP—and then the world. Jokes aside, I think this study points to a higher-than-you-think possibility that change could come swiftly and unexpectedly in China (all of this applies even more so to North Korea). Other scenarios include: an unusual new religious movement that evades suppression, a reality TV star becoming head of the CCP, some kind of momentous event that ignites profound social transformation.
As an aside, I recently came across a deliciously weird example that illustrates this propensity for messianic revolution throughout Chinese history:
515: In the late summer of that year, the renegade monk Faqing 法慶 married a nun and formed a sect in the Northern Wei province of Jizhou 冀州 (in the southern part of today’s Hebei province) with the assistance of a local aristocrat named Li Guibo 李歸伯. Li Guibo was given the titles of Tenth-stage Bodhisattva, Commander of the Demon-vanquishing Army, and King who Pacifies the Land of Han by Faqing.
Using drugs to send its members into a killing frenzy, and promoting them to Tenth-Stage Bodhisattva as soon as they killed ten enemies, the sect seized a prefecture and murdered all the government officials in it. Their slogan was "A new Buddha has entered the world; eradicate the demons of the former age", and they would kill all monks and nuns in the monasteries that they captured, also burning all the sutras and icons. After defeating a government army and growing to a size of over 50,000, the rebel army was finally crushed by another government army of 100,000. Faqing, his wife, and tens of thousands of his followers were beheaded, and Li Guibo was also captured later and publicly executed in the capital city Luoyang.
Can’t seem to find any information on what this killing frenzy-inducing drug might have been (bath salts?); let’s just hope its not the aforementioned black swan drug of the 2050s.
The Chosen One
My final prediction is that by 2050 there will a living person who is widely recognized to be what early 1900s German historian Oswald Spengler called a “World Historical Figure” (The Decline of The West). Jesus, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Buddha, Genghis Khan, Muhammed, Newton, Darwin are all on the list. Hitler, too. Who is the most recent person that could reasonably be called a world historical figures? I say yes for Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. (being known by one name or an abbreviation is a good sign that you might be a WHF). After that…I’m not so sure. Off the top of my head, here’s a list of potential candidates: Mao Zedong, Osama Bin Laden, Obama, Trump, Elon Musk (sorry Bezos, you didn’t make the cut), and Xi Jinping. I think most of these people are debatable when you start to consider truly vast time horizons: what are the chances people will know about Obama, Xi, or Elon Musk 500 years from now? Hard to say, too much of the story is still unknown (what will happen to United States and China in the next few decades to centuries? Will Musk shepherd in the Martian age or just be a historical footnote from a particularly weird time in American history?).
So it’s probably about time for another monumental, civilization-altering individual to burst onto the scene (though of course it’s possible they will not be recognized as such during their life). Based on my other other predictions, I should expect this person to be either a religious figure, the MLK Jr. of lookism, a drug chemist, a sexual revolutionary, the leader of a neo-luddite movement, an infamous atheist terrorist, or a black swan for China.
Which one are you going to be?