Looking Forward to Looking Backward


Each generation wishes it could go back fifty years and shake some sense into those people who were so bound by unnecessary customs, and so blind to the options they could have chosen and the changes that loomed on the horizon. As I said on Tuesday, this was Edith Wharton’s theme when she wrote in 1920 about the 1870′s, and it’s the theme of Mad Men, written in 2010 about the 1960s.

I invited you on Tuesday to speculate about which of our own quirks will trigger this sort of bittersweet nostalgic frustration among our descendants fifty years from now. There were some great responses in the comments.

Here are some predictions of my own that I think are least plausible — some moreso than others, but I’ll throw them out in no particular order.

  1. Future generations will look back with bemusement on a time when airline passengers couldn’t pay extra for a flight that’s guaranteed first place in the runway queue, and more generally on our odd reluctance to embrace prices. They’ll be unable to imagine why we thought it was better to let people die of liver disease than to pay organ donors, or why the “net neutrality” cult had a problem with Internet content providers being able to purchase resources to serve their customers better.
  2. Future generations are likely to be appalled by the moral blindness of either their pro-life or pro-choice ancestors, though I’m not sure which. Like slavery, this issue will eventually be settled, whereupon the losing position (whichever it is) will start to seem not just wrong but unthinkable.
  3. Future generations might look back tenderly on the naivete that led us to believe we (meaning, say, middle-class Americans) could go on much longer leading lives mostly untouched by violence.
  4. Choose a random movie made before, say 1990, and the odds are good that all of the plot complications could have been resolved in the first five minutes if only somebody had a cellphone. Choose a random movie made today and the odds are good that all of the plot complications could be resolved in the first five minutes if only the characters were polyamorous. (Of course, then there would be a whole new set of complications.) As incomes, lifespans, and the quality of communication continue to improve, I expect that our societal fixation on monogamy will wither, and our grandchildren will look back in wonder at their ancestors’ blindness to the lifestyle options they could have chosen.
  5. The moral circle will continue to expand. As we look back in horror on our ancestors’ harsh treatment of slaves or of Native Americans, our descendants will look back in horror on our treatment of immigrants and our reluctance to trade with foreigners. Slogans like “Buy American” will strike our grandchildrens’ ears the way “Buy White” would strike ours.
  6. Our treatment of animals might seem almost as horrific as our treatment of foreigners.
  7. Our descendants might well wonder why so few of us chose to be cryonically preserved (or to put this another way, why so many of us chose to die), and wish they could come back and shake some sense — and some life — into us.

Which of these strike you as likely, and which don’t? And do continue to add your own.

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32 Responses to “Looking Forward to Looking Backward”


  1. 1 1 Jonatan

    Definitely agree with 5 and 6.

    Regarding 2, I think there’s no chance that our more enlightened future will view a few cells as “a human”.

    4 I think is directly wrong. We will probably be somewhat more polyamorous yes, but it is human nature to be interested in monogamy. Jealousy is encoded in our genes through many many generations.

    8. I think infectious diseases will be mostly eradicated. We will look back at our unsanitary ways in a similar way that we look at the middle ages now. For instance, public bathrooms where you have to touch the door or the water faucet, fastfood places where they touch the food with their hands, people coughing openly.

  2. 2 2 Harold

    “and our grandchildren will look back in wonder at their ancestors’ blindness to the lifestyle options they could have chosen.” I am alsmot sure that this bit is right – not so sure exactly which lifestyle choices they will wonder at.

    3 is very interesting – if such a violence-free life is not sustainable, then why not? All your writings seem to suggest you believe things will continue to get better, and as such the number of lives untouched by violence should increase. If things descend into violence, what will have failed? What could we do to prevent it?

    For 2, I have a suspicion that it will rumble on. If it falls for pro-choice, then there will always be discussion and disagreement over latest timing for abortion. If it falls for pro-life, then there will be debate over earliest timing – is a “morning after” pill an abortion? I don’t think there is such a problem with slavery, where the choice can be catagorical.

    Wouldn’t it be great if the “debate” over evolution were settled? I can’t really believe that a significant number of Americans think the Earth is 6000yrs old. Maybe everyone will be as bemused as probably most are today.

    Global warming is a big one. It seems very clear now that there will not be a significant effort to reduce CO2 emissions, and the growing economies of China and India will result in large increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations – you can’t really argue with that. The best evidence suggests that this will result in a significant increase in global temperatures. I think Steve’s position is that the future folk will look back and say “what was all the fuss about? Sure, its warmer now, but we coped.” I think they will look back and say “why didn’t we do more when it was relatively easy? We have coped, but look at the cost!”

  3. 3 3 coupon.clipper

    This is a great topic and I like your list.

    To me, the elephants in the room are the drug war and the treatment (in the U.S.) of prisoners. Of course, these two are not completely independent. As soon as it stops being acceptable for late-night comics to actually joke about prisoners’ plights, I think people *might* start to become appalled by it.

    But someday we’ll look back and be horrified.

  4. 4 4 Elton

    Yes, #3 requires some more explanation. My immediate answer to the 50-years-later question is “The War on Drugs”. I know many libertarian economists assume that crime will plummet when the illicit drug market is decriminalized out of existence — I’m curious if our host disagrees with that?

  5. 5 5 Edmond

    1. Unlikely – though price signals are rational, the bulk of the population will still be in the thrall of anti-market philosophy. This will exist so long as ignorance and emotive arguments are prized above intellectual thought.

    2. Pro-choice seems the more likely – people will need to confront the bounds of what is human life within the next 50 years. We can keep severed lumps of flesh alive in a lab with oxegenated nutrient fluid for weeks already – eventually ‘what constitutes human’ will likely be defined by the capacity for thought, or we will end up with hospitals full of thousands of corpses kept ‘alive’ well after any consciousness has forever left it.

    3. People are terrified about violence: their children being abducted, being accosted on the street, etc. There is a lot of fear mongering these days (a van delivering phone books sparked a huge search of the region, with helicopters and all, looking for a van trying to abduct people – any male near a park without a child actively clinging to him is assumed to be a sexual predator out for the children – anyone and everyone is assumed to be a terrorist first, respecting basic rights and using rational thought comes last, etc). I see it more as the huge disconnect between what they are afraid of and what they are more likely to encounter.

    4. This is actually a common joke among my friends. While many people are happy with monogamy, countless situations would be easily resolved if only they saw ethical non-monogamy as an option (of course then you wouldnt have a movie/show/play). Given that some estimates put the number of people living in non-monogamous relationships to be close to half a million (we tend to keep it quiet as we face discrimination and outright hostility), some sections of society have already embraced it.

    5. To this I will add a view of prisons (as we see Bedlam of the 18th century) and the drug wars (prohibition days don’t even begin to describe the horrific level of incarceration and the number of lives we destroy in a pointless exercise of futility).

    6. I’m ambivalent on this one – as people have already been disconnected from the reality of where meat comes from (not the suppermarket), so perhaps they will, but in a further irrational sillyness sort of way. People who work on farms and know animals are animals have a different perspective than the suburbanite yuppies who think of their pets and their children (and consequently think animals should have the same rights as people). As other cultures who are not as silly become more significant, the American idiocy of ‘oh no, you cant shoot deer – thats like killing bambi!’ will fall.

    7. I think they will look at cryogenics as we look at all sorts of ‘miracle tonics’, or the theory that drinking gold will preserve you, or looking for the alchemical elixer of life, etc. It will be the silliest quackery to be laughed at, as we lack the ability to preserve the body without such massive damage that revival will be impossible. Deep freeze may be possible in the future, but current technologies are not anywhere near the ability to preserve a body while keeping the cells viable.

  6. 6 6 Josh

    Hopefully, one day, as the world becomes richer through technological progress, it will also somehow realize how much it could gain through a one-world government. Think how much the world would gain if there were one language everyone knew and if it were as easy for an “American” to move to China as it is to move to California. It’s not practical now, but one day this drama of forming a one-world gov will play it.

    I think this has been mentioned, but I think Americans 100 years from now will think the concept of “health insurance” a funny thing.

  7. 7 7 nobody.really

    Choose a random movie made before, say 1990, and the odds are good that all of the plot complications could have been resolved in the first five minutes if only somebody had a cellphone. Choose a random movie made today and the odds are good that all of the plot complications could be resolved in the first five minutes if only the characters were polyamorous.

    That’s brilliant.

    I’m clearly going to be talking about this. Landsburg, may I credit this idea to you?

  8. 8 8 HH

    I agree with Jonatan: #4 runs counter to some deeply innate instincts that won’t be easy to shake. Sexual jealousy is as hard-wired as hunger and thirst, and it won’t be affected much by increased wealth or enlightenment.

  9. 9 9 Steve Landsburg

    nobody.really:

    Landsburg, may I credit this idea to you?

    I stole the first half (about the cellphones) from Nathan Mehl. (See here). As far as I know, the second half is mine.

  10. 10 10 Floccina

    In 100 years the majority of USAers might be either Anabaptists ( Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites) or Hasidic Jews. Their population is doubling every 15 to 20 years. SO things may change in surprising ways. Isn’t that an interesting thought? The meek shall inherit the earth.

  11. 11 11 Thomas Purzycki

    I’d think #3 would be more likely to be the opposite. With increasing surveillance, I’d think future citizens would view our concerns that there is a predator stalking every playground and muggers down every dark alley as silly. With increasing trade, communication, and interdependence, you’d think wars would be less likely in the future as well. Of course in the US, our barriers are as formidable as ever – oceans east and west, Texas to the south, and to the north there’s just Canada…

  12. 12 12 math_geek

    1. I suspect this is true in a lot of ways.
    2. I am reasonably certain that if this is true, it is because the pro-lifers have won. Their stance is entrenched in religious and moral institutions I strongly suspect will survive 50 years, and in many cases, their relationship to the Pro-Life cause is too tight to be broken in any but the most extreme of cases. A person who gets an abortion is excommunicated automatically by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has staked it’s doctrine of infallibility on abortion being a grave moral evil. I strongly suspect the Catholic Church will still be around and significant in 50 years.
    3. I suspect you are wrong here. While violence has certainly been consistent throughout our history (and our Nation is still at war), increases in technology have decreased the number of soldiers necessary to fight many wars. Our wartime capabilities are more defined by the number of missiles, tanks, airplanes and battleships than by the number of soldiers we can field.
    4. I suspect this is quite wrong. There will always be exceptions, but most people appear to be quite hardwired to want to be with one person. The people who aren’t seem to prefer casual relationships, which exist now and will continue.
    5. I certainly hope so, Professor Landsburg, but distrust/dislike of immigrants has persisted throughout our society as well as many others for so long. “No Irish Need Apply” sounds really horrible now, but we pass laws to stop Mexicans from getting jobs now. The tone has changed, the attitude hasn’t.
    6. I don’t know what to think about this. I doubt we all become vegetarians. However, I could see a moral outrage against our factory farming techniques. That will, of course, make meat much more expensive.
    7. I suspect this is true whenever it becomes possible to revive people from cyronically preserved states.

  13. 13 13 Swimmy

    I think they will look at cryogenics as we look at all sorts of ‘miracle tonics’, or the theory that drinking gold will preserve you, or looking for the alchemical elixer of life, etc. It will be the silliest quackery to be laughed at, as we lack the ability to preserve the body without such massive damage that revival will be impossible. Deep freeze may be possible in the future, but current technologies are not anywhere near the ability to preserve a body while keeping the cells viable.

    Current technology can’t preserve a whole body while keeping the cells viable, but it’s plenty advanced to preserve a brain while keeping the cells viable. The process is vitrification, and it has already been shown to work for revival of animal organs (see Fahy et al. “Physical and Biological Aspects of Renal Vitrification” in Organogenesis 2009) and very small animals (nematodes, see Riga and Webster, “Cryoperservation of the Pinewood Nematode” in The Journal of Nematology 1991). Furthermore, both oocyte and embryo cryoperservation have been successfully used for in vitro fertilisation with no increase in birth defects or other abnormalities. (One recently publicized case was an embryo vitrified for 20 years before being successfully brought to term, I’m sure you can find it by googling around.)

    It is true that cracking is a common problem in vitrification of large organs, but that doesn’t strike me as massive irreperable damage like non-vitrified freezing causes to cells. Likewise, it’s true that we cannot currently vitrify entire bodies, but that doesn’t mean we can’t revive an individual consciousness from a vitrified brain, which is often all cryonics patients are hoping for.

  14. 14 14 Harold

    4. Some people seem to think monagomy is hard-wired – I don’t believe it is. There are cultures where it is not the norm. What is probably more instinctive is male intolerance of women having more than one partner. We always know who the mother is.
    6. It is possible that we will have cultured meat as good or better than natural meat. We can then stop the cruel exploitation of animals. Cows and sheep may become extinct (except for zoos).

  15. 15 15 vic

    1) Don’t understand how we could ‘pay to fly by the plane guaranteed to be first to take off’ unless you are adding a constraint on the original O.R problem in which case everybody gets longer Expected Time on the tarmac.
    2) Future generations, by definition, are those who with some non-zero Probability descend from women swayed by pro-choice advocates. They’re scarcely neutral. Indeed, in a mixed regime- i.e. one with both options being canvassed and neither being considered uncontentious- no scope for ‘being appalled’ arises. On the contrary, what appalls us about stuff that happened in the past- Romans and gladiators, say- is that no one noticed that there was an issue requiring debate.
    3)Americans are plenty violent. But, you’re right, as Alzheimer’s sweeps America, the N.R.A will merge with AARP and everybody gonna get shot by granny.
    Spot on with all the others.’Buy White’ is hilarious.

  16. 16 16 nobody.really

    1. Price mechanisms. Can we overcome the endowment effect? People demand a higher price to surrender something they own than to they are willing to pay to acquire something they don’t yet own. Thus, people who value their place in line resist the idea that someone can “jump ahead in the line” simply by paying more. I suspect that this effect impedes the use of the price mechanism in many situations.

    Perhaps we can overcome this effect. Disney theme parks offer “super passes” that let people cut ahead in the line to get on rides; that is, Disney has effectively appropriated rights that used to belong to all ticket holders, re-packaged those rights, and sold them to new ticket holders for a premium. As far as I know, people have accepted this innovation without complaint. So maybe we need to get Disney’s public relations people to work on the whole organ sales issues….

    2. Abortion. I disagree here. I suspect that technology will make abortions ever more available. This will make abortion akin to issues such as pornography, or birth control among Catholics: Public figures will be ever freer to rail against it because 1) this position will continue to curry favor with some part of the population, and 2) technology will assure the rest of the population that the public figures can’t really do anything about the issue.

    However, imagine that technology made it possible to sustain a fetus from very early on in a pregnancy – but at great expense. Pro life advocates would demand public policies preserving the viability of all aborted fetuses, costs be damned. This would pit them against anti-tax advocates, finally splitting the social conservatives from the fiscal conservatives.

    4 Polyamory: Arguably the frequent discussions of “hook-up culture” suggests that polyamory may be becoming more mainstream. However, this may not actually change movies much.

    After all, the real issue is not sex, but resource allocation: Who will live with whom? Will your paycheck go to pay for this kid’s college, or that one’s? Etc. One of the adaptive functions of monogamous marriage is to induce each member of the couple to stop expending resources attracting mates, and instead redirect those resources to other, mutually-beneficial purposes. (Ok, sometimes we then need to re-learn the need to expend resources to attract our current mates, but that’s a whole ‘nuther thread….)

    But tension over money is icky, whereas sexual tension is fun. (Don’t mean to dwell on the obvious, but if Goldfinger triggered reflections on commodity prices rather than on Pussy Galore, please re-read the prior sentence.) In sum, I expect films won’t change much on this score, even if reality does.

    5. Moral circles: Compassion is a normal or superior good – that is, we spend more on it as we grow richer. The New Deal and the Great Society programs were each adopted during periods of economic expansion. Is it an accident that the most affluent states also tend to be the states with the strongest social safety nets?

    (There’s the irony: Progressives have the most to gain from economic growth; social conservatives have the most to gain from economic collapse.)

    If you imagine a richer future, then I’d also expect that our sense of compassion will grow in the manner Landsburg suggests. Conversely, if you imagine continued economic stagnation – or even collapse – then I’d expect compassion to contract as well.

    6. Animal rights: Same as with moral circles generally. But technology might create a world in which we can grow meat in non-sentient forms. It this caught on, ironically, it might trigger the near-extinction of food animals – creatures that are not well adapted to any natural environment.

  17. 17 17 Rowan

    @Jonatan: if infectious diseases are eradicated, why would we have to worry about “unsanitary” habits?

    To all those saying we’re “wired” for monogamy — we might be wired for pair-bonding, but I disagree that we’re wired for *exclusive* pair-bonding.

    I wonder if “copyright” will seem like a quaint and outdated concept. Or perhaps just the idea that creators had to go through a few gatekeeper companies to have any hope of making their work accessible to a wide audience?

    Off topic — Stephen, I’m very curious what you think of this paper: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1773169

  18. 18 18 Vic

    Full time schools & all the recent talk about teachers’ quality.

    Why not let students watch lectures by the best teachers at home and come only for discussion sessions/tests?

  19. 19 19 HH

    I should elaborate on my views on #4. I’m not arguing that permanent exclusive monogamy is universally hard-wired into everyone. But sexual jealous, especially by men, is innate. There’s good evidence that pre-agriculture humans had relationships similar to the inner city gang or southern meth subculture: temporary but monogamous relationships, with a few men able to have multiple girlfriends. (Robin Hanson persuasively argues that as we gain wealth, we return to our more natural forager ways, away from the the more rigid farmer lifestyle.)

    I’m not (and I don’t think anyone is) arguing that there is a monogamy instinct that will prevent polyamory, just that jealousy will prevent these arrangements from being stable for a very long time.

  20. 20 20 Jonatan

    @Rowan: “mostly eradicated”. I think very few people will get sick, and a major reason for this will be less unsanitary habits.

    How can you disagree that we are wired to some degree for exclusive pair-bonding? What about the strong feelings of jealousy people get?

  21. 21 21 Sol

    The placement of #1 and #2 together makes me want to point out: I suspect abortion would be rare if women were allowed to put a fair market price on unborn babies. Right now we have some people desperate to adopt a baby at almost any cost; and other people “stuck” with unborn children they do not want. A way to put those two groups together in a mutually beneficial scheme would be truly pro-life, in more ways than one.

  22. 22 22 maznak

    Decreasing violence seems to be a consistent trend – mostly because more freedom and democracy and especially more free trade provides a sort of win-win or positive sum game situation. So I disagree with your point 3, although I admit that it can go both ways.
    Unless there is a viable technology of gene manipulation, that could fully eradicate any tendecy for jealousy (which is a useful product of millions years of evolution), I do not believe that polyamorous society might appear (a bonobistan… :)) and prove to be a stable social model. So I do not believe in that one, too.
    On the other hand, our descendats may well be surprised how much we were susceptible to all that religious bullshit. This will inevitably happen, but I am not sure about the time frame..

  23. 23 23 Bill Drissel

    Dr L. I hope people 50-100 years from now will find the notion of government allocating resources rather than free persons incomprehensible. Surely they will observe the atrocities, oppression and waste of the 20th century appalling. They will by then know that in comparison with free people seeking their optimum, the drones of gov’t aren’t as smart, don’t work as hard and don’t have skin in the game.

    I hope people will regard the exercise of owners’ powers (use, enjoyment and disposition) by non-owners as unnatural.

    Regards,
    Bill Drissel
    Grand Prairie, TX

  24. 24 24 Mike H

    I think Steve is laughably wrong – but so would I be, if I made a similar list – with a few points on the ball.

    One of the funniest books I read was “The world in 2030″, published in 1930. Nuclear powered planes, reaching speeds of up to 500 miles per hour… human exploration of Mars, even though the first few spaceships would miss the planet entirely due to navigational errors…

    My own opinions on Steve’s list :

    1. No, they won’t even know about that.
    2. Probably right.
    3-7. Ok, I have no idea.

    but going back in time with economic ideas :
    * those (that work) of 160+ years ago are now widely accepted by policy makers, if not the general public. I’m thinking of free trade, etc.
    * those (that work) of 80+ years ago are controversial amongst policy-makers, accepted by some governments and not others, and not understood by the general public at all. I’m thinking of taxes on externalities, etc.
    * many of those of 40+ years ago are controversial amongst economists, and policy-makers don’t understand them well. I’m thinking of Keynesian ideas on stimulus spending when interest rates hit 0%.

    Project this into the future, and you’ll get some idea of what policymakers will be thinking in 2061. Keynesian ideas will no longer be controversial – one way or the other. Externality taxes/subsidies will be widely accepted and applied. The “no-blame” extension will be hotly debated, and there will be some awareness of behavioural and development economics amongst policymakers, but many results will be controversial. There will be people frustrated that governments don’t get the fact that there are “obvious”, proven, reliable ways to solve serious real problems, as there are today.

    Now to sit back and wait for my future grandchildren to start laughing.

  25. 25 25 Seth

    We may wonder why any of this matters when we can just download our consciousness into various electronic devices. Want to live forever? No problem…you’re a robot. Flying around in space is easy too.

    Want to experience multiple realities? Just plug in.

  26. 26 26 Rowan

    Jonatan: You say yourself that only *some* people get feelings of strong jealousy. If we were wired for it, wouldn’t everybody get them? I personally know at least a hundred people living happily in open relationships, many of them at least as stable and long-term as the average monogamous relationship.

    Not to mention the large number of polygynous societies now and through history. And while there are fewer examples of polyandry, they are certainly out there: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyandry#Observations_and_claims_of_polyandry

    I’m doubtful that anything as complex as jealousy can come pre-wired in the human brain. At the very least, I think the burden of proof is on anyone claiming such wiring exists, rather than the reverse.

    Back on topic: we might be on the verge of creating a broad-spectrum anti-viral drug. Will future generations be bemused at the idea of suffering through a cold or dying of the flu, the way we forget that not so long ago, there was little doctors could do for bacterial illnesses?

  27. 27 27 GregS

    Ha! I was just watching Louis C.K.’s show “Louie.” He’s pitching a movie idea to an executive, where some miserable sap (probably himself) gets robbed and stranded. The executive says, “Doesn’t he have a cell phone?” Louie answers, “Yeah, I guess I had this idea before cell phones came out.”

  28. 28 28 av

    As birthcontrol becomes more effective, cheap and widely available, the whole abortion issue may largely disappear.

  29. 29 29 GregS

    I think that the drug warriors will find themselves on the wrong side of history, much like the slavery apologists. The government is denying self-ownership to a large class of people. They insist that if they grant everyone these rights, there will be a sweeping wave of uncontrollable violence. They argued that the same thing would happen after freeing the slaves.

    Being a proponent or even a moderate on the drug war will be seen as outside the realm of polite conversation 100 years from now.

  30. 30 30 Otto

    Josh said, “Hopefully, one day, as the world becomes richer through technological progress, it will also somehow realize how much it could gain through a one-world government.”

    Hopefully, one day, as the world becomes richer through technological progress it will realize how useless government is and abolish it.

  31. 31 31 JT

    The so-called “science” of Economics will be regarded as we regard alchemy and Scientology.
    People who believe in “ownership or property” will be regarded as mental aberrants.
    Violence will be much less because the extremists on all ends of the spectrum will have killed themselves off as suicide bombers or be in a permanent state of mental paralysis believing themselves “raptured.”
    True human civilization will finally have begun.

  32. 32 32 J Storrs Hall

    There’s at least a chance that our belief in democracy as a good way to run a country will go the way of the divine right of kings. That would depend on our having found a workable better way to do it, but there’s so much room for improvement it’s not too hard to imagine. One possibility is autocratic hyperhuman AIs. (robo-Vetinaris)

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