Fearless forecasts for future shock

  • 2002-05-23
  • Philip Birzulis
The world is changing so rapidly that no one knows what is around the next corner. However, Philip Birzulis makes some wild guesses about the shape of things to come.

It's an old clichï to say that nothing is permanent except change. But in the past few years it seems to have been ringing very true, especially in Eastern Europe.

This wave of unpredictability set in with the collapse of communism 10 years ago, which signaled an end to a decades-long period that may have been frightening but didn't carry too many surprises about tomorrow.

Of course, the Cold War had its moments of chilling fear, such as the odd missile crisis or an actor becoming U.S. president. But mostly it was about both communists and capitalists going to their boring jobs day in, day out, with the only difference being that one group sat down to a dinner of "pelmeni" (Russian ravioli) and the other rocked up to the drive thru at McDonald's.

No one predicted this dull but cozy existence would be shattered. Not even the CIA. But given their performance on foreseeing some recent crises, the American spooks would probably have trouble knowing what they will have for lunch tomorrow.

The big bust up of the late 80s and early 90s has left people with a completely altered sense of what is long-lasting or permanent.

The U.S.S.R. was a society with so few public entertainments that even the idea of hanging out with anyone who is not a blood relative or known for 20 years is fresh. The author of this article recently overheard a conversation in Riga in which a young woman exclaimed about a particular small cafï, "Wow, that place has been here forever. I mean, it was around 10 years ago!"

If she'd said that in an average English pub where people have been destroying their livers for centuries, they would have told her to lay off the booze.

Besides drinking habits, the wave of change has also affected the way people communicate in more sober moments. A few weeks ago, the last pager service in Latvia closed its doors because its customers have all been converted to the mobile phone.

You might remember - although it was a whole three or four years ago - when every upwardly mobile Balt was carrying around a small beeping box. Well, those days are long gone, and the pager can safely be put in an ethnographic museum next to the horse-plows and wool-sheers.

Of course, these are just a few of the more minor happenings to shake the globe in the recent past. In this climate, it would be foolish to make any prophesies, so that is exactly what we will do here now. One thing is for sure - these predictions will probably be completely wrong.

Let's start with the thing that is closest to all of us, our bodies. Throughout history, the story of human health has been a tale of steady medical progress followed by the resurfacing of illness and suffering. And so it was in the 20th century, when great leaps forward with antibiotics and public sanitation were steadily eroded by hamburgers and cola drinks.


Fortunately, genetic engineering is a powerful new tool to set things right again. This amazing technology promises a world free of diseases like diabetes, or at least one in which those who carry them are never even born.

However, surely this is not the limit of the possibilities of genetics, because there are a whole range of applications that will make the scientists who bring them to life extremely rich. Imagine the clamor at the door of the laboratory that finds a way to replace genes that cause body odor - around the world people in offices would be making collections for some of their special work colleagues. Or a discovery that would eliminate nasal hairs.

Another huge leap forward would be the gene splicing that gets rid of hangovers once and for all. One of life's great pleasures finally freed of its one dark cloud!

But why stop at that particular anguish and not just get rid of pain altogether?

Unfortunately, this would have the side effect of causing a great many accidents. Just like leprosy victims of old, removing the hurt factor would unleash a massive plague of lost limbs due to people being too lazy to lift their hands off hot stoves, or to take the stairs down from the fifth floor.

Not to fear, because scientists will also develop a series of innovative artificial limbs. This will not mean new hands or legs, but other far more useful things filling the empty sockets.

A joke about nouveau riche Russians may have already predicted this development, proving once again that Eastern Europeans have an edge when it comes to futurology. Three Moscow businessmen are sitting in a bar when they hear a phone ring. One of them puts his empty hand to his ear, explaining that doctors have implanted a microchip in his hand to save him the trouble on picking up a handset.

Then another ringing sounds, and the second guy just starts talking without lifting a finger. It turns out that he has had chips implanted in his tongue and ear.

Then a third bell starts ringing. The third guy gets up, starts unbuttoning his trousers, and excuses himself by saying, "Excuse me, I have a fax coming."

These are the tools most useful in the business world, but many other professions could benefit from having their gadgets closer to hand, as it were. Plumbers could have toilet plungers joined to the ends of their arms. Bank clerks could replace their slow and shaky fingers with calculators. James Bond would have nothing on spies with miniature digital cameras and automatic pistols with silencers fitted into their buttocks.

In fact, the CIA might take advantage of these advances by finally installing eyes in the heads of its agents.


Behind all of these manipulations of these supposed advances lies an age-old human desire to alter the world, to somehow make it in our own image. Some may call this an expression of the soul, others may attribute it to some evolutionary quirk, but it really comes down to a simple inability to ever be satisfied with anything.

In other words, whingeing and whining is the prime mover behind everything that people do.

And continuing the project they started in the late 20th century, in the future humans will take their crankiness beyond the planet they have already colonized and exploited into the cosmos beyond.

Again, genetic engineering will make feasible elements of space travel that once seemed biologically impossible. Humans from heavily polluted cities who have had their lung capacity reduced to one breath per minute will find it relatively easy to survive long periods without oxygen.

The absence of light will not affect descendants of early 21st century techno music fans, whose forebears were known to go for years without ever feeling the sun's rays.

However, humans will not travel light years to seek out higher civilizations, because these would be too much for their already stressed and strained minds. Instead, they will seek out worlds which hold the promise of the certainty and stability that they have long lost.

Somewhere in a parallel universe is a world of little change, a place whose inhabitants just do their jobs and eat fatty foods without giving much of a thought about whether it will all still be the same tomorrow. Homo Sapiens will find this land, settle on it, and then start making just a few little changes to fix some things that don't suit them.

Although it is difficult to say how many years or decades will pass before these things come to pass, a clear pattern can be seen emerging from them. The one constant, the one thing that will be with us forever and not for a moment less, is human stupidity