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10 January 2000

And now: the outlook for Y3K

So you had to queue for the Dome? Or you got crushed in the town centre? It gets worse; next time, y

By Ziauddin Sardar

Suppose you were frozen in time for the next thousand years. Like Fry, the pizza-delivery boy from the animation show Futurama, you wake up on New Year’s Day, circa 3000. What would you see? Would you find yourself in a world of robots, one-eyed babes and space travel a la Futurama? Or a world of warp drives, aliens and distant galaxies, still dominated by white Americans and their European sidekicks – much as the galaxies of Star Trek are? Or would it be a world so different that we cannot even imagine it?

This question has significance far beyond the realms of fantasy and science fiction. If the millennium experience has taught us anything, it is our inability to conceive of long periods of time. We gathered all, brought all to mind. We were deluged with lists and summations, all testimonials to short-term memory and our lack of a sense of history. The most important events and personalities, all that really shaped us, it would seem, happened in the closing moments, the years nearest to our contemporary experience. Domes and fireworks aside, a millennium made little impact on our perceptions of who and where we are. Will the new millennium be any different?

Not really, if we are to believe the astronomical number of predictions that have been made during the past few weeks. According to Wired (January 2000), the bible of technology geeks, the future will be fun, fun, fun! It will be a world of flying cars, android playmates and space travel. According to the more sober Financial Times, we can look forward to brainchips, quantum teleporters and World Gladiatorial Games.

But exploring the long-term future requires more than extrapolating the current trends. It demands serious thought on positively big questions. Where are we really going? What threats may prevent us from getting there? What lies at the end of our technological rainbow? What do we really know?

So my predictions have little to do with infantile fantasies. Rather, they focus on unthought possibilities and their potentials.

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The next millennium will be dominated by four developments that may not dare to state their name. First, we will see a substantial increase in the sum of human ignorance. Second, suicide will become the dominant fashion towards the end of the third millennium. Third, western civilisation as we know it will have gone the way of the dodo. Fourth, we will not be alone, but we will be surrounded, not by ETs, but by new “humans” of our own creation.

First, the prediction that may seem most surprising of all: an increase in our ignorance. We normally associate progress in scientific knowledge with reduction in ignorance. But ignorance is not something that is associated only with dogma and superstitions; it is also an integral part of knowledge. Every advance in knowledge actually increases complexity and uncertainty and hence effective ignorance. That is the paradox of science.

For example, when we thought that the atom consisted of nothing more than a nucleus of protons and neutrons with electrons circulating around them, our ignorance was limited to knowing about three particles. As our picture of the atom became more complex, we found that there were numerous other particles about which we knew very little. Now in a world of 300 elementary particles, and counting, we realise how much more we need to know. Bring in string theory and a universe of 16 dimensions, and what we think we know is dwarfed by what we know we do not know. So, far from being diminished, ignorance actually increases with advancements in specific kinds of knowledge.

As we learn more and more about our world and the universe over the next thousand years, we will discover that there is more and more that we do not know. Major advances in knowledge will enlighten us to the existence and perhaps the shape of the chasm. This is the biggest and most essential change from the attitudes that have dominated the past thousand years. In an ideal world of the future this understanding should make us more humble and more prudent.

Technology, too, has a paradox associated with it. Up to now, we accepted that we would always control and shape technology. But now we have reached a point where technology is turning back upon us. Technology is beginning to control us and is reshaping us in the same way it has reshaped the world around us. So the more we try to seek liberation through technology, the more we become the subject of technology. Given the present trajectories, it is a safe bet that well before the dawn of the fourth millennium technology will have totally redefined what it means to be human.

We can see that this is about to happen in genetics. So far, genetic engineering has been limited to the treatment of certain diseases. But we know that, with the mapping of the human genome in the next few years, parents will have knowledge of the genetic make-up of their children. Advances in virtual artificial intelligence technology will enable them to view, as if in a movie, the life patterns of their children, the trajectory of their diseases and health. Within this century, “designer babies”, physical and intelligence enhancement and genetic therapies will become routine.

Technologies tend to advance as collectives. Developments in one area lead to or coincide with developments in other areas. Thus the complexity of the human genome, which may make manipulating it problematic, could be overcome by developments in computers that would enable us to manage such complexity. In particular, developments in nano-technologies, which operate at the level of individual atoms and molecules, could give us the tools we need to reshape ourselves. It is not difficult to imagine that, in a not-so-distant future, self-replicating nanorobots that mechanically push atoms and molecules together will be used for creating new genetic materials. A new synthesis of genetics and computing would be achieved; and the manufacture of human body parts would become common.

All this means that we would live longer and healthier lives. Life expectancy in the year 3000 has been estimated to be around 125 to 160 years. However, as technology would take care of most things, people would have much too much leisure in their long, perfectly healthy and boring lives. They will be buying experiences, mostly artificial, instead of things. Population will be tightly controlled. The environment will be protected with draconian laws. All this becomes a necessity when you have an overwhelmingly geriatric population on the very limits of Earth’s carrying capacity.

So the only control people will have over their own bodies will be suicide. It will also be, in a world of ever-increasing artificial experiences, the only real thing. We may also discover that it is preferable to die relatively young than to live extensively long lives quite devoid of meaning. Suicide could provide our lives with ultimate meaning. And there will be lots of encouragement for voluntary euthanasia – to keep the population in balance.

That balanced population will be predominantly non-white. The fourth millennium New York of Futurama is very much an en-clave of western civilisation. This is a fundamental error. There will be no western civilisation a thousand years from hence. One reason for this is that civilisations, as macro historians all the way from ibn Khaldun to Paul Kennedy have been telling us, rise and fall in cycles of around 500 to 600 years. The expansion of Europe can be dated to the start of Portugal’s exploration of Africa in 1413. Almost precisely a half-millennium later, the Great War began. So western civilisation is now reaching its “sell-by” date.

But there are also strong demographic reasons. If we could shrink today’s world population into a village of precisely 100 people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same, we would discover that only 16 people were Western Europeans and Americans. But these 16 folks would be rather old, compared to 57 Asians who would be rudely youthful. Current estimates suggest that we will have a sustainable population of 30 billion by the year 3000. By then our shrunken village would have only three faces that were recognisably white. So, most of the faces you will see on New Year’s Day 3000 will be Chinese and Indian, followed by Hispanics and African – even in New York.

Thus, many of the shapers and makers of the next millennium will be non-western, a point amusingly demonstrated by Michael Hart, the author of The 100: a ranking of the most influential persons in history (Citadel Press, 1992). Under the pseudonym of Arturo Kukeni, Hart offers us A View from the Year 3000: a ranking of the 100 most influential persons of all time (Poseidon Press, 1999). Out go the likes of Pasteur, Newton and Einstein. In come such delicious fictional creations as Chang Po-Yao, who develops a technique for growing new brain tissue in vitro and uploading all memory and personality into computers; Rkumini Gopal, who devises a set of safe, quick and completely reversible techniques for sex-change operations; and Kim Won Lee, who is responsible for the planetary engineering of Mars into an exhilarating human environment. The innovations may be fictional, but the names do have a rather prophetic ring to them. So you might as well learn how to pronounce such names sooner rather than later.

And so to my final prediction. At the end of the second millennium we seemed to be obsessed with aliens. But, given the laws of physics, the chances of intergalactic travel seem very slight indeed. Unfortunately “the final frontier” is an awfully big place and the speed of light is a dead end. Had Mr Spock got his calculations right, he would have told Captain Kirk that, even at warp velocity of several times the speed of light, it would take a good thousand years to reach Romulus III.

Which means we will be confined largely to our lonely solar system. We will discover that space simply echoes our own inner emptiness. Instead, we will meet aliens here on earth; and they will be aliens of our own creation. The genetically modified individuals will be distinctly different from all those who, for religious, ethical or other reasons, refuse to take part in the genetics revolution – the “natural” humans. Over centuries, GM individuals could evolve into a new species. They may turn out to be cold and malevolent or enlightened and wise. Either way, in evolutionary history we may be remembered less for ourselves and more for the species we may end up creating.

So, when you wake from your thousand-year slumber, you may discover that you are not human at all. You may be a computer, an amalgam of person and machine, or even a new species of GM modified human. In many respects, Futurama has got it right. The long-term future will be more (artificially) diverse. As we increasingly intervene in evolution, we will create all variety of new life forms ranging from chimeras, cyborgs and robots to possibly even biologically created “slaves”. You may wake up to a noisy demonstration about the rights of robots.

But it need not be like this at all. The long-term future is not determined or inevitable, nor indeed is it a flight of fancy with no connection to the present. It is and will always be a function of our choices. The unthought elements of the present can become a nightmare future or the means to unmake that horrid future before it gets started. Thinking and acting upon our unthought could even deliver a dignified world with the humility to place meaning before gratification. In which case the world of January 3000 might be well worth waking up to.

The writer is editor of “Futures”, the monthly journal of futures studies