What Will Life Be Like 50 Years From Now?

 

The future Dr. Noel J. Wiener in 1924
The future Dr. Noel J. Wiener in 1924

 

My father is 97 years old. I often think about what he has seen as the world has changed around him. When he was a boy, running around Philadelphia in short pants and riding streetcars to family picnics in Fairmont Park, pushcart vendors provided daily necessities. Entertainment consisted of books, tossing a ball with your buddies, teasing the girls and lots of conversations. Dad now has an iPhone, Kindle, two computers and all the typical high tech devices you would expect in any early 21st century home. He texts and emails us several times a day, reads international newspapers online, devours books by the megabytes, and makes some great meals with the help of a microwave oven (and a more “traditional” electric stove).

I can only imagine what Dad’s parents or grandparents might think of the world we live in today.

If I am lucky (or unlucky, depending on your perspective), I could very possibly live another 50 years. Given how the pace of change continues to accelerate, will our world even be recognizable to me in 2063?

All this came to mind, as I uploaded a new post on Daniel’s and my DigitalBenchmarks Lab Notes Blog (where we write about tech stuff) on 3D Printing; The Current State of the Star Trek Replicator.

No question that 3D Printing will prove to be a seminal technology, not only for industry and medicine, but for individuals and families. Once we have viable, affordable home devices, almost anyone will be able to “print” many of the necessities of daily life that our grandparents and great-grandparents used to buy from those pushcart vendors that lined the streets in Dad’s youth. Dinnerware and silverware, replacement parts for the food processor or vacuum cleaner, jewelry and clothes, ornamented with very personal, creative touches… and yes, eventually food.

But there’s the rub. If we will no longer need to go to the stores (or shop on the Internet) for many of the items that we buy, what will happen to those stores and the warehouses and factories that supply them – and all the people who have jobs building, selling, inventorying and shipping consumer products? And what of the designers who can afford to create these products because they earn money from their copyrights? If anyone can copy almost anything, and use it effectively, what incentive will there be for innovation, which is key to not only a healthy economy, but a creative, lively culture?

In the past few years, we’ve had a small taste of what all this could mean. Publishing has long been controlled by a select number of companies. Then, along came print-on-demand in which a book could be produced one at a time, when it is ordered. The parallel to 3D printing is obvious. It’s no longer necessary to have the support infrastructure – volume printing, warehousing, large budgets, etc. — of a big publishing corporation to produce a printed book. Add to that the impact of ePublishing, in which anyone can produce or reproduce a book, and the publishing industry has been thrown into chaos, uncertain if the big companies (and all their employees) have much of a future.

Home 3D printing will be print-on-demand for consumer products – and much more. How it will change our world is yet to be seen. But I do foresee some difficult times ahead for all of us, especially if companies don’t start to reconfigure their long-range business plans now to include this new technology. But even if they do plan accordingly, our world is about to shaken up considerably.

50 years from now, we (if I’m still around) will be living on the other side of the divide. If things move forward in the direction they are currently going, 3D printing will have become an everyday norm. Other technologies – especially communications – will have put their own special twist on society and commerce. Factories of the type that created the industrial revolution will be a thing of the past. Many of the companies that are household names today will have completely disappeared or altered beyond recognition to us denizens from the past. Politics, I’m sure, will be changed, though I expect political animals will be braying and jockeying in much the same way. Social interactions, human connections, the workplace (wherever it might be) – how much of what we have today will be fundamentally changed?

Of course, anything can happen in the next 50 years. Heck we can’t even predict what out-of-the-blue event might happen in the next month. But if the last hundred years are any indication, the vectors seem to be pointing to yet another brave new world. Will anyone even know what pushcarts are then?

How do you see the shape of the future? What do you think will be the shape and substance of your grandkids’ or great-grandkids’daily life?

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