In 1997, Wired Magazine Predicts 10 Things That Could Go Wrong in the 21st Century: “An Uncontrollable Plague,” Climate Crisis, Russia Becomes a Kleptocracy & More

Hydro­gen-pow­ered cars. Bio­log­i­cal, then quan­tum com­put­ing. Gene-ther­a­py can­cer treat­ments. An end to the War on Drugs. Reli­able auto­mat­ic trans­la­tion. The impend­ing end of the nation-state. Man set­ting foot on Mars. These are just a few of the devel­op­ments in store for our world by the year 2020 — or so, at any rate, pre­dicts “The Long Boom,” the cov­er sto­ry of a 1997 issue of Wired mag­a­zine, the offi­cial organ of 1990s tech­no-opti­mism. “We’re fac­ing 25 years of pros­per­i­ty, free­dom, and a bet­ter envi­ron­ment for the whole world,” declares the cov­er itself. “You got a prob­lem with that?”

Since the actu­al year 2020, this image has been smirk­ing­ly re-cir­cu­lat­ed as a prime exam­ple of blink­ered End-of-His­to­ry tri­umphal­ism. From the van­tage of 2021, it’s fair to say that the pre­dic­tions of the arti­cle’s authors Peter Schwartz and Peter Ley­den (who expand­ed their the­sis into a 2000 book) went wide of the mark.

But their vision of the 21st cen­tu­ry has­n’t proven ris­i­ble in every aspect: a ris­ing Chi­na, hybrid cars, video calls, and online gro­cery-shop­ping have become famil­iar enough hard­ly to mer­it com­ment, as has the inter­net’s sta­tus as “the main medi­um of the 21st cen­tu­ry.” And who among us would describe the cost of uni­ver­si­ty as any­thing but “absurd”?

Schwartz and Ley­den do allow for dark­er pos­si­bil­i­ties than their things-can-only-get-bet­ter rhetoric make it seem. Some of these they enu­mer­ate in a side­bar (remem­ber side­bars?) head­lined “Ten Sce­nario Spoil­ers.” Though not includ­ed in the arti­cle as archived on Wired’s web site, it has recent­ly been scanned and post­ed to social media, with viral results. A “new Cold War” between the U.S. and Chi­na; a “glob­al cli­mate change that, among oth­er things, dis­rupts the food sup­ply”; a “major rise in crime and ter­ror­ism forces the world to pull back in fear”; an “uncon­trol­lable plague — a mod­ern-day influen­za epi­dem­ic or its equiv­a­lent”: to one degree or anoth­er, every sin­gle one of these ten dire devel­op­ments seems in our time to have come to pass.

“We’re still on the front edge of the great glob­al boom,” we’re remind­ed in the piece’s con­clu­sion. “A hell of a lot of things could go wrong.” You don’t say. Yet for all of the 21st-cen­tu­ry trou­bles that few rid­ing the wave of first-dot-com-boom utopi­anism would have cred­it­ed, we today run the risk of see­ing our world as too dystopi­an. Now as then, “the vast array of prob­lems to solve and the sheer mag­ni­tude of the changes that need to take place are enough to make any glob­al orga­ni­za­tion give up, any nation back down, any rea­son­able per­son curl up in a ball.” We could use a fresh infu­sion of what Schwartz and Ley­den frame as the boom’s key ingre­di­ent: Amer­i­can opti­mism. “Amer­i­cans don’t under­stand lim­its. They have bound­less con­fi­dence in their abil­i­ty to solve prob­lems. And they have an amaz­ing capac­i­ty to think they real­ly can change the world.” In that par­tic­u­lar sense, per­haps we all should become Amer­i­cans after all.

via Red­dit

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pio­neer­ing Sci-Fi Author William Gib­son Pre­dicts in 1997 How the Inter­net Will Change Our World

Why 1999 Was the Year of Dystopi­an Office Movies: What The Matrix, Fight Club, Amer­i­can Beau­ty, Office Space & Being John Malkovich Shared in Com­mon

In 1926, Niko­la Tes­la Pre­dicts the World of 2026

Futur­ist from 1901 Describes the World of 2001: Opera by Tele­phone, Free Col­lege & Pneu­mat­ic Tubes Aplen­ty

From the Annals of Opti­mism: The News­pa­per Indus­try in 1981 Imag­ines its Dig­i­tal Future

167 Pieces of Life & Work Advice from Kevin Kel­ly, Found­ing Edi­tor of Wired Mag­a­zine & The Whole Earth Review

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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