A century ago we had the Roaring Twenties. Then came the Fightin’ Forties and Swingin’ Sixties, followed by the Disco Era and the Decade of Decadence. How will the 2020s be known? What will future historians see when they look back on the decade that’s just begun?
In 1900, Ladies’ Home Journal quixotically predicted that the letters Q, X and C would have disappeared from the alphabet by 2020. In 1951 Popular Mechanics foresaw a future where every home would have at least one helicopter in their garage, and in 1966 Time magazine declared that by now everything would be automated and humans would earn US$30,000 a month for doing absolutely nothing.
Sadly, none of that has happened … but look at what has.
The Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas every January, is a good way of telling what’s coming up in the world of tech. A decade ago, the hype at CES 2010 was around e-readers, netbooks and 3D TVs. Going into CES 2020, all the talk was about AI, 5G and … um … 3D TVs.
Maybe, then, instead of looking at the state of technology, it’s better to define the coming decade by what that tech could make possible.
The future of possibilities
This is where things get fun. Genetically modified babies! 3D-printed office buildings! Mice with infrared vision! House-sized nuclear power plants! Sounds like science fiction? Actually, those technologies all exist already. Chinese Doctor He Jiankui started 2020 serving a three-year prison sentence after illegally genetically modifying a set of twin baby girls. The Dubai municipality ended 2019 by unveiling a two-storey, 640 m² office building built by three guys and a 3D printer. And, yes, 2019 saw scientists injecting nanoparticles into mice’s eyes to give them infrared vision, while a US firm unveiled plans for a small unit that takes up 1 per cent of the space of a conventional nuclear reaction. So when Tesla’s resident mad scientist Elon Musk started talking about human colonies on Mars during the 2020s, you’d be a fool to say it’s impossible.
Who will drive that techie future? All of us, but mostly the generation of digital natives who don’t know a world without the Internet. And, as Student Village CEO Ronen Aires often says, if you want to see what 25 year olds will be like in 10 years’ time, look at today’s 15 year olds. While the grown-ups were fretting about fake news on Facebook, Gen Z spent the early days of the new decade sharing World War 3 memes and back-to-school videos on Instagram and TikTok.
Digital connections and social media are so central to our lives now, it’s inevitable that those platforms – along with WhatsApp, WeChat and whatever else the future holds – will dominate the decade. In the first week of January 2020, Facebook announced that it had added deepfakes (AI-enhanced fake videos) to its list of banned content, which already includes nudity, hate speech and graphic violence. Will that protect the online masses from being duped by videos of President Trump or Mark Zuckerberg handing out free ice cream? Probably not.
Nor will January 2020’s threats of war do anything to reduce the continuing unseen cyberwars that raged through the late 2010s, and will continue to get more sophisticated and more damaging as 5G technology advances.
So the 2020s might end up being the Nano Era, or the Decade of Deepfakes or the Cyber Twenties … or something else entirely, that none of us has even thought of yet. After all, the future is pretty much impossible to predict.