Envisioning a Hopeful Future: We have a contest winner.
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I’m happy to share the winning entry in the hopeful futures contest. Inspired by an 1859 paragraph looking back of the previous eight years of progress, Mano Majumdar took up the challenge of looking back at today from 2030 (or perhaps 2032). He’ll receive a care package of “upwing” books, including a couple of my own. Here’s his self-description, followed by his winning entry:
Manosij 'Mano' Majumdar believes with conviction what Hamlet said with irony, and that is reflected in this piece of writing. His interests include New Urbanism, sustainable abundance, and oblique references to Star Trek. He is a management consultant by profession, after previous innings as a chemical engineer, a business lecturer, and an instructional designer. He lives a metaphorical minute away from the espresso café he co-owns in London, Canada.
History rhymes, or humans excel at finding patterns. The 21st century started disastrously, and continued steadily to find one near-death experience for civilization after another. From the Western vantage point alone—a singular act of terrorism, followed by two protracted wars, a once-in-a-century economic shock, a once-in-a-century global pandemic, culminating in a European conflict threatening to go nuclear. Humanity seemed to be reliving a speedrun of the early 20th century, heading towards some final breaking point at breakneck speed. Some almost welcomed it—as catharsis, as karmic comeuppance, as degrowth-as-secular-penance. There was resignation in the air.
That is what makes the last ten years a story of redemption. A number of quiet developments came to tipping points in the second act of the twenties, and coincided brilliantly. AI, neither the supplanting god nor the indifferent destroyer of early imagination, became a commonplace and accessible supertool, multiplying the speed of discovery and design across the economy. Tropical diseases that lay neglected for centuries now fell to affordable AI-designed molecules within months. Personalized education at scale broke the longstanding tension between quality and volume. There are some weeks when years go by, and years that do the lifting of decades. Accessible, no-code AI delivered a century's worth of human flourishing in years in places, uplifting billions from poverty, generating trillions in wealth.
As social media grew into the metaverse, political polarization actually softened—it turned out it is easier to remember the human when they are rendered photorealistically in 3D. It became a second front in education, allowing for deep simulations, heartfelt connections, and empathy. The metaverse created an emotional internet, an outcome difficult to extrapolate from its roots in soulless renderings firmly in uncanny valley. The access to third places and counselling-at-scale it provided revolutionized mental health more than we realize. There used to be hundreds of shootings that used to occur in the States every year; that there hasn't been one since 2028 is remarkable in that context.
And of course, energy! Gen Z now knows what Millenials felt like as the generation that lived on both sides of the Internet revolution. ITER, completed in 2026, reached engineering breakeven on the twenty-second of August 2029, a moment later celebrated as Eternal Light. By the summer of 2030, replicas were under construction in China, India, the United States, Australia, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Botswana, and Iran. There is one in the metaverse, as a technical reference.
What was perhaps even less predictable was the Great Thaw in geopolitics. ITER couldn't solve for history, but it took energy (and by extension, water) off the board. In the same decade that Europe had been held hostage by heating oil, the Russian regime voluntarily surrendered Crimea to Ukraine in return for access to fusion technology. Fusion even broke the stalemate on carbon sequestration, with carbon levels in the atmosphere now already at 2018 levels thanks to competing Chinese and European gigaprojects. What used to consume the world’s attention suddenly became... solved.
Together, these three keystone technologies stole upon history and quietly resewed the ties of trust and trade that weave humanity out of nine billion people. Intelligence, empathy, and energy make us human—and increasingly, perhaps, something more....
Forget flying cars. I want shoes with AI to prevent tripping.
The past week has not been what I expected, thanks to my latest face plant. Coming down some ill-arranged steps in Old Town Tustin, I missed the last one and landed flat. Although nothing was broken—miraculously including my lip—I seriously screwed up my right hand and have been unable to do much with it for the past week. And, no, I was not looking at my phone. If I had been, I might have seen that unexpected step. My hand injury cut seriously into the writing and weaving I had planned. And it made me worry about the future.
I suffer a serious fall at least once a year, despite sensible shoes and balance that tests as fine. (I can stand on one leg without trouble.) As I told my doctor, the problem seems to be that I’m easily distracted and have a poor sense of where I am in space. I shudder to think what will happen when my bones get brittle. The bruises are bad enough. Hence my desire for a footwear application of AI.
OTOH, given Stable Diffusion’s responses to variations of the prompt “woman falling face first down a step,” I’m not optimistic about putting my face in the hands (or feet) of AI.
Odds and Ends
The LAT reports on why scofflaw cities like Santa Monica can have their zoning powers temporarily stripped (as I discussed in this post and the related Bloomberg Opinion column). Zoning powers come from the state and what the state can give, it can also take away.
You’ve probably never heard of a mangle, but they used to be household necessities. Why they went away is part of the never-appreciated-enough story of laundry progress. I came across this great explainer, tapping the memories of a woman born in 1906.
AI cat costumes. I made this one with Stable Diffusion: “cute cat in princess costume.” It clearly understands cats better than people.