Is It Time to Start Talking About the Future Again?

Economic trouble continues. In the U.S., where the Federal government has moved gradually at best to cut spending, the pain — especially at state and local levels — is still rolling in. (The U.K., meanwhile, went directly to austerity mode.) But there are green shoots to be seen, especially at the high end. Plastic surgery, for instance, is on the rise. (Depending on your worldview, you might consider this the end of the world rather than the start of a recovery, but still …)

To me, one of the best indicators of economic mood is simply what people are talking about, especially what they’re willing to talk about in public — as in, say, what people are willing to put on the cover of a magazine. Check out the cover lines of this week’s Economist and Time. They read, respectively:

Print Me a Stradivarius: The manufacturing technology that will change the world*

2045: The year man becomes immortal

When people are willing en masse to start talking about the future in non-apocalyptic terms, I take that as a good sign that the panic of the near-term past has officially begun to subside.

* Related: Even food can be printed. And, one interesting tidbit from the Economist article:

Printing in 3D is not the preserve of the West: Chinese companies are adopting the technology too. Yet you might infer that some manufacturing will return to the West from cheap centres of production in China and elsewhere. This possibility was on the agenda of a conference organised by DHL last year. The threat to the logistics firm’s business is clear: why would a company airfreight an urgently needed spare part from abroad when it could print one where it is required?

Ian Kemmish

To answer the rhetorical question first: because it's run out of "ink" (we're going to need another word for that raw material). But DHL surely only needs to worry about 3D printing technology if it charges by volume. If it charges by weight, then (allowing for wastage), it's actually going to be shipping more "ink" around the world in the future than it is finished goods now. It's just going to be in compact drums rather than boxes mostly full of airbags and styrofoam.

And if you don't think Yet Another Misguided Physicist who thinks that he can duplicate a Stradivarius with a pixellated shape made out of homogeneous plastic is "apocalyptic" - well, I have news for you...


Time is the magazine that had a "this housing boom is like just great" cover in 2005 I believe. By this standard, 2048 will see a global thermonuclear war that kills 99.9% of humanity and allows the Earth to recover from the horrendous destruction of agricultural-industrial "civilisation."


Amazing. Although I'm sure some kid already figured out that they can fax a fruit rollup if they really want to.

Is there any evidence for the claim that future-based articles become more optimistic when the objective conditions of the present start improving, or is this just random speculation? It's a plausible theory, but you could also speculate the opposite: that optimistic articles about the future give people an excuse to escape from relentlessly depressive news about the present.


Could the message of these magazines also have to do with the demographics of their readership? The Economist, for instance, is not a common person's magazine. It is rather well written when compared to its competitors and its readers are more likely to be well-read and educated. And the last time I checked, the unemployment rate among those with bachelors degrees or higher was only 5%.


Print a Stradivarius? Why, when only an ever-dwindling fraction of the public even knows what music is, let alone how to play an instrument?


Just for fun I put the word "apocalypse" into Google's Insights for Search, showing how often the word was searched (relative to all other terms) in the United States. Curiously it has been steadily increasing since 2007! Around January 2011 sees the highest searching for "apocalypse" since 2004.

...Though I suppose there may be a movie or book or song called Apocalypse which would distort the results, so it's hardly indicative of public emotion!

A more positive impression comes from searching the term "recession", which peaked in 2009 and today is at its lowest since November 2007. Hard to interpret that data though.

Eric M. Jones

I'm banking on the Home Helicopter Revolution.


And De Beers reports a 53% increase in sales last year. Apparently the turmoil is over indeed, at lease for diamond consumers.

Josh Doherty

The plastic surgery point could also indicate that the employment situation is so dire that people are resorting to PS to get a leg up in the job market. Several academic studies (mentioned on this site?) have shown salary and employment advantages to taller and more attractive people.


Cory Doctorow's 'Makers' is an SF novel of the near future tracing the boom and collapse of 3D printing (and a lot of other weird but readable stuff!)


Our future depends on whether we can somehow silence the wealthy naysayers who refute the scientific evidence of global warming.

We also can't continue to participate in this mad race to the bottom. Hor the sake og the 20 million unemployed, pull out of the farce of global competition and bring back good paying jobs here so we can put people to work.

James V

I don't know if a whole generation of people with clinical immortality is a good idea if for nothing more than the constant reminder of the price inflation for a cheeseburger and fries.


New technology and advances are coming about these days, faster than anyone had expected. There are higher rates and higher demand for these objects. Prices are going up higher and higher, supplies are getting lower and lower. People now a days are getting into more of a want stage than a need stage. if these rates keep going up than maybe we should start worrying about the future.


people should be talking about how they feel about the way people are spending their money right now. More technology is coming out each and everyday. Technology is getting more and more advance in each country. The population is getting bigger and bigger . They are taken more space and that means that more of the environment is being taking away from everyone. So maybe it is time for people to think about there child's future on this plant.


Rather interesting little article here. I have to agree on the fact that everything increasing rather rapidly but i doubt its anything worth worrying about. The planet and humanity as a whole will be able to survive just about anything we throw at each other. sure the chances of all out nuclear war is out there. but its almost guaranteed that we will be able to protect ourselves by the time that happens. Human ingenuity never ceases to amaze me.


America has moved from having a "have a little fun now and money for later" attitude to "buy whatever you want now and buy an upgrade later" country. Sure, the recession is not as bad as it was when it first started, but prices of food and especially gas are now going up. I think that after the recession hit in the first place, EVERYONE should have been focused on how much they could save for later, since more or less than half the population in the U.S. still thinks that the country won't be able to get out of the recession. I am thankful to have been raised in a save-everything-and-don't-waste-ANYTHING family, because my consumer patterns have not really changed.