This series of essays was written in July and August of 2022, and in them I attempt to think through how things might feel in 2027. I’m sure I’ll end up doing the Jetsons thing, where my vision of the future is just the present day with more jetpacks. But that’s fine with me. Predictions are interesting whether you’re right or wrong. Either way, they have something to teach us about how we see the world.
I’m hoping to aim these essays at young people. I have three kids under the age of 15, so I spend a lot of time imagining what sort of world they’ll inherit. If their future has a lot of people speaking Mandarin, maybe they should learn it? If the world will be full of disinformation, maybe I should teach them media literacy? If their future has a lot of flying monsters, maybe I should teach them to shoot a gun? Or at least set traps.
So this is an exploration from a daydreaming dad thinking about what sorts of lessons to teach the kids of today. My conclusion is that the news isn’t all good or all bad. Things are about to get pretty weird, though! And there’s going to be a lot of opportunity throughout. So here’s my attempt at thinking through it all to make sense of what the future might look like.
When I finished this issue, I realised that my original intro was outdated and I’d need to write a new one. So here goes.
You know how sometimes someone asks how you’re doing and it turns into a much longer answer than you expected? That’s what happened here. It was a perfect writing prompt for me: what advice would you give kids about living in 2027? But after one or two essays I forgot my original plan and realised I had a whole lot to say about the near future. Not just to kids, or to other people, but to myself. It was an enjoyable and cathartic process.
I don’t remember people being this scared about the future before. I was born in 1979, when things were pretty dire. If you were alive then, you know what I’m talking about. If you weren’t, you probably think 2022 has the monopoly on terrorism, warfare, crime, spiking gas prices, genocide, environmental issues, and a general sense of doom, decline, and malaise. Not so. But as tough as the 70s and 80s were, it was the early 90s where things first started hitting home. The 90s has a reputation for being free-wheeling, but the early 90s brought a war in Iraq, the highest crime in a generation, a horrible recession, and a sense that America had lost its way.
I didn’t realise until I wrote this issue of Near Future Field Notes, but I don’t think 2027 will be as different from 2022, or even 1992, than a lot of people think. As my friend Nick recently said, I’m not fearful, but I am fearful of people feeling fearful. They can do some real damage if they get out of control. So my concerns about the future aren’t the obvious things — climate change, war, jobs, etc — but rather the way people might react to those things. And that’s a lot of what I’ve written about here. One of the most important skills for the future is figuring out how to think about the future. So that’s what I’ve attempted to address here.
To that end, I’ve decided to keep the order the essays largely the same as I wrote them. I’d like to share how my thinking evolved throughout the writing of this publication, because that tells a story itself.
People are pretty freaked out these days. Political instability, climate change, and COVID are just three of the items that are causing a lot of concern and panic. But probably the most important skill to have in 2027 is not to give into despair and panic. You can do a lot of good when you’re focused on fixing problems, but if you’re panicking, that’s pretty much all you can do.
But not panicking is much easier said than done, of course. I think it helps to start with data instead of platitudes. “Don’t worry, be happy” doesn’t help me to feel better, but raw data can show me that we’re living in the safest, healthiest, and most free time in history. And sure helps Once I learn to trust the data.
But before I share all those good data points, ones that will help contextualise the world we’re living in without losing hope, we should talk about watching your media diet. Because media literacy and a good media diet are required to get your head on straight. Without that, nothing else matters.
A long time ago, people could eat pretty much anything they found. Kill a deer? Eat it. Find a berry? First make sure it’s not poisonous, then eat it. But somewhere along the way, we got so good at packing salt, fat, and sugar into food that suddenly we had to be careful about we ate. We could no longer trust physical sensations, like “if you’re hungry, eat. If you’re full, stop.” Instead, we had to start thinking at a higher level, like tracking the total amount of calories and nutrients we were ingesting, coming up with science-based diets, and tracking our steps. Suddenly we had to handle more complexity in order to handle our changing diet. (And more sedentary lifestyle)
We’re on a similar journey with information. There was a time when you’d read the books assigned in school, watch the news on one of three channels on television, and read whatever newspaper was delivered to your home. People who kept up with current events were considered good citizens, so people did their best to keep up. The idea that you’d absorb lies or disinformation wasn’t a big concern when you were reading the Washington Post, watching Walter Cronkite, or reading mainstream novels. But things have changed.
We’re in a media environment now where you can find someone loudly claiming almost any fact you can imagine. Not only that, but people spreading lies or half-truths have websites that look just as trustworthy and high-quality as the outlets that are reporting facts. So now we have to vet all information right as we absorbs more than humankind ever has before. Because it’s hard to know what’s true, we gravitate towards what feels right. Which is dangerous, because just like your body craves fat and sugar, your brain craves conflict, fear, anger, and righteousness.
Some of the most true things are the most boring. Simple investment strategies, NPR news, the fact that JFK’s death was not a giant conspiracy, for starters. But think of the reverse: get rich quick schemes, news designed to make you angry, or believing in the Illuminati are much more interesting to think about, so we do. And soon we lose all sense of perspective or fact.
The first step to handling this reality is really clear: understand that there’s a lot of garbage out there, and that it’s much harder to trust sources than we used to. Most people would agree with that. But the second step is much more controversial: stop reading the news. Reading the news is no longer a sign of a well-informed citizen, just like being fat is no longer evidence of a healthy person. We’re in a new world where the more news you read, the more likely it is to be radicalised. So step one is to get really careful about your media diet, including not reading so much news.
It’s a crazy idea, but hear me out. What if you really did stop reading the news? What would actually happen? Maybe you go to a cocktail party, someone mentions some legislation, and you don’t have a ready-made opinion about it. Ok. Is that a problem?
Or maybe it means that you aren’t aware of some big event happening in the world, and that could mean that you don’t have a chance to donate to charity or otherwise help. Ok, that’s fine. And?
Perhaps it means the next time there’s an election, you’re less likely to be up-to-date on the issues, and maybe it means you won’t vote. Or maybe you’ll be less likely to care or be involved with your local community. Maybe you’ll just recede into tv shows and video games, or hanging out with friends. And maybe that doesn’t sound so bad? Maybe a world full of people only lightly tracking the latest outrage would be better than today? It’s worth considering.
But we don’t want to go too far. For example, it’s important to vote. But the best way to vote is to ignore the noise 99% of the time, then study up on the candidates when it’s election season. That will give you the most pure viewpoint on the election season, without all the additional bias and gnashing of teeth you’ll experience if you’re in a perpetual election cycle. It will allow you to help democracy without accidentally eroding it by radicalising yourself day after day.
Do I think it’s important to sound smart at a cocktail party? Not really. Do I think it’s important to know about events happening around the world? Sure, but not if the cost of that knowledge is constantly being upset about things happening beyond my control. It’s important to know the very top level items — an election is coming, you should get a Covid shot, the president was assassinated — but most of the other stuff is unimportant things wrapped in screaming red breaking news headlines. You don’t need them. Not in 2022, and certainly not in 2027.
I think people who master this will end up in a much better place than those who don’t.
So far I’ve talked about not giving into despair, which is easier when you’re careful about the media you consume. Especially the news, because even if you’re reading something 100% truthful, it’s likely to be upsetting. And it gets even worse when you’re reading things that aren’t true, because they’re designed to make sure you’re upset. But wait, is this advice for 2027 or present day? Well, both.
I think 2027 will be a lot like today, just more intense. We’re still going to be dealing with a lot of bad news. We’re still going to be dealing with disinformation. The human brain will not magically get better at contextualising endless stories of doom and destruction. But everything is going to get supercharged as technology races forward and we get more radicalised. It’s important to build up these skills now to prepare for the future.
Here are some tangible predictions that are very easy to make: Climate change will still be causing dramatic weather events. The far left and far right will still hate each other. Democracies will have a tough time, because consensus is hard. America in particular will feel like perhaps its best times are behind it. Meanwhile, companies like Russia and China will control their populations and therefore be able to do a lot more things without having to answer to their voters. The stock market will be up compared to five years prior. Technology and the internet will be a driving force in society. These are no-brainers. I’d be absolutely stunned if any of of these predictions didn’t pan out.
But there are some important signs of hope that I see in both 2022 and will expect to see in 2027 as well. First, the whole world and all the governments in it are very aware of climate change, despite what environmental activists say. “The world is ending and yet businesses and governments are doing nothing” is a popular thing to say, but it’s completely, utterly, provably wrong. I’ll talk about that in a minute, but for now I’ll just say that we’ll be doing even more to fight climate change in 2027, and people will be even more convinced that nothing at all is being done. So things will indeed be getting better, but people will be more convinced than ever that they’re getting worse.
[Editorial note: a few weeks after I wrote the paragraph above, Democrats passed a giant climate bill, one that will radically improve environmental policy in US and around the world. But even with this big win, my prediction stays the same. The left will still say we’re not doing enough in 2027, and the right will still argue we’re doing too much in 2027. No bill is ever perfect, but this one goes a long way to proving them both wrong. It’s a good bill.]
Disinformation is another topic that you can choose to see half-empty or half-full. The research tells us the biggest targets for disinformation are not younger generations, but rather Generation X and the Baby Boomers. And it makes logical sense. If you grew up during a time where you could trust the news, Tucker Carlson might strike you as a journalist, one you should listen to and respect. But if you’re growing up now, in this toxic media environment, you’ll see Tucker Carlson for who he really is: an influencer writing clickbait headlines, no different than anyone else on TikTok or Instagram.
That’s why younger generations are more savvy about scams. When everyone is lying to you, it’s hard to stay naive. It’s harder to con someone who’s looking for the con. Kids can still fall for disinformation, but less than older generations.
In 2022, we’re just starting to grapple with these lesson. In 2027, we’ll have five more years of experience to help us. We’ll be teaching media literacy in schools. We’ll be better at spotting disinformation, hybrid warfare, whataboutism, and how to counter threatening state actors like Russia and China. If up until now we’re in a “fool me once, shame on you” mindset, 2027 will be squarely in the “fool me twice” territory. The problems of the world have presented themselves to us pretty plainly. Now the future is about how we react. And I’m feeling pretty optimistic.
Try this little experiment: tell a kid that you heard Hillary Clinton is running a secret sex ring in a pizza parlour in Maryland. They won’t believe you, and they won’t get particularly animated about it. They sort through garbage news all the time, and have learned to detect it. Now try the same line on an elderly person. The future, as always, belongs to the youth. They know how to handle themselves in this media environment. We could learn a lot from them.
In 2022, there’s a lot of discussion around crypto-currency and NFTs. And just recently we started the latest “crypto-winter” where the price of Bitcoin and other crypto is way down. This has happened before, many times, but this time is feels different. To me, anyway.
If I had to predict what’s going to happen to crypto-currency in 2027, I’d bet on Bitcoin being much higher. I’d also say NFTs aren’t going to magically recover their popularity, and thousands of “alt-coins” are going to fail. We’ll see! But let’s get back to some basic fundamentals about money, because they’ll always be true no matter what year it is. Here they are:
That’s it. That’s what Warren Buffet does, so it’s good enough for me. His advice worked really well in the 80s, 90s, 2000s, 2010s, it still works really well in the beginning of this decade, and will continuing working at the end of the decade. It’s as simple as losing weight by eating well and exercising enough. Or writing a novel by writing a lot. Or having a healthy relationship by communicating well and working at it. There’s no trick. There aren’t shortcuts. It’s all pretty straight-forward. Or, it should be.
One of the biggest threats about 2022 is how we all think we know better than the experts. Trust in institutions is low and going lower, and there’s no reason to believe the trend is going to change by 2027. So what do you do in a world where no one trusts experts and institutions, and where everyone is doing their own research? Trust more in experts and institutions.
Hear me out.
I’m not saying you should blindly trust anything. I’m not saying you should be naive, and I’m not saying just because someone with a fancy title says something you should immediately accept it as fact. I’m also not saying you should stop thinking critically, nor am I claiming the system is perfect. I’m merely pointing out that the alternatives are often worse. That’s all.
When Karen Bass, who has fought back against LAPD’s corrupt system since the early 90s, and leads the Congressional Black Caucus, says that “defund the police is one of the worst slogans” she’s ever heard, we should listen to her. When her opponents are a bunch of “burn everything down” types on Twitter, the benefit of the doubt goes to the person with a track record of handling this difficult topic, not the fresh young anarchist upstarts. A good rule of thumb is that you are an expert in a small handful of things, so when it comes to everything else you should come from a place of respectful listening, not of assuming everything is so broken that literally idea is better. It’s not.
So how do we separate actual experts from people posing as experts? I have a simple rule for 2022 that will still apply in 2027 and long into the future: ask yourself if the person giving you news would lose their job if it was discovered that they had lied, mislead, or were 100% wrong. If so, it’s more trustworthy than someone who can lie without consequence.
For example, would your uncle at the BBQ lose his job or have to issue a retraction if his left-field theories were proven false? What about almost everyone you read on Twitter? What about some random blogger or news website? No, no, and no. But what about a journalist for the New York Times or Washington Post? Yes. That’s how you figure out who has more incentive to tell the truth, and therefore who you should pay more attention to.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there are indeed trustworthy sources with checks and balances to make sure they’re getting things right. The disinformation warriors have convinced everyone that it’s all bullshit to make their stuff look the same, but it’s not. Real journalists exist, and you should trust what they have to say. And that shouldn’t be a radical statement, but it is in 2022, and I suspect will still be in 2027.
The same is true for scientists, of course. When a scientist says a vaccine is safe, guess what, that’s going to be a better point of view than a rap star who heard a story from his friend’s brother’s cousin. But it takes effort to figure out scientific consensus and sort through all the noise. That’s why more often than not it’s worth trusting in the boring stuff that experts say rather than the shocking, attention-grabbing headlines.
Politics are the same. It’s fun to imagine a secret cabal of shady people who “really run the world” behind the scenes. Intrigue! Mystery! Magic! But the fact is, democracy is pretty boring and laborious. It’s a whole bunch of people, none with a knockout punch or veto card, all desperately trying to get more votes than the other side. If it were just as easy as being rich or powerful, I can think of plenty of politicians who never would have gotten near the levers of power. The only way to win in democracy is to get more people agreeing with you. That’s it. It’s sort of straight-forward. There is no secret committee electing people. The committee is the combined voting power of all citizens. Yawn.
And there are millions of people whose job it is to keep the whole thing running. None of them are crime bosses or made-for-TV villains. They’re just a bunch of people trying to make this messy experiment work, and they’re all annoyed that they don’t have more power. If you read up on how campaigns are run, or how an organisation like the DNC is structured, that’s what you find. Yes, there’s power at play. But not the way people assume it works. Underneath it all? It’s just counting the votes. Nothing else matters. There is no magic trick at play.
As things feel more out of control and unmoored, this is an important thing to remember. Most people aren’t trying to destroy the whole system. Most people don’t have much power, even politicians and corporate donors. The surefire way to have power in this system is to say things more people agree with. Don’t believe me? Do you think everyone is controlled by big money for nefarious reasons? It’s a really exciting story, but it’s just not how it works. And understanding how things actually work is going to be increasingly important in the future. Because we’re being sold a distorted view of how to affect change, which means it’s harder to actually pull it off.
Let me use a tangible and clear example: some people think that there’s a secret Satanic ring of politicians in DC that are sex trafficking young children from a pizza shop. So people showed up with guns, ready to free the kids. And they were surprised to find a simple pizza shop. Nothing else.
We all sit and laugh at how misguided the guy was, but you have to admire his spirit. He thought kids were in danger so he got in his truck to go fix it. Except the whole thing was a hoax, so he wasn’t actually fixing anything. That’s how I feel about people confidently proclaiming that everything is run by money, the system is inherently broken, and nothing can ever happen. What’s someone supposed to do with that information? Grab a gun and take a politician hostage? Would that actually help anyone?
All people need to know is that voting matters. Not just every four years, but during the midterms and local elections too. If people would understand how important and powerful simple voting was, they wouldn’t need to look for fantastical stories. They’d spend all their time getting involved and voting. Which, I gotta say, is a much more rewarding path to take. And if you want more excitement, run for office! That’s the most direct way to make change, by being one of the millions of people helping to make a more perfect world.
Volunteering at a hospital changed my life. I had just turned 13 and things weren’t going very well in my life, so I found myself one morning being dropped off at a large, beige building, creatively named “Suburban Hospital.” Within a day, my perspective on life changed. Outside, I was an angsty, lost, off-track kid careening between punishments at home, at school, and with the police. Inside these disinfected white walls, I was a worker bee trying to keep the hospital running. I had a purpose, and most importantly, a clean start.
And the feeling didn’t wash away at the end of my shift, either. I’d finish my work, say goodbye to my coworkers, gather my things, head to the elevator bay, wait for the giant metal box to open its doors on every floor (there are doors on both sides because gurneys can come from either direction, so you spend a lot of time squeezing against the wall to let them pass), then eventually make my way out into the blinding sunshine and concrete of the rest of my teenager-in-suburban-Maryland day. But the feelings and lessons would stay with me. I wasn’t only a bad kid, or only a hospital worker. I was a bad kid and hospital worker both, a potent blend that made me a better person overall.
The main thing I learned was thinking and doing are different actions, and make you feel different. When I was idly thinking the— world back then, it seemed doomed beyond repair. Money was evil, people were a disappointment, Washington was dysfunctional, corporations were destroying everything, and the future was ruined. Nothing mattered because nothing was salvageable. I remember reading the lead singer of Ministry, a heavy metal/industrial band, saying something like “The planet is already fucked. Maybe if we had started earlier it would be ok, but now it’s too late and there’s nothing to do but watch everything go down in flames.” Sound familiar? It was 30 years ago, in 1992.
But actually dedicating myself to a cause felt completely different. Sure, maybe money is evil. But Mrs Metheny in room 2B-32 is eagerly awaiting her blood work results, so I should hurry and deliver them to her. And yeah, people can be a disappointment, but I cherished chatting with my co-workers at our break table. They were all older than me, and taught me a lot about life and cool music. Washington was still dysfunctional, but here in Suburban Hospital our efforts were literally helping people to heal and get better. In fact, just across the street was the National Institutes of Health, working on the very technologies that would help stretch human life expectancy over the coming decades. And who funded NIH? The government in Washington. Which also hired lots of my friends’ parents. So maybe things weren’t all bad?
Outside, the world seemed useless and unworthy of help. Inside, I saw exactly how much committed, engaged, thoughtful, caring people could change humanity one small task at a time. Looking around, I didn’t see a single evil person or hopeless situation. I saw human beings who were all doing their best, and who would all choose help over harm, or love over hate. (In many cases, they chose the public sector over the private one, choosing to help others over their own financial well-bring) There’s a theory that heaven and hell do in fact exist, but not in the sky or deep underground. They are both possible here on earth, in the way we treat each other.
Through that lens, hell is the way we’re taught to think about the world around us. But heaven is in the way people actually talk to you when you get involved.
And what about the people who try to convince you otherwise? I’ve learned to avoid them. First, they’re wrong. Objectively, scientifically, in a peer-reviewed, data-driven way, they’re simply wrong. Not just about the obvious conspiracy theories, but even the way they throw off phrases like “the whole system is broken” or “we’re doomed” or “people suck.” It’s all more nuanced than that, and they’re just showing that they don’t get out enough.
But second, they just want you to live in the same hell they do, to justify their cynicism and rage. They’re not trying to teach you some hidden secret to make you feel better. They’re pulling you into hell. There’s a lot of good out there, you just need to go out and find it. And it starts with less scrolling through other people’s thoughts and more deciding what you actually want to do. There’s a whole world of possibility out there, ignore the naysayers and go find it!
Hackers like to talk about something’s “threat surface,” which is a way to talk about how vulnerable something is to attack. A house with all its windows and doors open is easier to burglarise than a bank that’s all locked up. And a computer with no security software on it is going to be easier to hack than computer that’s been secured. So what about our own brains? How likely is it that we can be hacked and manipulated? How big is our own threat surface? It depends on the sorts of choices you make.
For example, social media is all about making your threat surface as wide and vulnerable as possible. Every person you follow is able to say anything at any time, meaning they have permission to put you into any mood without any restrictions. That’s a lot of power! And it’s why so many timelines are toxic, and why social media can cause a lot of issues.
I used to work at Twitter, and before that I spent a long time as an active Twitter user. I got a reputation amongst my friends for trying to finagle the algorithm and product to be less overwhelming through little experiments and tests, but it was losing a battle. The whole point of social media is to see bottomless perspectives at all times. That’s the product, and it’s working as designed.
“Social media” is sort of a misnomer, because neither word really gets at what the product excels at. A better term is “Anger Bulletins.” Social media is humankind’s best invention for showing you what you should be upset at next. Just like how viruses bypass the immune system to make you sick, thought viruses bypass common sense, reason, and the benefit of the doubt to make you feel a certain way. So we end up with toxic timelines.
(Side note: the word “meme” is just a thought virus designed to spread. Some are benign, like a cute picture of a cat that spreads further than a boring picture of a lawn mower. But some are hurtful, like a juicy but untrue conspiracy theory designed to spread quicker than a rational and fact-based whitepaper.)
There’s a wonderful YouTube video called “This video will make you angry” and it talks about how angry content travels very quickly online, whereas more authentic and reasonable points of view don’t. I don’t blame us personally, we’re just looking for something to do on our phones. I don’t blame social media companies, they’re just making a communication mechanism that can indeed be used for wonderful things and make shareholder value. I don’t blame people posting content online, they’re just giving people what they want.
I don’t blame anyone, per se. But I think anyone living in 2027 is going to have to figure out how important it is to have constantly-updating content blasted into their brains in a way that can affect moods. And maybe this is why TikTok is exploding in popularity, because it focuses on things that aren’t as negative and we’re all just looking for a relief from all the angst. Maybe by 2027, the older social media companies will have receded while TikTok takes centre-stage for giving us what we really want: a balm for all the hot takes we’ve suffered through for the last decade. We aren’t built to bounce from one existential crisis to the next all day, month, and year. It’d erode anyone’s mental health, not to mention people who are already feeling hopeless and adrift.
Your mind is a precious place. It can be a meadow for you to appreciate and benefit from, or it can be a battlefield where people are stirring up despair and anger, drawing lines, and causing anxiety. Be careful about what you allow into your timeline, because what starts in your timeline ends up in your mind. And most people’s timelines are a thought-bomb blitzkrieg. It’s no wonder we’re shell-shocked.
Let me quickly explain how little I understand about China. I know they’re big. I know they’ve been growing their power on the world stage for a long time, and that pace will continue. I know they are not a democracy, and I know they are very upset when countries criticise them, challenge them, or call them to account for anything. So that’s about all I know. I can’t claim to be an expert.
But I know a thing or two about human nature and how power works. So it’s not hard to put together a series of estimations about how things will look in 2027, and then extrapolate from there. Here’s how I think the world should handle the Chinese government in 2027, which is incidentally the way I think the world should handle them in 2022: with great caution and wariness. The issue isn’t their growing power, but instead how they appear to want to abuse that power.
The first thing to know about handling China in 2027, 2022, and for the last 25 years is that China reacts with toddler-levels of emotional intensity to almost anything regarding diplomacy. Most things are responded to “in the strongest possible terms” or is “vigorously denied.” China routinely talks about “playing with fire” and angrily denounces nearly everything. Diplomatically speaking, they’re babies. And it’s not a good look, because when everything is a priority, it all becomes noise. Like a baby that never stops crying.
The second thing to understand about China is that they are very powerful, getting more powerful every day, and will not be less powerful in the foreseeable future. It’s not just their giant population and their giant economy. It’s the fact that they have a lot of strength and they’re hell-bent on using it wherever they can, with nearly no regard for global stability, best practices, treaties, or the sovereign rights of other nations. They’ve made it clear in words and actions, so there’s an objective record to refer to. If anything, they’re getting more brazen with how they wield their influence and power.
The third thing to understand about China, at least as much as it pertains to this essay pertaining to 2027, is that China will never allow Taiwan to be an independent nation. It is its own country, of course. China has never controlled it, of course. Them invading Taiwan would be as dangerous, evil, and doomed as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try. China have a clear long term goal of bringing Taiwan to heel, and now they’re just trying to figure out the best way to do it. Much like criminals who get mad at the police for disrupting their illegal plans, China is very angry when anyone reminds China that invading Taiwan would be a bad idea.
As governments, the world should continue understanding these three things. The Chinese government is angry, powerful, and want as much land as possible. But what about as people? What can we do? It’s not like my personal decisions can stop them from invading a sovereign nation. It’s not like I can pick up the phone and encourage China to be more reasonable about things. So what can I do? It starts with understanding how much power each of us have.
I can understand that giving a talk in China, or traveling there as a tourist, tacitly supports them. And in aggregate, millions of people supporting them versus not supporting them can indeed make a difference over time. So I’ll be doing my part. China doesn’t deserve my respect or my money.
In 2027, I don’t expect China to control Taiwan. But it’s clear China will still be powerful, will still claim ownership of the island, and will be absolutely apoplectic with rage about any criticism, no matter how reasonable or measured. The best thing we can do is something Hillary Clinton said about Donald Trump in 2016: when someone shows you who they are, believe them.
By 2027, Russia will be more like North Korea than Poland. Russia is accelerating that shift by doing a better job destroying itself than any other country could. Over the past six months, Russia has gone from angrily denying any plans for invading Ukraine to gleefully invading Ukraine, then claiming they were forced into it by evil forces arrayed against them. Then they went from angrily denying that they failed to take Kyiv to to desperately fighting to hang onto the small gains they’ve made in the east. They’ve gone from laughing off threats of sanctions to saying they’re unfair as their economy collapses underneath them.
The book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible goes into detail as it attempts to explain contemporary Russian culture. The thesis is right there in the title: Russia is a place with no foundation, and where truth has no place. The smartest assumption is that everyone is lying and no one can be trusted. And that’s certainly how the war has panned out, and there’s no reason to believe that will change significantly by 2027.
People of the world should support the countries attempting to resist Putin’s Hitler-esque march across Europe. But otherwise we should ignore them. Nothing the government says has merit or value. As with the news and social media, the best way to handle the flood of lies is to ignore them. We know better, and with every lie we get better at spotting the next one. Russia has done more than any other country at helping us to understand disinformation, and will do more than any other in explaining what happens when a country throws away all its goodwill and refuses to correct course.
I worked at Twitter and part of my job was fighting disinformation, so I have some opinions about the role big tech plays in society.
Imagine being a police chief in crime-plagued Chicago, talking to people all day, setting up task forces, coordinating with local leaders, politicians, churches, schools, and journalists. Imagine the issue being so important to you that you make it your entire life. Imagine it keeps you up at night and is the main thing you talk about with your therapist. Imagine it causing problems in your relationships, maybe even leading to divorce. Imagine it’s your whole reason for waking up in the morning. Imagine eating, drinking, breathing, and sleeping police work and seeing that random commentators saying you’re doing a bad job seem to have more credibility than you, the person orienting their entire life around the work.
This applies to any field. If you really care about immigrants, you’ll work with immigrants. If you really care about the environment, you’ll work at a job like being a lawyer for the EPA. If you really care about racial justice, you’ll get involved in the organisations putting that cause forward. And if you really care about disinformation and the world living online, you’ll go work at one of the big tech companies building those worlds. That’s who’s there, the people who care. Every single one of them.
Think about it: the people there could get paid just as much working on some lesser-importance and lower-drama project for the same salary. So why bother? Why dedicate themselves to building a better, more inclusive, less toxic, superior online future? Because they care enough to put their skin in the game, meaning each one of them are making a bigger positive impact than all their critics combined.
Which doesn’t mean they’re getting the results they want to see. And it doesn’t mean we should just let big tech companies do whatever they want. In fact, I think Big Tech should be more tightly regulated, and of course Twitter and Meta have done heaps of things I disagree with. And this doesn’t mean I don’t see a role for people outside Big Tech to express their displeasure, because democracy is about proposing new ideas and getting people to enact them.
But I think we need to understand the role of Big Tech and the importance of getting involved. These are people diving into a highly-charged public arena to try and bend things closer to the way they think the future should work. Disagree with them? Great. Beef up your resume, get a job there, and make a difference. Or run for congress to lobby for stricter regulations. The future, as ever, belongs to people taking action. And based on the people I know working on these problems, the future is bright. The more I learn, the brighter it looks. There’s a lesson there.
AR won’t replace, it will augment One of the biggest mistakes we make in tech is thinking that a technology will “kill” another technology. But multiple things exist at once. We used to have Nintendo games, sports, and cable. Now we have more cable, more Nintendo games, but also streaming media, social media, a wider range of sports than before, VR headsets, and lots of other new ways to spend our time. We used to have text messaging on our phones, then we had Blackberry text messaging, then we upgraded to WeChat, WhatsApp, and iMessage. But standard text didn’t go anywhere. So that’s thing one: understanding that technology just keeps adding to what we already have. It doesn’t replace it outright.
Futurists love to say “do you really think you’re going to be pressing your finger on glass for the rest of your life?” They’re pitching a future where there are exciting new ways to interact with hardware and software like headsets and gestures, and I don’t disagree that will happen. But in 20 years we’re still going to be touching glass with our fingers, just like how we still use keyboards despite their being invented in 1714. Even if we also have awesome AR/VR experiences, we’re never going to get away from touching glass. And that’s ok! New technologies will augment rather than replace what we have today.
AR won’t prove itself right away Everything needs to earn its right in someone’s life. The iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player by a long shot, and it didn’t really take off for years. The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone and it also took a while to prove itself. It’s the same story with all tech, from websites to video games to electric cars. AR will need to prove itself with very clear benefits, over a long period of time. It won’t just walk in and win everyone over immediately. Nothing ever has.
AR versus VR I was asked to brainstorm scenarios for VR and AR a few years ago. My final deliverable was a bunch of sharpie drawings exploring different concepts, pinned to a wall. Afterward, it was clear that AR and VR are playing in very different spaces. VR takes over your entire vision by putting your head in a helmet, but AR adds things to your vision by overlaying them on what you’re looking at. There are thousands of scenarios that can be improved by AR: grocery shopping, driving, going on a walk, watching a game on traditional television, playing with your kids, chores and errands, or cooking dinner, for starters.
On the other hand, disappearing into a immersion bubble is where VR shines. But those scenarios aren’t well-matched for things people do in an average day. Sure, some of the games like Beat Saber are fun. And yes, I can see the benefit of wearing a helmet to hang out with people in VR Chat and explore user-generated content together. But it’s niche now, and I suspect it will be still be niche in five years. SecondLife has been around for decades, and better hardware and software isn’t going to magically make it mainstream.
(As a side note, the concept of “mainstream” is changing too. Something can have 100 million users and still not feel like a mainstream thing. So for this discussion, let’s say the “mainstream” is about as common as having an iPad or video game system in your home.)
AR has a real shot at the mainstream. Imagine walking into a grocery store and seeing arrows pointing you directly to the baby formula you’re looking for. You could do the same in an IKEA warehouse, which means you could use it in any warehouse job on the planet, as a worker or customer. Or in any scenario that requires any kind of wayfinding. That would mean never having to search for anything again, which is a powerful idea. In video games, they call this a HUD, for “heads-up display,” and it’s the sort of thing you could see changing history into two halves: before HUDs hit the mainstream and afterwards.
But it’s not just about finding directions, of course. It’s also about providing context for the world around you. You should be able to look at a tree and know what kind of tree it is. Or look at a restaurant and know what kind of reviews it has. Or look at a menu and have vegetarian options highlighted. Or look at a sign in another language and understand what it says. A HUD interface could give us a kind of contextual x-ray vision for anything we see.
This would have broad application across whole swaths of academia and practical applications in real life. What if a doctor could look at your hand, see you forming a fist, and get a readout describing potential issues with mobility and next steps to explore? What if they could do this without a special scanner, wait times for tests, or having to rely on a single doctor’s analysis or perspective? It would change and improve every field. Medicine, sports, cartography, education, art, you name it. Once something like that is widespread, we’d wonder how we lived without it.
What if you’re an architect standing in a large, empty room with a few clients and you’re all trying to visualise how the room would look with a plush carpet? Or a chandelier? Or a statue with a beautiful fountain? Today you’d show them a series of images on your phone perhaps. But once we can augment people’s vision in real time, the entire world will change. We’ll never want to go back.
None of these ideas are particularly new, I’m just reciting them from other things I’ve read. I think it’s clear we’ll have something like this by 2027. It’s not hard to see how AR can make that leap. But full VR with our heads in helmets? I’m not as convinced.
So how might the biggest companies in the world deliver on the promise of augmented reality? (Another term is MR, for “mixed reality”) Microsoft has HoloLens, Xbox, and of course Windows, the most popular operating system in the world. Meta has the Quest and lots of mixed reality IP, plus they’ve called their shot by saying they’re going to build the metaverse. And of course we’ve got Apple, who has practically everything else. That’s a provocative statement. Let me explain.
It’s clear from the outside that Apple operates as a giant unit, even as it coordinates across multiple teams in its org structure. But I got a whole other appreciation for what they’re able to do when my Windows Phone team competed against their iPhone about a decade ago. On theory, you’d think we were working with similar strengths, but in practice it wasn’t a fair fight.
At Microsoft, we used to put out one release a year, like Apple. We worked on our own hardware and software, like Apple. We had to deal with carriers and other third parties, like Apple. We had highly skilled designers, developers, researchers, and all the other roles needed to make great products like Apple. But where we seemed to be a fleet of different organisations all attempting to work together with mixed results, Apple seemed to move as a powerful coordinated organism. It was maddening, and it’s what Apple is going to execute against their competitors in the AR space. Let’s analyse what Apple has today and what it might need in order to do mixed reality well.
First, any company in this space needs to be really good at hardware and have their own phone. Microsoft doesn’t have this, and neither does Meta. Google kind of does, but very few people use Pixels. So anything on the hardware side would need to work with “Android,” which is a sprawling matrix of different things that is a lot harder than Apple supporting its own iPhone product.
Second, it would be very helpful to have tight vertical integration between hardware, software, and services, all backed up by a really fantastic list of user accounts. That user base, as hard as it may be, is the easiest part. Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Google, Meta, and Twitter have their own, not to mention Epic, Roblox, and plenty more. But no one has integration with hardware, software, and services like Apple. It’s not even close.
Third, it’s good to have your own low-power and high-performance chips. For a long time, Intel was the biggest name in the space. Then came AMD. And then about ten years ago, Apple dove in with Apple Silicon. I won’t restate all the eye-popping numbers here, but they sound too good to be true. It’s to a point where you can’t even compare a Windows laptop to a Mac laptop because the difference in speed and power usage is so extraordinarily different. The same goes for iPhones versus Android phones. (The slowest and cheapest iPhone chip is faster than the most expensive Android chip. Sounds incredible, but it’s true and the benchmark tests back it up.)
Fourth, it’s important to have a huge ecosystem of great developers who want to develop for your platform. Again, Apple has the lead here and second place isn’t even that close. There are far more Android devices in the world, just like how there are more more Windows devices, and yet Apple is a more profitable, compelling, and robust platform to develop for. This sets Apple up really well because AR is complex technology that requires a lot of high-tech APIs, precision, and general fit and finish implemented by motivated and skilled developers.
Fifth, it’d be helpful to have a lot of great content. Not just apps and games written for your platform, but also other products like fitness classes, a huge music catalog, tv shows and movies, a map of the entire world (including inside buildings), that sort of thing. I think the market misunderstands Apple’s pivot to services. It’s not because services are the only remaining revenue stream they can think of. It’s because you need services to build an AR layer to the world.
Imagine wearing an Apple headset or glasses and having to go through a multi-step process to get maps working before anything worked. Or having to log into multiple games services to access different games, each with their own “forgot password?” flows. What if the music in Apple’s new AR world used Spotify, and only worked with 30 second clips at a time, or piped advertisements into your ears like FM radio? It would be fine, sort of, but it would feel piecemeal and inconsistent. It’s much better when everything is provided in one place, with one payment method, in a way that appears designed by one hand. That’s something that every player in this market is going to have to recreate in one way or another. If they don’t, customers will go elsewhere. (There are echoes here with Disneyland, which I’ll talk about in a minute)
Sixth, and it’s hard to overstate the importance of this, you’d need really fantastic hardware. AirPods with spatial awareness are pretty incredible the first time you realise your devices are tracking your head movements. The Apple Watch is pretty incredible when it pairs with your headphones and phone to provide experiences that aren’t as seamless in any other way. Now add in Apple’s multi-year explorations into AR (with AR Kit), LiDAR, Ultra-Wideband support, and a bunch of hardware that all works together and you’ve got yourself a pretty powerful system. One that any competition will need to keep pace with if they’re going to compete.
That doesn’t mean that only Apple can succeed, of course. There are challenges for any company attempting something at this scale, including Apple. But what about the other ones? Let’s take Microsoft for starters.
Microsoft has Xbox, Windows, HoloLens, and a lot of money to dedicate to this new world. Their R&D teams do amazing work, and Microsoft has steadily gotten better at making products that consumers can truly love. I see two places for Microsoft to press its core strengths: business/government and gaming. No matter how cool Slack, Apple, and Google Suites are, Microsoft Teams, Microsoft, and Microsoft Office still dominate in most places around the world. If you want to roll out a program in education, or across a country, or across the Fortune 500, you’re going to look to Microsoft first. So if Microsoft decides to make a mixed reality headset that can help business/education in a big way, it’ll be Microsoft’s game to lose. For those segments, they’re still the default option, even if the SF/Tesla/Apple/hipster crowd has a blind spot for it.
The same goes for gaming. Nintendo and Sony are more successful than Xbox in raw units sold, but Microsoft is still quite strong. If Microsoft decided to make a mixed reality headset and could create a compelling vision for how it can make gaming more fun, then people would buy it in big numbers. Imagine playing your favourite video game and seeing heads-up display (HUD) information not on the television screen but in your own glasses, perfectly overlaid. That’s just to get started. There’s so much more to do in this space, and we’re at the very start of the chapter.
Meta is unique, with an entirely different set of strengths and weaknesses. They don’t have the big business or government play, and in fact a lot of governments are mad at them. They don’t appeal to the 18-34s like they used to. They don’t have the gaming market, at least not the same one that Sony and Microsoft play in. They don’t have deep experience with chips and hardware, although they’re getting better. But they do have billions of people on the social graph, and the 18-34s are still pretty thrilled with their other properties, like Instagram. They also have the Quest, which is highly rated and reviewed in the VR space, which gives them a strong hand.
Finally, they have a ton of money and strong connections with the ad/marketing worlds, so that revenue is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, even before the metaverse bears fruit. Advertisers benefit when they can target people based on their interests. Amazon might want to sell you a book on pregnancy if they think you’re expecting. Google might want to direct you to a restaurant that paid for higher placement. Meta can get even closer and make ads even more relevant because they know what you’re doing in the metaverse at all times.
The best killer app I’ve seen for VR other than Beat Saber is VR Chat. It’s wild, which is part of the joy of it. And Meta won’t be able to capture that same sense of “oh my gosh can you believe this is happening?” that VR Chat does because let’s face it: a lot of that stuff is illegal or borderline illegal. And Meta is too large, and under too much legal scrutiny, to turn a blind eye to that. But that could also be its greatest strength. No one knows moderation like Meta. Certainly not Apple.
Before Disneyland, theme parks had a reputation for being shady, so families didn’t spend time there. The genius of Walt Disney, who some consider to be the first “experience designer,” was to take the fun of traditional carnival rides but meticulously think of every detail of the overall park experience so entire families could enjoy themselves together.
I think the world of VR will go through a similar process. Right now everything is possible on VR Chat because the moderation is minimal. And that has its own dark charms, like seedy carnivals of the past. But most people want moderation, and a well-lit, enjoyable, fun space to enjoy time with family and friends. Meta knows social better than any other company, and sometimes it feels like Apple knows social and gaming less than any other company. So when it comes to moderation, social graphs, fun things to do, and an experience where you can bring your family, Meta has a real shot at trying to pull a Disneyland in this new space.
I wonder if Apple will just dodge VR entirely, and focus instead on overlaying a HUD over the whole world. That’s how I could see 2027 panning out. Apple dominating in AR and Meta dominating in VR. Apple attempting to augment your life by leveraging its strength, and Meta making your second, virtual life a fun and enjoyable place like Disney did about 80 years ago.
The environment and climate change are both really big deals. As the environmentalists like to point out, there’s no “planet B.” If we destroy the earth and make in uninhabitable, then there’s nothing we can do, and that would be a disaster. To put it lightly. But it’s important to match our emotions to our actions, and find ways to make a real impact.
Reading news every day about how there’s a new flood, a new fire, a new drought, a new migration issue, and so forth isn’t going to help much. It will just make us feel more hopeless, and less likely to want to do something. It will also make us less likely to find compromise because we’ll be so overwhelmed by the size of the task that nothing at all will feel like it’s good enough. Sound familiar?
The key for the future, whether 2027 or 2057, is to be aware of threats without getting so depressed that you can’t get out of bed in the morning. Our entire lives will be filled with headlines of changing weather patterns and a changing planet. I don’t need to read another climate article again, as long as I live, to remind me that climate change is happening. Nor do I need the articles to spur further action. I just need to know to vote for policies and people who are going to try and move things in a better direction. That’s not something I need the news to remind me of every day, and neither do you.
On the other side, it’s important to recognise wins. As I write this, the Biden Administration has passed the largest bill in history for addressing climate change. Emissions have been decreasing year over year in most industrialised nations. Europe hit their emissions peak in the early 90s. America hit theirs 15 years ago, when George W Bush was still president. When I see people holding signs that say “we need politicians to finally act,” they’re ignoring a really important detail: we started making progress in the 70s, and that progress is continuing. Hardly anyone — corporations, countries, or people — are standing still on this issue, and it’s ethically questionable to pretend otherwise.
The smartest thing to do in order to prepare for the future is to sort everyone into groups. Group one is going to actively work on climate change as their life’s work. Scientists, policy-makers, educators, artists, intellectuals, folks like that. These people have been working for decades, will continue working, and their numbers are much larger than anyone realises. Group two are the people who are aware of the work being done on the front lines and are continuing to support group one with votes, donations, and other forms of support and action.
Group three are the people who claim we’re not doing anything. (They’re wrong) Group three are the ones standing on the sidelines saying nothing will be good enough so we should all roll over and die. Group three writes alarming articles without helping us understand the context of what’s working and what’s not. Group three are doing less than nothing, they’re making the rest of us feel hopeless, and actually making things worse.
Group one is leading. Group two is following. And group three, as the old adage goes, needs to get out of the way. Do whatever you can to get out of group three. Because it’s group three that may actually cause the disaster scenarios they’re the most concerned about.
I listened to a podcast where a host claimed that he was really upset about climate change and he compared it to watching a car drive over a cliff from the backseat. He described wanting to leap into the driver’s seat, take over the wheel, and save us from the cliff. And I get that. But his metaphor might have been more apt than he realised. Because things are perilous right now, so I trust the drivers of the car (scientists, policy-makers, business and community leaders) to try and get us out of a tough spot more than an upset Very Online Podcast Host who thinks he’s the only one that sees the danger, and has a bit of a cowboy mentality about.
We all see the threat. We are all living through the effects. The only question now is who’s going to lead, who’s going to follow, and who needs to get out of the way. Either you care enough to take action, care enough to support the people taking action, or you’re just talking. Or worse, making other people feel as hopeless as you. If you want to focus on environmental policy, please do! But if you don’t, support the efforts of others. That’s what will help the most.
I’ll be talking about this more in upcoming issues of Near Future Field Notes, but artificial intelligence is going to make things really weird in a hurry. We’re already living through an era where news articles you’re reading might be written by a computer. We’re already living through an era where some amazing art is being made by a computer, with no human graphic designer necessary. We’re already living through an era where automated moderation makes up a huge portion of what is allowed and disallowed online. It’s already happening in ways large and small. Stay tuned for later issues of Near Future Field Notes and I’ll dive into this more.
Today I heard a good point: when it comes to digital content, you need to decide which things you care about the most and dedicate time to truly owning them. For example, an artist might decide that their digital portfolio is too important to host in the cloud by some random startup. So they might make a point to save all their digital artwork on their computer, backed up in multiple places. That way no matter what happens to the start-up company, the artist’s most important files are safe and portable to any other system.
I care a lot about my writing, so I save everything in plain text. I don’t want to put all my writing into Word or Google Docs, not because I think Microsoft or Google will go out of business, but because I want the words to be as pure as possible. That means no formatting, no special software to read or write to it, and no way for it to be taken from me. So I set up a system where all my work is automatically uploaded into GitHub every night, and there’s nothing but raw text data. It’s awesome, and freeing. I call it the “cult of plain text” and most of my friends are happy members of this way of storing text files.
But you can’t do this with everything in your digital life. For example, most people throw all their photos onto Instagram. That’s fine, because Instagram will still exist in 50 years. But if you want to quickly load Instagram and edit every image with a watermark, you can’t. If you want to add a border to everything at once, you can’t do that either. The service gives you a very narrow set of tools, mostly around posting and looking at other people’s stuff, so if you want any greater level of control, you’re out of luck. But most people don’t need that additional control, so the tradeoff is worth it.
Thinking about your own digital life, you’ll probably find you don’t have the time and energy you need to save very much off of the cloud. The hassle of downloading everything locally, or leaving Instagram entirely, isn’t worth it to most people. So many people decide they’re ok with the narrow set of features that Instagram allows.
I think a lot of people are stick in an in-between state, where they really care a lot about their text or photos, but they’re hosting them on unreliable or limited services. This was a problem for decades, it’s a problem now, and it will be a problem in 2027. But the key is to figure out which things you care a lot about, pull down local copies of them, and then let go of the other stuff. Is it important to have an archive of every tweet you ever wrote? Probably not. But if so, get archiving! Take it into your own hands!
I realised as I edited and narrated this edition of Near Future Field Notes that most of these essays can be boiled down to a clear set of steps:
Which, totally accidentally, is the serenity prayer! That’s the one that says “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
I would have given this advice to someone living through World War Two, or during The Inquisition, or in 1979, the year I was born. A lot of bad stuff was happening that year. Or 2007, the year we welcomed our first child into the world right before the world economy melted down. I’d give the advice today and I’d give the advice at any point in the future.
Things are going to change, and that’s ok. Some things will feel really big, which is normal. Figure out a way to address the things you want to spend time on, accept the things you don’t, and do your best for yourself the people around you. When I look at every topic in the future at once, it can feel scary and dystopian. But when I talk to the people who are committing themselves to big problems, I get a lot more optimistic. When I realise I can be one of those people helping, I get excited.
And that’s why I wrote this issue. This is one of my ways to help make the future a little bit better. Providing context, insight, and hope. Now pass it on.