The Future is Now … Ish

5 minute read

Let the simpletons over at the International Monetary Fund predict that in 2014 inflation will drop below GDP growth in sub-Saharan Africa. I could do that too if I wanted to get some graduate degrees in GDP, inflation and sub-Saharan Africa. But instead of just estimating the direction of known variables, I’m going to predict great philosophical shifts. Will they definitely happen in the next 12 months? Yes. I can say that with confidence since I know that there’s a 100% chance you will forget everything in this column long before the end of the year.

In 2014 some socially acceptable customs will indubitably soon gross us out, and the switch can happen as quickly as it did with Miley Cyrus in 2013. At one point, slavery was fine but asking for interest on a loan was illegal. Masturbation was a sin, homosexuality was a mental illness, the UFC was outlawed in most states, and gluten was served at the start of meals. By the end of this year, something you’re doing right now will be considered repugnant, most likely by your spouse, despite the fact that when you first met, your spouse found it attractive.

To find out what will become repugnant and unrepugnant this year, I called Alvin Roth, a Stanford professor who won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Economics. His 2007 paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “Repugnance as a Constraint on Markets,” discusses pornography, prostitution, horse meat and dwarf tossing and deeply implies that I could be considered for a Nobel Prize.

Roth feels society might loosen up soon about performance-enhancing drugs. As more people use Viagra to improve sexual performance and Adderall to study for tests, the lines between improving and curing will be so blurred, we won’t bother distinguishing. Pills that help you hit home runs will be just another legitimate technology that baseball players use, like cleats, biomechanical-feedback labs and A-Rod’s legal team. As Roth put it, “No one thinks that eating breakfast is a performance-enhancing drug.” Roth will not be receiving the Nobel Prize for knowing what the word drug means.

Then Roth showed the skills of a true prognosticator by seeming to make predictions without actually saying anything. “There are going to be a lot of reproductive choices. Some will become ordinary, and some will become repugnant,” he said. Having emotional conversations with computers with artificial intelligence, like Siri, he thought, would be acceptable, but “we will want a machine voice for some things instead of human voices so we won’t be fooled.” Also, I’m going to guess that in 2014 people will find electronic cigarettes either cool or super dorky.

Looking for specifics, I asked Roth whether meat eating might become repugnant. He thought that was a solid guess because of both the horrors of factory farming and health concerns over red meat, though everyone going vegan is more of a late-2014 thing. “We already don’t eat whale. We think whales might be smart. The next question is cows.” I’m thinking very late 2014.

This will be the year when we finally get freaked out by our lack of privacy thanks to advances like Google Glass. “Suppose looking at me was like typing my name into the Google search bar. Whenever I walked anywhere, everyone would recognize me,” Roth said, totally unaware that this is exactly what every American is working all day online to achieve. Then he put it more simply: “Think about urinals in stalls. You didn’t use to worry about it.” I didn’t want to tell Roth that he had greatly overestimated people’s fascination with the size of economists’ penises.

Roth sees repugnance fading for regular polygamy but increasing for the kind where the wives are really young, which I’m pretty sure is regular polygamy. He thinks we’ll learn to be O.K. with the idea of cloning brain-dead humans to harvest their organs. And just as we’ve learned that being gay isn’t a choice, we’ll stop making fun of obese people for the same reason. Gay obese men, of course, will still get mocked ruthlessly behind their backs by their thin gay friends.

I asked whether plastic surgery was going to be as little judged as makeup or push-up bras, and he thought that made sense. With escort services openly posted online, I asked Roth whether prostitution might be normalized. “Americans are pretty grossed out by prostitution. People like prostitution a lot less than selling organs,” he said. Roth thought he could prove this through various polls. I can prove the opposite by the fact that no World War II soldier opened his front door years later to find a Filipino kidney calling him Dad.

It might be hard for you to imagine that by the end of this year we’ll have an obese, polygamist, vegan President on steroids who keeps a brain-dead clone of himself around for spare parts, especially since we’re not having a presidential election this year. But that’s why you don’t have a Nobel Prize for Economics. Morality is a quickly shifting thing, and those who hold on to previous iterations become villains. Which is why I predict the Awesome Column will be a lot less judgmental this year. I’m really banking on the fact that no one remembers these prediction columns.

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