The Future of Suburban Life in America: Three Scenarios
By Michael Vasser, 2004
Here is a thought-provoking exploration of three scenarios for the future of American style suburbs, with a time horizon of 50 years, by Futurist.com analyst and guest writer Michael Vassar.
An analysis of the future of suburban life in America: Three Scenarios
“The first really surprising thing that a time traveler from 1954 might notice about a modern American suburb is the lack of children.”
Over the last fifty years, suburban life in America has changed in many respects. Several of the most significant of these changes stemmed from the development of technology and could in principle have been predicted ahead of time. To the best of my knowledge they were not actually predicted by anyone, primarily because popular attention was fixated on larger, more expensive and futuristic seeming mechanical technologies rather than emerging consumer goods such as television and birth control. Other relatively predictable changes resulted from demographic shifts, increasing wealth, etc. These were still more predictable. Finally, some changes have occurred as the result of the more gradual expansion of political rights and social acceptance. These might have been hoped for by the idealistic, but could not have been confidently predicted by anyone.
In these essays I will try to keep expectations and hopes distinct and to focus firmly on the former. I will discuss three possible “suburbs of the future”. The first essay will display only changes that appear practically certain. The second essay will include others that only appear likely. Given a fifty year timeframe there is quite a lot in this category. The third essay will be a leap into the abyss, a prediction of suburban life if those prognosticators of accelerating change are correct.
Essay 1: Practically Certain Futures
The first really surprising thing that a time traveler from 1954 might notice about a modern American suburb is the lack of children. “But we still have children” you protest. Of course we do, but they make up a far smaller fraction of the population and those we do have spend much less time than their precursors playing in the street or in their yards. Television, the pill, the web, and far more time consuming “extra-curricular activities” keep youthful faces off the streets. Younger children are constrained by a more invisible change. Behavioral standards for child safety have tightened to such a degree that by current standards almost every 1950s parent was negligent, and by the standards of the 1950s, almost every modern parent is neurotic.
When our time traveler progresses another 50 years he will find that the children have returned, though not in nearly the numbers in which they were once found. Now it is the elderly who appear to be almost entirely absent. Upon inquiring he will soon discover they are actually far more common than they had been in 2004, but due to a combination of exercise, diet, hormonal and genetic therapies, stem-cell replacement, and improved plastic surgery the vast majority of senior citizens are indistinguishable from forty year olds, at least to the untrained eye of a man from the mid 20th century.
The reason for the partial return of children to the streets is less obvious. The first clue is that their parents never have to call them in for dinner. The second clue is their tendency to wear glasses and their habit of talking to the air. Ultimately it is be discovered that few of the dangers of the 20th century are still relevant. Electronic tags in clothing now broadcast signals which would automatically cause any car to stop (using the irresistible van-der-walls attraction of gecko-mimetic tire patches if necessary) rather than running over a child. Nor would less sudden dangers such as getting lost be cause for concern. Almost every member of this society is in radio-contact with several other people at all times, as well as being on-line (using voice, a virtual mouse and keyboard, and augmented reality glasses or smart-paper for an interface) and precisely located by GPS. Crime is likewise unheard of, as the sensors and broadcasters on cars, clothing, etc produce a record of almost everything that happens which will be available to police if anything needs to be investigated. The dangers of traffic are further reduced by automatic enforcement of traffic laws and by the sharp reduction of traffic itself due to telepresence. Most of the people in most of the houses are information workers of one kind or another, and few of their jobs are associated with any location other than their home.
Although most yards are mowed by robot, yard-work still consumes a substantial amount of time. Raking leaves is automated, but both the jumping and the bagging must be done by humans. Ecologically minded leaf-baggers can take some consolation in the knowledge that by collecting these leaves they are preventing decomposition and removing CO2 from the earth’s atmosphere. Yard waste is the single largest source of greenhouse credits for the United states, and although coal is no longer used for energy many cars still burn oil as do all aircraft, and the US still uses more than it’s share of the much reduced pie which represents fair greenhouse emissions.
Inside the home there are more people and less stuff. Better ventilation and air filters and the presence of simple cleaning robots have removed much of the dust, but the house of 2054 is much messier than the house of today. This is once again the result of electronic tags. Neatness is unnecessary when any desired object can tell your personal computer where it is to be found. Such organization has made it much easier for many people to live together. Given that a middle class home now costs twenty years income for the median worker, as does a private school education for two children, and given that telepresence has eliminated the need to move in search of work, living together is the only option for most people. The nuclear family is dead. Those who lack acceptable relatives live with friends or don’t raise children.
Even with a computer our traveler can’t find many commonplace objects. Where are the books? The TV? The telephone? The stereo? The kids carry all of those in their pockets outside, remember? Smart paper has replaced essentially every prior physical embodiment of information. Inside the house it covers the walls, replacing posters and most paintings. One whole room is missing. The active fibers of modern clothing make a laundry room unnecessary. The bathroom has been through the most dramatic changes. A typical morning routine involves a series of medical tests using expensive diagnostic machinery, while tooth brushing is obsolete due to dental vaccinations and non-stick dental coatings. Toilets clean themselves with wipers and their users with water jets. Mirrors are obsolete, once again replaced by smart paper.
If our traveler stays for a year he will discover that the Independence Day barbecue has joined the Thanksgiving turkey as a once-per-year ritual food. Heart disease has gone the way of tuberculosis but cancer is more common than ever, and every custom that involves the consumption of burnt organic matter or any other toxic substance is on its way out. Since most of the fifteen year improvement in life-expectancy is due to healthier lifestyles, those who lack the elementary discipline to avoid consuming poison tend to die tragically in their seventies while their friends are still youthful. Technically though, our traveler cannot stay for a year, for if he does so he will force me to describe the suburbs of 2055, a year outside of the scope of this essay.
Essay 2: Probable Futures
Suburbs are basically large residential and commercial regions outside of cities but close enough to cities to afford easy access. They are favored by the American middle class because they are safe, attractive, tend to have better public schools than urban or rural areas, and offer a variety of activities without a long commute. Looking forward fifty years, we find that all of these considerations are likely to be antiquated. The safety considerations presented in the above essay hold even more strongly in cities, so the urban crime rate in Detroit in 2054 is almost sure to be lower than that in today’s downtown Singapore. Assuming that the presence of some approximation of nature is what people find attractive about suburbs, it is likely that they would find rural areas more attractive, all else being equal.
The academic aspects of schooling are as subject to improvement through telepresence as those of work, and there is no reason to expect that the children of 2054 will be grouped based on an antiquated concept such as the location of their homes. Such schooling will be seen as leading to a provincial outlook. The exponential expansion of home-schooling over the last 20 years will continue until public schools adapt to modern times, and when they do adapt, automation and telepresence will be key adaptations. The social aspects of schooling have already been replaced by the variety of structured activities that modern suburban children engage in along with other children of approximately their own age. The freedom to explore in safety and the consequent rebirth of neighborhoods will supplement this with unstructured socialization. More natural environments are once again optimal for such childhood exploration, and are sure to be embraced.
Improved high-speed transit is the remaining leg on which the expanded suburbs of 2054 will stand. Magnetic levitation trains, Moller skycar taxi services, and other small aerial vehicular designs including Josh Hall’s proposed vehicle all promise to provide ordinary people with public transit at speeds greater than 300 miles per hour. This will expand the regions with convenient access to cities to such a degree that a single extended “suburb” will stretch across the entire coastline of the US to a depth of over 100 miles.
Expansion of suburbs this far outside of their current boundaries will be assisted by a number of key developments. Cheaper space access will greatly increase the number of communications satellites in orbit, obviating the need to expand terrestrial communications networks. The development of inexpensive fuel cells and the improvement of solar and wind power will make the old electrical grid obsolete, ultimately leading to local power generation. Improved water filtration will likewise make expansion of water-distribution networks unnecessary. Other “appropriate technologies” originally developed to assist rural communities in third world nations, will ultimately make waste disposal safe, convenient, and inexpensive anywhere on earth. Between these developments, it seems likely that suburban America is going back to nature.
Essay 3: Possible Futures
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
If technology develops at an accelerating pace over the next fifty years, by the end of that time anyone who takes a trip to a suburb may find it to be deserted. In a world of fully automated agriculture industry and distribution, homes may be old fashioned. This is particularly likely in America, a nation that has always been semi-nomadic. Surely some people will stay in or around their old homes out of habit, or to tend a garden or take care of a cat, but a large fraction of the population may be permanently in a condition that we might, after grasping for a label, refer to as “on vacation” or “going camping”. The “campers” of choice will combine the functionality of a car, a VTOL flying machine, and a bedroom, bathroom, and closet. Those who do stay at home may obtain an illusion of privacy, but will not in fact be any less observed and recorded than those who go outdoors.
Ultimately, the internet, electronic tagging, nanotechnology, automation, and hydroponics should be able to replace all human labor that is not essentially creative. Local automated production, whether by nanofactories or by rooftop hydroponic gardens and 3D stem cell cultures for the production of meat will eliminate the need for most distribution, and what needs to be processed and distributed can be dealt with by robots. There is substantial reason to believe that fifty years is a plausible low-end time estimate for how long it will take to achieve such a world. Although in many ways a utopia, a world of material abundance will presumably present problems of one variety or another. A caveman would think the idea of a supermarket utopian. The most obvious cost is that in a world where it is possible to live well without working, certain services will be entirely unavailable. For instance, people who enjoyed luxury in a technologically advanced society might look back with nostalgia to the days when it was possible to buy a gourmet meal every day, even while dining on an instant meal worthy of a good restaurant by today’s standards. At any rate, the transition to such a world will probably not be complete by 2054. If the transition is almost complete and almost all production and distribution have been automated, a variety of essential products, such as certain pharmaceuticals, may not be available (although most pharmaceuticals will probably be generated biologically within the bodies of consumers). This could be tragic. Hopefully, if such a transition appears to be in the works, everyone dependant on an obscure product of highly skilled labor will think to stock up ahead of time. Refrigeration should be pretty good by 2054.
The crucial difficulty regarding the transition to such a world is that of motivating the workers for the few essential jobs that remain. Unless we are to rely on the justice of the mob it will be necessary to retain some law enforcement apparatus. These workers will presumably be motivated by a feeling of importance. It is an open question whether this will be a good thing or a bad thing. A particular cause for concern is the power of governments released from any financial limitations. Rousseau claimed that when his belly is full the noble savage is the friend to all the world but primatology and anthropology do not confirm this belief. A cynic might assert that liberated from his dependence on allies to help him on the hunt our ignoble savage will have little motivation to allow them to live and compete with him for mates. If so, the suburbs of 2054 may not be as safe as I would wish. They begin to remind me of today’s suburbs where every Saturday morning boys are free from school and related practical needs, free to pay attention to what boys find fundamentally interesting. Cartoons, video games, and other opportunities to battle mindlessly. Lets hope that when these boys retire they can restrain themselves and their children, keeping such instincts repressed whenever they emerge from their virtual realities.
American Federation for Aging Research