Monday, April 15, 2013

A Letter to the Class of 1988, from One of Your Future Selves

My high school class is holding its twenty-fifth reunion this summer, and unfortunately, due to a conflict with a professional conference, I will probably not be able to attend. I thought instead I might reflect on the extent to which the world has changed - and not changed - since 1988, and to put my reflections into the form of a letter, slightly snarky and occasionally vague (though easily deciphered by 2013 observers), from my 43-year-old self to all of the seniors with whom I graduated. What mostly emerges from these reflections is a reminder that it is very difficult to predict the future, particularly when it comes to politics. (Technological changes are a little easier to predict.) As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., asked some years ago, "Who in 1940 would have guessed that the next three presidents after FDR would be an obscure back-bench Missouri senator, a lieutenant colonel in the army, and a Harvard undergraduate?"

Anyway, here's the letter:


Dear Students of the Class of 1988:

Hello there. It's one of your classmates, reporting, in a virtual-time-traveling/wishful-thinking sort of way, on the changes that have occurred in the world since your graduation a quarter-century ago.  While I can't be too precise about the events of the last 25 years (that would spoil all the surprises for you), I can say that most of what happened in the world in the 1990s and 2000s was beyond the power of all but the craziest futurologists to predict.

1) No, we haven't had a nuclear war, nor have we been conquered by the Soviet Union. Actually, we call it "Russia" now, and it's smaller than it was in your day.

2) As you might have guessed if you have been following Mr. Gorbachev's career for the past few years, the Cold War is over. The bankers won.

3) Our current Worldwide Existential Threat is global warming, which many of you are going to hear about for the first time this summer (1988). Some people deny it exists. Let me note that summer temperatures in Australia now reach the 110s and 120s (Fahrenheit), and the Arctic Ocean is nearly ice-free for part of the year.

4) Japan has not become the world's leading economy. China is going to be taking that role, unless they poison all of their air and water first.

5) Sub-Saharan Africa was pretty messy in the 1990s, with a frightening genocide in one country and a war in another country that has killed over three million people.  Currently, though, the continent is experiencing 5 percent annual economic growth, and there's a big amateur film industry in Nigeria, of all places.

6) Also, South Africa has changed somewhat since 1988. Mostly peacefully, mostly for the better.

7) There is still no cure for AIDS, but we have drugs that make the disease manageable, and there are subsidies to provide them to poor people.

8) There is also no cure for cancer, though we have a vaccine against one common form of it.

9) The American manned space program is dormant at the moment. There is an International Space Station but it receives its supply and crew via Russian space craft. On the other hand, we have several robot cars on Mars.

10) Speaking of outer space, Pluto isn't a planet anymore (astronomers have relabeled it a "Kuiper object.") To replace it, we have discovered over 100 planets orbiting other stars. None are Earth-like, but we'll keep looking.

11) Futurologists predicted that one day every American would have in their home a machine that played TV programs, movies, music, and games, and acted as a videophone. We now have such machines – we call them "computers." Perhaps you've heard of them?

12) Okay, maybe you need more explanation. Many if not most Americans use a communications technology called the "Internet" to download entertainment and send messages and video images from their computers. Also from their "wireless devices." Also from their "phones." (There are phones today that have 100 times as much computing power as your home computers.)

13) We don't call them "videophones," by the way; we call them "Skype," after the Estonian technology company that developed the software. Yes, Estonia is a real country.

14) You can probably guess who the next president after Ronald Reagan is going to be. After him, the next three presidents will be a) the governor of a Southern state, who will be impeached for having oral sex in the White House, b) a man who will start a war with a Middle Eastern country because of daddy issues, c) a 27-year-old who's going to start law school this fall.

15) Ronald Reagan is no longer alive, which should come as no surprise because he's already 135 years old. Perhaps his most lasting legacy is economic inequality: in 2010, the top one percent of the U.S. population had six times as much wealth as the bottom 80 percent.

16) Elvis is still dead. So is his son-in-law, Michael Jackson. No, I'm not making that up.

17) The top-grossing movie of the 1990s will be a film about the Titanic by a man who currently directs sci-fi action movies. The top-grossing movie of the 2000s will be a sci-fi action movie about giant blue people, directed by the same guy.

18) Assuming you're reading this in June 1988, the top-selling music album in the United States today is by a British pop singer who is currently one month old.

19) As for our class, we're all (I think) still alive, out of jail, mostly employed, mostly content. Life goes on.


A. Student said...

Excellent list and makes me nostalgic for "Miracle Mile."

Did we know what "wireless" meant? I think the fact women can set out in their cars alone on long trips with exponentially less fear is amazing.

Also, you don't have to buy THE WHOLE ALBUM anymore. You can just get that ONE song.

You might also mention everyone now carries devices that allow them to be tracked, more or less real time, within a few yards and we pay for the privilege.

Nerds become cool and incredibly wealthy.

TV talent and variety shows are popular.

You can watch pretty much any tv or show or movie you want any time. It doesn't make you happier. There's still not a damn thing on.

Everyone has a stock portfolio.

And, ladies, you can read your p*rn in public now...50 shades, baby.

Dave Nichols said...

Good points! If you mentioned "Wireless" to someone in 1988, they would probably think it was a quaint reference to radio. (It's also the name of a novelty catalog, but I don't know when that started.)

I don't think you had to buy the whole album in 1988, either; you could buy singles on vinyl or cassette.

90% of TV still sucks, but there are so many more TV channels that the 10% of shows that don't suck is much larger and better (Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, Community, etc.)