How to expect the unexpected

A couple of days ago, in Utopias, dystopias, and other traps, I wrote about the pitfalls of imaging a future whether either everything is completely awful, or unimaginably perfect — which often turns out to be secretly awful, anyway.

Other than digging a deep, deep hole and cowering in it, there’s really nothing you can do to prepare yourself for either.


So most people go about their business assuming that the future is going to be just like to day, except more so.

While this saves them from having to live in a hole, it also means that they get blindsided by developments and fail to take advantage of potential opportunities.

The impossible is inevitable

Step back in time to the mid-1980s. We all knew that we’d eventually die in a nuclear war, that Madonna was going to destroy our society’s moral values, and that you used a computer by typing in things on a keyboard. The Mac, which came out in 1984, was widely viewed as a toy.

Could you have foreseen — could anyone have foreseen — that, in a relatively short time frame, we would be carrying around a device that gives us instant access to an encyclopedia a hundred times bigger, but just as reliable, as the Britannica?

As of February 2014, the text of the English language version of Wikipedia would fill almost 2,000 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

As of February 2014, the text of the English language version of Wikipedia would fill almost 2,000 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

That many of the most popular software platforms would be created by volunteers working together and donating code?

That, at any moment, any of one of us could learn how to do anything or connect to anyone on the planet?

We can extrapolate from that. In the coming metaverse twenty years from now we can practice doing anything at all, guided by the world’s best teachers. And we won’t be able to just connect to anyone at all, but form relationships with them through working together, volunteering together, having fun together, or sharing other experiences.

Any experience — educational, entertaining, therapeutic, or social — will be instantly accessible by anyone, at any time.

Of course, extrapolation won’t help us foresee some of the emergent phenomena that will arise. Like crowdsourcing. Or social media. Or DogeCoin. But it’s one place start.

Dogecoin we trust.

What are some of the business possibilities created by the ability to share experiences with large numbers of people, no matter where they are?

Needs of the future

Another way of trying to predict the future is to try to imagine what we would be spending our money on if we had unlimited amounts of it.

So, for example, today you might mow your own lawn. If you were rich, you might buy a robot to mow your lawn or hire a service. If you were very very very very rich, you might hire a professional lawn designer to ensure that the every blade met your emotional needs.

So, in the future, all of us with lawns might be having them custom-designed, as a combination of better lawn management technology and increased spending power. After all, if we’re spending less money for food and physical goods, we have to spend on money somewhere else. And there’s only so much entertainment we can consume.

In fact, this is already happening, with the emergence of previously-unheard of occupations such as professional closet organizer. And services such as personal chefs and personal shoppers becoming slightly more affordable for more of us.

In the future, each of us will have a personal stylist, personal assistant, and personal pillow-fluffer, with varying degrees of automation depending on how much we can afford to spend.

What else do only rich people have today, that more and more of us would want to have tomorrow? What are the possibilities this creates for new types of work, for jobs, for new businesses?

Future work sounds

There’s also a third trend I’ve noticed in how work evolves. Think of some of the jobs that have been created over the past few years just because of technology.

Etsy, for example, allows people to knit cute cat pillows for a living. Before the Internet, it would have been hard for a would-be cat pillow knitter to find enough people looking for cute cat pillows to justify switching to that as a career.

And, speaking of cats, there are now people making a living by being the owners of famous cats. Not trained cats. But cats who look grumpy, or who like to jump into boxes.

The cat might be grumpy, but the owner is smiling all the way to the bank.

The cat might be grumpy, but the owner is smiling all the way to the bank.

Then you’ve got the YouTubers making money by playing video games sarcastically, making fun of music videos, or showing people how to put on makeup. There are artists funding their projects on IndieGoGo. English tutors meeting their students over Skype. Writers self-publishing their fan fiction on Amazon. Professional online poker players. Web cam strippers. Gold farmers.

This is the part I like best about technology. It allows us to replace dull, menial jobs like farming or factory work with fun, creative, personally fulfilling jobs.

And even the traditional jobs become more creative. The dairy farmer becomes the artisanal cheese maker, for example.

This is going to play out in two ways.

First, the menial and routine part of existing jobs will be eliminated. On the plus side, you’ll get to do more fun, more creative work, more meaningful work. On the down side, there will be fewer of the fun jobs available compared to the number of menial jobs that existed before.

Second, activities which were previously unprofitable hobbies because customers were too hard to find might now become viable.

Say, for example, you’re an adult who likes playing hide-and-seek. Chances are, there aren’t too many adults around who share the same interest. If there are, say, ten other people out there on the planet that like to do this, bringing them together to a single physical location might be impractical — but a virtual version of the same game could be affordable for everyone. And might, in fact, help create a community of players that might eventually grow large enough to support physical, real-world conventions.

Originally a Portlandia episode, this became a real thing.

Originally a Portlandia episode, this became a real thing.

Or you might enjoy teaching people how to gather wild mushrooms. Your local area might have enough interested people to allow you to run a workshop and do a hike once in a while. Moving the workshop and hike into the virtual world would allow you to expand your potential customer base dramatically.

What other activities could potentially improve people’s lives, but are too impractical to monetize today?

The nightmare scenario

For me, the worst possible future is one where each of us has everything he or she needs, everything is free, there is no money, and we can hang out with our friends all day, or sit around and watch TV or play video games.

For some people, this sounds like the exact definition of utopia.

To be fair, this guy was a teenager. A pants-less, basement-dwelling phase is to be expected.

To be fair, this guy was a teenager. A pants-less, basement-dwelling phase is to be expected.


It’s easy enough to test out how happy you would be — just move into your parents’ basement. Your needs will be taken care of, you won’t have any money, and the only thing you’ll be able to do all day is watch TV, play video games, and hang out with your friends.

Imagine that. No bills to pay. No classes to go to. No job. Sleep in as late as you want. Hang out in your bathrobe all day.  Not for a day. Not for a week, or a month. For ever. It’s pretty much a description of clinical depression, isn’t it?

We feel sorry for people who are in this situation. We don’t think they’re lucky, though we might have a couple of hundred years ago, when this lifestyle was only available to the nobility.

Fortunately, this isn’t a particularly likely scenario.

The unemployment rate isn’t affected by technological obsolescence, except in very limited, local ways. Otherwise, only 1 percent of us would be farming, and the other 99 percent sitting around idly waiting for the farmer to come along with our food.

No, what happened in practice is that eventually people found things to do that the farmer was willing to trade things for. Manufacturing. Medical care. Construction. Transportation. Communication. Entertainment.

One final preview of the future

You want to know what a virtual reality future might look like, and what kinds of jobs and businesses might appear?

Just take a look at Second Life. In Second Life, you can create anything you want, for free, out of thin air. You’re never hungry or tired or cold.

So what happens? It turns out some people are better at creating clothing out of thin air than others, and the second group is willing to pay the first group to do it for them. Some people are better at creating houses, or plants, or virtual pets. Some people are better at hosting parties, or organizing fashion events, or leading role playing games.

And doing things for other people fulfills a key human need. The need to be appreciated, to be respected, to be valued.

You can’t replace that. Having an animated character tell us we’re great is better than a slap in the face, sure, but it’s even less meaningful than the fast food employee wishing us a nice day. Sure, it’s better than dealing with a surly clerk, but it won’t provide meaning for our lives.

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Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China. Follow me on Twitter @MariaKorolov.

7 Responses

  1.' Minethere says:

    “that Madonna was going to destroy our society’s moral values” she didn’t? hmmm…well, maybe it was Antonio, then, he always seemed to me to have a sinister look about him, but in a handsome rakish kinda way. And since they once dated, well….

    See what I mean?

  2.' Joey1058 says:

    I can’t begin to tell you how many “the robots are taking our jobs” stories I’ve seen. People just don’t realize that the future that was envisioned from the turn of the 20th century has already been ensconced. We have space flight. We have satellite communications. We have robots. But because it doesn’t match the universe created by Hanna-Barbera in the Jetsons, no one recognizes it. Yes, automation is advancing in leaps and bounds, but if a person isn’t aware of their talents to begin with, then they might as well continue living in their parent’s basements. I’ve been employed as a computer repairman in RL, and online in SL as a writer. I do jobs in Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk”. And of course my main employment source right now is a line cook. Employment will blend between physical and virtual more and more often to the point where a physical job in a location other than the home will be a novelty. Monetary value is in a constant state of flux, with different currencies attempting to dominate for control. I have values in Linden Dollars, IMVU Credits, manufacturer’s coupons, Bitcoins, and US dollars. There will not be a single unified currency for many years to come. But the key to everything I’m saying is that one needs to let go of the old ways of thinking, if it bogs you down. And embrace something you value that benefits your own personal worth.

  3.' Paul says:

    Capitalist economies will tend towards Post-Scarcity economies. This is because of competition.

    When you have a capitalist economy, it include competition where businesses compete with each other do deliver goods and services (products). However, to out compete your competitors, you must offer your products in a way that people prefer yours.

    This could be because you add features to your products, make a better quality product, or offer them cheaper. The added features or quality of your product, add a barrier to new businesses entering into your product niche, it can not prevent them from entering.

    An example of this is Japan after world war 2. Japan used its manufacturing infrastructure and skills to start to make products that were produced elsewhere in the world. However, at first, they could not offer products of comparable quality, but they could make them cheaper.

    As customers were willing for the cheaper, but inferior quality products, Japan’s manufacturing developed and improved to the point where it was as good (or better) than the same products elsewhere in the world.

    The only reason this worked is that Japan could offer the same products cheaper than elsewhere. If the rest of the world had reduced the price of their products in line with Japan (so offering quality products as a similar price to Japanese products), then Japan could not have succeeded as they did.

    This means that selling price is ultimately the deciding factor with a product. Sure, quality and features do count for something, but it is not as significant as price. But, if price is comparable, then quality and features will become the deciding factors.

    However, if a business is to stay competitive, then they need to make a profit equal to or greater than their competitors. But, if they are selling their product for less, then if they sell the same amount of product, then they will make less than their competitors. The only option then is to make and sell more products.

    The end result of this is to drive the price of a product down and the supply of the product up. This will reach a breaking point where the “law” of supply and demand begins to no longer apply to the product. At that point the market for the product is entering a Post Scarcity market.

    In a Post Scarcity market, the value of a product is not determined by how hard it is to product (because that is effectively 0, or near enough to have little influence on the value), but instead other factors come into play. Things like fame of the producer, style, cultural attitudes, etc.

    The way you can know what a factor is that adds value in a Post Scarcity economy is that the factor does not decrease with the amount of product available (not subject to supply/demand), and in many cases the factor can increase the greater the supply. Fame is one of these. People can become famous just for being famous (or other things – take Grumpy Cat for instance).

    Because digital media is so easily copied, and so many people now have access to the tools that allow them to create in digital media, it has pushed digital media towards a post scarcity economy. It is not there yet because businesses who are entrenched in treating media as a scarcity economy are fighting to keep it as such, but as the quality of digital media produced by more and more people continues to increase, then there will come a time (and probably not too far away) where these businesses will not be able to compete with the post scarcity businesses and they will be out competed.

    • I just happened to have picked up a book about exactly this — Robert B. Reich’s The Future of Success ( from my local library’s ebook app.

      The book dates back to the dot-com boom but it makes much the same points as would apply to the metaverse.

      Specifically, he talks about why we’re actually working MORE even though we’re more productive. And it’s not because we need the money! The more money people make, the longer the hours they work! You’d think that if they make a lot of money per hour, they’d cut back on the hours to spend more time with their families, friends, and hobbies. But no.

      He says it’s because technology is moving so fast that we have to work extra hard to stay on top of it. If we don’t, someone else will sweep in and take all our customers.

      The end result is dramatically better quality of life for the average person on the planet (a billion people lifted out of subsidence poverty in China alone) but at a cost of higher stress to the folks involved in building all this out.

      Obviously, if its gets too bad we’ll do something about it. If folks start keeling over from stress, or a lot of folks lose their jobs due to economic disruptions, we’ll extend safety nets, overtime regulations. As a country, we may be slow to take action, but when we do, our initial instinct is to over react — then we compromise the hell out of it.

      Until then, though, I guess the best any of us can do is try to be prepared, marry a spouse in a different field to diversify risk, reduc our expenses so we can save money for a rainy day, and work on improving timeless personal values that will come in handy in any situation — leadership skills, sales skills, organization skills, time management, self-disclipline.

      •' Paul says:

        I think the reason people are working more is that they are working for money not value.

        When I work, I get paid in money. So the more money offered the more I will want to work.

        However, money is not the fundamental aspect of an economy. Many people think it is, but it really isn’t. This can be demonstrated with two simple questions: Does money have a value? Does value have money?

        The first question shows that money is not fundamental because it has a value If it was fundamental, then money would not have any properties but itself.

        The second question at first glance seems like nonsense (and it is in a way). If value was not fundamental then it could conceivably have a property which is money (or some other property). But value seems to be an aspect without a property, so it appears that value is a fundamental aspect of economies.

        So Value is a fundamental property of an economy, and in fact you can view an entire economy as the movement and generation of value (not money or goods). This view of economics has many useful advantages, one of which is a way to view trade.

        When two people come to trade, they set a value on what they have, and they set a value on what the other person has. If they value what the other person has more than what they value what they have, then they are willing to trade. If both parties are willing to trade, then a trade can take place.

        Now, if we were to look at this just using money, then the first person has money and the second person places a price on their good or services they are trading. If the first person values the goods/services more than they value the amount of money set for the price, then they will be willing to trade.

        In this case, just looking at the money, when the trade takes place, the value of the money that the first person has is given to the second person and this should match the value of the goods. This would mean that there is no net gain in this system. What one gains the other looses. One might do better out of the deal, but for this to happen the other has to do worse.

        But, if we look at it with Value as the fundamental property, then the situation is very different. Because each person values what the other has more than what they have, then when they trade, their total value goes up. From this you can see that there is a big difference between Value and Money.

        This is also the key to a post-scarcity economy. It is not the price of the goods and services that is important, but it is the value gained by both parties in the trade that is important. It means that you can give something away for $0, but in that trade it would be possible to gain value.

        In a way, many business do this already. they will sell their main product at a loss because doing so gives them value which they can exchange to money later (or other things of value). This is essentially how game console companies operate. they sell their consoles at a loss, but make it up in licencing fees and game sales. Selling the console at a loss means more people will have the console, and thus more people will buy the games for it.

        It is also why LL gives their viewer software out for free (and why they made it open source for a while). It meant more people will be able to get it and thus generate more potential customers.

    •' Minethere says:

      While what you say is true, one must not forget the effects of Governmental influences on supply/demand economics…as it is very much a factor.

      For example:

      Being just one which includes all sorts of permutations on free capitalistic systems, in all sorts of way, which, in reality, are not really “free”.

      And since most people can understand, and agree, that Governments are quite often influenced by lobbyists and other such ways to promote private companies, that should always also be factored in to supply/demand considerations.

      It is much more complex that some think it is.

      [and, urgh, who is this typist who now comments about economics?? bleh]

      •' Paul says:

        Definitely. Although a Capitalist Economy is driven towards a Post Scarcity economy it is by no means a certainty that it will become one. It is possible to drive a capitalist economy away from post scarcity through many different means. It is that if no effort to avoid it is taken, then competition will force a capitalist economy into a post scarcity economy over time.

        And, it might not even be possible for capitalism to drive the economy completely to a post scarcity economy without extra effort expended to reach it (it would just get closer and closer to it without reaching it).

        Also a Post Scarcity economy is not “free”, there still needs to be an exchange of “Value” (this is the point I was making). It is just that the Value of an good or service does not rely on the law of supply and demand (it is the breaking of this law that indicates that a post scarcity economy has been reached).

        Now, to get away from economics…

        That first picture in the article reminded me of my first night in MineCraft… 😀