A Brave New You

Will race and nationality bind us or free us in the future? A psychological profile of the next century.

I used to watch reruns of “Star Trek” with my son, and I often mused, as I followed those stirring adventures, that although we have brilliant powers of imagination regarding technological and even political changes, we seem to wax wimpy when it comes to imagining any fundamental psychological changes. There on the screen were all those gallant men and women of the far-distant future, acting in pretty much the same way as the characters in World War II movies.

But psychological changes have taken place over the course of history and are taking place now. The difficult part is knowing where it all leads. It’s so much easier to comprehend the stunning imaginary futures of science fiction than it is to imagine a world in which people are really much different from, say, Harry and Bess Truman. Can we do that?

The following four scenarios of life in the 21st century tell stories about two different kinds of progress. First is what most people think of when they use the word “progress” — continued expansion of the world economy with increasing output of goods and services; rapid development of new high-tech wonders; and high mobility, lots of travel, lots of immigration. The second is psychological — movement beyond the modern self toward more multifaceted, changeable, decentralized identities, or even toward the no-self consciousness sometimes called enlightenment or liberation.

These scenarios, remember, are meant not only for imagining the future, but also for illuminating the present.

Click on the chart to see 4 different scenarios for the future.

Walter Truett Anderson is the author of several books. His upcoming book, The Future of the Self (Tarcher/Putnam, 1998), examines the concept of identity from multiple perspectives — medicine, religion, cyberspace, global politics, psychology, and economics — investigating the changes to identify in a postmodern world.


Low economic growth, technological progress,and globalization; high psychological development.

A worldwide economic depression sets in early in the 21st century, along with a series of ecological disasters — including global climate change, massive air and water pollution, and plagues caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria — which are widely regarded as having been caused by technology. Gradually there builds a global consensus around the idea that the 20th century’s preoccupation with economic and technological growth was a kind of mass delusion. A new ethic emerges based on the twin values of living lightly on the planet and living lightly within the values, beliefs, and institutions inherited from the past — respecting them, even preserving them, but not being too tightly bound by them. Distinctions of nationality, race, tribe, ethnicity, class, and gender cease to have much meaning, and people generally seem willing to cooperate and manage the available wealth. Although technological change no longer gallops ahead as it did in the late 20th century, telephone service now extends to most of the world and allows people everywhere to communicate and to share information. But there is much less migration and travel than in the past, and tourism is no longer one of the world’s major industries. An enormous interest in traditional cultures develops all around the world, yet this is linked to a general understanding that there can be no real return to the past and that all cultures change over time. People also engage in a great deal of spiritual exploration, most of which perpetuates the practices and teachings of classical traditions such as Buddhism. Living Lightly is an attractive but not likely future that requires the combination of both an economic and a technological slowdown.


Low economic growth, technological progress, and globalization; low psychological development.

The global ideology of “devolution” takes hold early in the 21st century. “Devo” Web sites spread devolutionist theory in a way that no other political movement has. And when the movement turns violent, the global arms trade is right there to make revolution possible. The original theoreticians of devolution, mainly Western intellectuals of a neoromantic bent, painted a picture of a utopian return to communities, ancient ethnic identities, local economies, and traditional spirituality. But to their surprise and great dismay, their ideology is seized upon with even greater enthusiasm by religious fundamentalists, ethnic nationalists, racists, and neofascist paramilitary groups. Devolution proves highly contagious. In Spain, for example, the Basque separatists succeed in establishing the new nation of Euskadi; the Catalans proceed to declare the independence of Catalonia. A similar process ensues in Italy; other armed movements create new nations among the Scots, Tamils, Kurds, and Palestinians. Some of these groups establish viable nation-states, but others find themselves continually harassed by internal tribal or regional separatist movements. Different regions become bastions of fundamentalism; some become Marxist. Group rights prevail over individual rights everywhere, successfully squashing the intrusion of the mass media and global popular culture. Although countries still conduct some international trade, most have high tariffs; many refuse to buy foreign products. The collapse of global communications systems drastically slows the progress of scientific research and the diffusion of technologies. Back to Basics strikes me as a world defeated, but it is, of course, the agenda of many people — some of whom are prepared to die to achieve it.


High economic growth, technological progress, and globalization; high psychological development.

This is, in many ways, a world without boundaries. The standard cultural identifiers of the modern and early postmodern eras no longer play a major part in people’s personal or political lives. Most people have many identities and social roles, but no particular attachment to any one of them as the primary definer of who and what they are. Nation-states are important in the global system, but nationalism has lost its emotional force. Being a citizen of a particular nation means about as much as being a resident of a particular county or province. The freedom of people to move increases gradually with the relaxation of immigration laws. Most countries have fairly simple requirements for obtaining citizenship and voting rights. Boundaries of class and caste that once shaped societies continue to fade. Marxism has withered away, too, along with other rigid ideologies that once served as props of personal identity. All of the major organized religions — including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam — are alive and well, but no longer clearly and exclusively identified with specific cultures and geographic regions. People everywhere feel free to convert to other religions, and many people identify with more than one religion. Cyberspace has become a rich and realistic realm of experience. Its activities include the No-Self Network, which is concerned with liberation from the self. The network’s members regard this liberation as an ordinary human achievement — roughly comparable to learning to play the piano — and not as a superhuman or divine feat. One World, Many Universes is, for me, the most persuasive mix of idealism and realism. This particular future is likely to be the most fast-changing one, rapidly evolving beyond what I have described.


High economic growth, technological progress, and globalization; low psychological development.

Economic globalization proceeds rapidly, with the spread of consumerism and popular culture based on movies, TV, music, and other forms of mass entertainment. Technological progress makes it possible for people to conquer diseases, change their appearance, and manipulate their moods with psychoactive chemicals. But most of these benefits are available only to those who can afford them. The health gap becomes inseparable from the growing wealth gap: People in the wealthier parts of the world live longer, eat better, and are better protected against disease. This is a world divided along countless fault lines — economic, geographic, cultural, religious. It is a world of modern people still obsessed with progress, economic gain, and organizational bigness; and of premodern people getting trampled — and angry. The globalization of Western-influenced popular culture is opposed by fundamentalists and other groups who prefer to retain their traditions, languages, rituals, and power structures. Enduring conflicts strain relations between those countries seeking to extend the enforcement of human rights and those — notably the East Asian and Muslim countries — who view such efforts as violations of their sovereignty and culture. People move by the millions — some of the movement is forced migration caused by ecological and political chaos — but migrants often become homeless refugees, refused entry into the more prosperous nations. Dysfunctional Family bears the closest resemblance to the world we’re living in now, with its enormous disparities of wealth and opportunity. A strong case can be made — and a lot of people are making it — that this is our most likely future.


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