Marian Salzman On What’s Next

“The future lies ahead,” intoned humorist Mort Sahl. He got a laugh with that line because although he sure sounded bold, he couldn’t have been more careful. After all, no one looks dumber than a futurologist who gets it completely wrong—except maybe John Lennon’s astrologer.

So why risk ridicule by predicting trends? Because we’ve shrunk the future. The velocity of change has accelerated in the last decade, and, barring the apocalypse, there’s no sign it will slow anytime soon. So we’ll forgo a long, thoughtful look into the deep future; it’s sufficient now merely to have a good sense of what’s around the corner. After all, that’s all we—and everyone else—really need to know: What’s next?

Start with the ascent of China and India, now collectively referred to as Chindia. Smart, cheap labor has made these two countries, Himalayan cousins if you will, the offshore suppliers of choice for the American computer industry. But that’s yesterday’s news. Today’s headlines reveal an educated class of professionals who no longer dream of snagging jobs in the U.S. The Chinese/Indian brain drain is over. And that domestic supply of brain power coincides with fresh dreams: Instead of making chips and assembling computers, why not create and manufacture high-end products? Why use cheap labor to build prosperity for others when it’s possible to do it for yourself—and, in the process, turn the U.S. into the Old World? Yes, we’ll still see these countries churning out cheap DVDs of new movies and fake Polo shirts, but increasingly we’ll also see India and China rocketing up to challenge Japan and South Korea.

Move on to the globalization of everything. In the past, we may have taken globalization to mean that the entire world would be America’s factory and marketplace. Now it’s clear that, to borrow Thomas Friedman’s phrase, “The world is flat.” Broadband is the single biggest factor in this sea change; instant access to the Internet around the globe means it doesn’t matter where you live. All that’s important now: what you know and how you can contribute. And it turns out that just about everyone wants to weigh in, whether the topic is culture, politics, fads or celebrity follies. This universalizes every news flash—let a big name stumble, and the entire world hits the keyboards to talk about it.

Time is becoming the enemy. “How do you know you’re in New York?” asks the sign at the copy shop. The answer: “Everyone needs it right now.” So much to do, so little time—it’s a perplexing problem. How precious is time? More precious even than money, which has no inherent limit to its supply. Paradoxically, we lose more time whenever we accessorize with another handheld communications device designed to make our lives easier.

Life is good if you’re a brand. Better get busy if you’re not, because branding is no longer just for businesses. As an individual, you’re a cipher. As a brand, you’re instantly recognizable—and respected. For what? For successfully branding yourself, of course! It’s the ultimate interpersonal shorthand. You may never need to explain what you “do” again.

There are no boundaries or straight lines—just a blur. Nothing’s in sharp focus. Plastic surgery renders age meaningless, men use as many cosmetics as women, “reality TV” is cast just as carefully as dramas, and product placement makes programming look like advertising. And it’s all served up so professionally, you can’t get a fix on anything. From now on, we’ll need to put quotation marks around “reality.”

Antisocial is the new normal. Look at people on the street with their iPod earbuds, or maybe they’re Bluetooth-enabled. Either way, they live in their own private bubbles—they’ve turned public space into private. And who are their role models? On television, they are House, the nastiest doctor in TV history, and Entourage’s Ari Gold, the Hollywood agent who’s mastered the gamut of emotions from hostile to seething. Clearly, the new message is “Do not disturb.”

We want real food. TV ads for foods laden with fats and chemicals used to amuse us. Now they’re repulsive. We’ve elevated chefs to celebrities, turned cooking into an admired hobby and gone back to the past for edible inspiration. In a time of high-tech factory farming on one hand and all types of food randomly labeled “organic” on the other, the only word that rings true for us now is “authentic.”

We are steadily redefining “family.” It turns out that the Ozzie and Harriet family of married mom and dad, two kids and no live-in grandparents may have reflected 1950s America, but has long since ceased to be a demographic reality. Today’s families are defined only by affection. They’re as individual as the people who create them: extended, single parent, gay and unmarried couples with kids. Pets? Friends? Who says they’re not family?

We just might be coming around to the hard truth that global warming is no myth. Naomi Oreskes, professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, got tired of hearing conservative politicians claim that “most” scientists disagree with the notion of global warming, so she read every piece of science written on the topic to see what “most” scientists actually say. Not one called it merely a “theory.” And since Hurricane Katrina, it’s become harder for skeptics to win converts. Even government officials who once dismissed the warnings wonder whether America’s record hurricane count just might be real proof of global warming.

Taken together, these trends suggest a world of paradox: convulsive economic changes in the global economy, an increased struggle for control and consistency in private life. We’ll be in our bubbles in our leisure hours, in battle mode during the workday. Can these be integrated? Not likely. If there were a final trend, it would be that it’s extremely unpopular to look at the big picture.