Flash Boys Author Michael Lewis's Old Predictions For the Future

Author Michael Lewis is best known for uncovering hidden corners of our present, whether in baseball (Moneyball), the financial collapse (The Big Short), or high frequency trading (this month's Flash Boys). But in the September 26th, 1996 issue of the New York Times Magazine, Lewis took a swing at predicting the future.

It's too early to judge Lewis's predictions for accuracy; he was looking all the way ahead to 2096. But it feels like as good a time as any to revisit them.

Many of Lewis's predictions seem spot-on. Global currency? Sure! The ability to insert yourself into established media like movies and music videos? Why not! That was a popular idea in the 1990s!

But other predictions seem to reflect a failure of imagination. The future will have lost all its glamour? That frankly seems like a silly idea, even a century hence — akin to saying that we have all the technology and tools that humanity could ever want.

Lewis starts his essay with the usual futurist caveats that prediction is a tough racket, and that nobody really knows what the world of 2096 will hold. But then he wastes no time diving right in to some bold soothsaying.

Highlights from the essay appear below, but you can read the entire thing at the New York Times.

The dollar will be replaced by a global currency:

The natural replacement of the dollar is a single world currency administered by a global investment bank. This is merely an extension of trends under way: developed countries already coordinate their money supplies. Soon, enough European countries will give up power over their own currencies and adopt the Euro. From the Euro, it is but a small step to the Globo.

Trading will slow down:

[The typical portfolio of 2096] will be much quieter: flipping manically in and out of stocks, as millions of Americans habitually do now, will be widely regarded as an act of lunacy. For the past 20 years, studies have been showing that it does not pay an investor to take financial advice either directly from brokers or indirectly from mutual-fund managers — that once he has made the broad decision of what percentage of his assets to invest in the stock market, he is better off putting the money in a stock-market index. Brokerage houses and mutual funds are the railroads of the future; Merrill Lynch and Fidelity will go the way of the Reading and Penn Central.

Nobody will want to travel anymore because of the world's swelling population and homogenization:

All the things that make travel unpleasant today will, a hundred years from n o w , conspire to make it unbearable. The fantastic crowds, for a start. (Ten billion people on the planet, and you think you're going to get even a glimpse of the Mona Lisa?) Much of the novelty will be drained of foreign places, as the world becomes fully homogenized — or rather that part of the world in which you will be able to travel without risking your life. Everyone will speak English, which sounds pleasant until it happens.

Instead of travel, people will opt for virtual reality experiences brought to them by Disney:

The world's largest corporation will be Walt Disney Industries. People will no longer visit foreign places; foreign places will visit people, in the form of Disney's Multisensory Package Tours. These tours will enable you to visit not merely other places but also other times. Disney's most popular product will enable consumers to star in his own fictions — movies, music videos, novels, etc. All the most popular fictions will be set in the distant past. The future will have lost all its glamour, as it will be impossible to imagine it as anything but more of the present.

Water will become increasingly expensive:

My favorite Wall Street newsletter, Grant's Interest Rate Observer, recently pointed out that in the United States a gallon of bottled water costs more than a gallon of gasoline. Look for this trend to continue.

The free market will battle the superbugs of tomorrow:

By 2096, viruses will be the biggest health risk. (Epidemiology will be the most lucrative branch of medicine.) The market will respond to the boom in viruses with a corresponding boom in cures. The tension and drama of 100 simultaneous races for cures will lend spurious meaning to human life. Survivors of strange diseases will be the most interesting people on the planet.

Interior design will become a vitally important part of culture:

Interior design will acquire the prestige of monumental sculpture in 16th-century Rome or movie making in 20th-century America. The late-1980's phenomenon of the big-shot investment banker with his "interior decorator" wife will give way to the late-2080's phenomenon of the big-shot interior decorator with her "investment banker" husband.

Convicted criminals will be outfitted with sensors and given shocks if they approach others with "criminal intent" in lieu of serving time in prison:

Following a brief bubble in prison stocks in the mid-2020's, there will come into existence a new technology that enables society to guard criminals without building walls around them. Sensors implanted in various parts of a man's body will react to chemicals in his brain and deliver unpleasant shocks when he approaches others with criminal intent.

The market will suffer when people abandon religion and look inward:

The biggest challenge for the market will be to meet the demand for meaning in life. Darwinism will spread; God will vanish. Entertainment technology will debase celebrity — fame, like everything else, will have been democratized — so that people will no longer be able to live through their idols. The possibility of being struck down by a virus will bring a good deal of happiness to those who survive. But even the spread of disease will prove insufficient to make life worth living. Man will increasingly be thrown back on his self to justify his existence.


Image: Michael Lewis in 2011 at the premiere of Moneyball via the Associated Press