The World of Tomorrow - New York Times
December 30, 2007
By JIM RASENBERGERON
ON Jan. 1, 1908 — New Year’s Day one century ago — The New York World greeted readers with a stirring rumination about the past and future of America. The title of the article was simply “1808 — 1908 — 2008.” The World began by marveling at how far America had come since 1808, then turned to the question of the future: “What will the year 2008 bring us? What marvels of development await the youth of tomorrow?”
The essay’s visions were not timid. “We may have gyroscopic trains as broad as houses swinging at 200 miles an hour up steep grades and around dizzying curves,” the newspaper went on. “We may have aeroplanes winging the once inconquerable air. The tides that ebb and flow to waste may take the place of our spent coal and flash their strength by wire to every point of need. Who can say?”
Predictions about the future were a staple of New York journalism in the early 20th century. Newspapers, including this one, frequently solicited prominent citizens for their thoughts on the future of the world, of America and, most urgent, of New York.
The city was vaulting into the 20th century with a haste that almost demanded prediction-making. As the population grew by 130,000 a year, New York’s infrastructure exploded.
Within the 12 months of 1908 alone, New Yorkers would see the cantilevers of the Queensboro Bridge joined and the cables of the Manhattan Bridge spun. They would see one tunnel open under the East River and another tunnel open under the Hudson. They would see the tallest inhabited building in the world, the 612-foot Singer Building, completed on lower Broadway, only to be immediately overtaken by the steel skeleton of the 700-foot Metropolitan Life tower on Madison Square.
What next? New Yorkers were besotted with the possibilities. Architects and visionaries imagined a “cosmopolis of the future” with thousand-foot towers connected by webs of tall bridges and served by aircraft. Meanwhile, the very air seemed to buzz with the infant technology of wireless communication.
“When the expectations of wireless experts are realized, everyone will have his own pocket telephone and may be called wherever he happens to be,” one magazine predicted in 1908. Equally farsighted was a prediction made by Dr. Simon Flexner, the first director of the Rockefeller Institute. The same New Year’s Day that The World was conjuring gyroscopic trains, Dr. Flexner declared that human organ transplants would someday be common.
The point of such predictions was not necessarily that they were accurate but that people cared enough about the future to bother thinking about it. With that in mind, 10 knowledgeable New Yorkers, from the Nobel laureate Paul Nurse (Simon Flexner’s successor) to a 12-year-old girl named Kate, were asked to imagine the city a century from now.
Whether their visions turn out to be right or wrong, whether they are bleak or tongue-in-cheek, all are generous efforts to wonder about the lives of New Yorkers of 2108, as those New Yorkers of 1908 once wondered about ours.
Inventor; professor of computer science at New York University
In the same way we now have enhancements like pacemakers, it’s reasonable to suppose that in a hundred years everyone’s eyes will be implanted with tiny displays. All the information we need about the city will be accessible to us without conscious effort: where to go, what to buy, when the next subway will arrive, how to hook up with friends. We’ll be able to see a virtual reality superimposed over the physical grid.
This city is all about intensity of purpose and connections, and technology will only make it more efficient and more fluid. And in a city that is so multicultural, communication will be easier. A hundred years from now, you and I could be having a conversation in two languages and translation would be automatic. I could look at a newspaper written in any language and have the translation superimposed on my vision.
Being in the same room with people, looking in their eyes, touching them — this will still be important. But when people come together, there will be a lot more information at their fingertips and floating in the air between them.
Host of “Mad Money” on CNBC and co-founder of TheStreet.com
I have a genuine optimism about New York in 2108. The city will be the international city to live in. It’s just that we won’t be able to afford it. The financial capital of the world will be probably Dubai or Beijing, and New York will be owned by Chinese and Arab investors, among others. Travel will be much faster and more fluid, and coming to New York from the Emirates, say, will be as easy as going to Mecca. It’ll be like a country place for the wealthy elite of the world. “Oh, yeah, I have a country place — I have the Essex House.”
If I’m a guy sitting on top of $200- or $300-a-barrel oil, how can I not own a borough? “Hey, what borough do you own? I got this Queens borough. They even throw in a bridge.”
We have a few guys who will be able to step up. Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, just got $70 million; that’s definitely two-bedroom material. And Dick Fuld of Lehman — count him in.
The rest of us can live in Schenectady or Plattsburgh. We can come here on the weekends and stay at a nice hotel in Astoria. I’m telling you, New York will be an amazing place to visit.
Anthropologist-in-residence, New York City Department of Sanitation
Assuming there’s still a tourist trade to New York a hundred years from now, people will visit Fresh Kills landfill the way tourists go to the cemeteries in France. It will stand for us as a grand monument, like the Great Wall of China.
The lower layers of Fresh Kills are so tightly compacted that there’s no chance for microbes to get in there to eat things, so you have very well preserved hot dogs, for instance, that you assume rot over time. And newspapers and CDs and DVDs, cassette tapes and eight-tracks and videos by the zillion.
In 2108, somebody may have the curiosity or foresight to excavate the landfill to learn about the culture that created this vast repository. They will do it, too, because there will be a lot of resources that can be mined, like tin cans.
Garbage won’t be garbage anymore. Sanitation workers won’t throw it away; they’ll take it to vast reuse centers. They will be heroes because people will recognize how sanitation workers are keeping the city alive.
BILL T. JONES
Choreographer and founder of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
Because I think we will lose the battle with global warming, and because I think a nuclear device will be exploded somewhere on the planet, New York will be quite a different place. The less fortunate will go hungry and some may be crippled, but there will be enclaves of great opulence.
The likes of a Lincoln Center will be constantly under surveillance and surrounded by police officers. Our cultural landmarks will be supported by private individuals with private armies. Dance will enjoy a precious place; it will be a darling of these survivors.
People will want artists to return them to certain periods. They will suffer what I call hyper-nostalgia as they look back to a time when people talked robustly about ideas like democracy. Our age will be seen as a glorious last hurrah. Period dancing will be highly prized, almost like an exotic sweet. There will be some people who lose themselves in looking backward.
Seventh grader, School of the Future, a New York City public school near Gramercy Park
The city will be all skyscrapers, no more town houses and brownstones. Buildings will connect to each other through an aboveground tunnel system. You’ll no longer have to worry about finding a bathroom; you’ll just carry a small chip with you that can expand into a private portable toilet.
Central Park will be preserved in a bubble to protect it from the adverse effects of global warming. Everything will be shiny and nice and big. The subway cars and stations will have TVs in them. The Empire State Building will no longer be New York’s largest building; it will probably be replaced by a giant Starbucks. Madame Tussaud’s wax figures will have robotic capabilities.
Finally, instead of antidepressants, doctors will make people happy by implanting chips in their heads with comedy routines and programs, like my favorite, “The Colbert Report.”
Author of “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” and “A Simple Habana Melody”
I see a city of high-rises accommodating only the rich who can afford to live here. I’m sure some historic districts will be preserved, sort of like those old Colonial districts in Boston, but they will be surrounded by towering buildings.
Immigrants will still come here. But do I think an enterprising guy from Puerto Rico will be able to set up a restaurant on $20,000 savings? No. The history of New York used to be about mom and pop businesses that could thrive here because of low overhead. Those will be gone. Some bodegas may be preserved as museum displays. You’ll go into a giant mall, a larger version of the Time Warner Center, and there will be a special exhibit on the fourth floor, bodegas of Harlem circa 1972.
President of Rockefeller University
As long as the city keeps its social structures in good shape, this will be an enormously attractive place for academic researchers a hundred years from now. It’s an extraordinarily open society of accomplished and ambitious people, and that’s exactly what you need if you’re going to drive the research agenda forward.
Medical innovations are likely to pop up in New York earlier than other places. One thing I can easily imagine is tiny motorized robots that crawl through the body like ants, sensing medical problems and doing repairs with surgery.
Because we live in a concentrated area and are a harbor of transport, infectious diseases will be an issue. But New York has been around for a long time and hasn’t particularly suffered badly from major pandemics. The best way to avoid disease will be to maintain the social fabric, keep the poor out of poverty, and have a city affordable enough for the people who keep it going to live here.
Founder and director of the Skyscraper Museum; curator of the exhibition “Future City”
If the city is not under water, it will look much the way it does now. People will value the historic character of the city, much as modern Parisians preserve the 19th-century city and modern Romans preserve the Renaissance city.
There will be little opportunity to build the tallest buildings here anymore, but the skins of buildings will change. The technology of glass is improving rapidly; glass will be infinitely more sophisticated, both more energy-efficient and energy-generating. The glass facades will be screens for the projection of images.
You might think of the city as a big three-dimensional TV set or computer screen. Many buildings will communicate with us through advertisements. We, the people of New York, will tell the city what we desire and we’ll get it back, monumentalized, in the images projected on our buildings.
Chef; owner of Daniel, Café Boulud and — opening Monday night — Bar Boulud
I think the children of today will have a big challenge persuading their children to take time to enjoy food. But restaurants will always be important in New York. People will see restaurants as a home away from home, where they feel secure.
Chefs love technology, and there will be constant evolution of equipment. From your home, you’ll be able to see the restaurant, choose the table you want, choose your waiter, choose the dish you want to eat, and then see how it’s made.
Genetically engineered food is something I don’t think anyone can escape, but the great chefs will still want a product that is natural. More food will be grown locally. Some of the wines that were not even around in 1908, the pinot noir of Oregon and Washington, the California cabs — it will be fantastic to drink those in 2108. Will Daniel still exist? I hope so. I just hope they don’t serve the same thing.
Co-founder and co-editor of Paper magazine
The island of Manhattan in 2108 is half the size of what it was a hundred years ago; Seventh Avenue and Third Avenue are waterfront. Richard Meier’s glass towers are under water and filled with schools of phosphorescent fish; tourists come by submarine taxi to see them.
The tropical temperatures have brought a huge alligator problem to Central Park, although New Yorkers have recently taken to taming alligators from birth and keeping them as pets. The city’s first “alligator run” has just opened in Washington Square Park, which is now lush with palm trees.
What used to be known as downtown types have all moved to what used to be called New Jersey. Bayonne is the new mecca for radical thought and creativity. An archaeological dig in the former subway system in New York uncovers hieroglyphics signed K. Haring, spawning an urban myth that New York was built by aliens and crawling babies.
Jim Rasenberger’s latest book, “America 1908: The Dawn of Flight, the Race to the Pole, the Invention of the Model T and the Making of a Modern Nation,” was published last month by Scribner.