KCLU 88.3FM - 102.3FM - 1340AM

Listen Now Fresh Air 3:00am - 4:00am

The 2080 Census: The World As We (Don't) Know It

Sun, April 15, 2012 10:06am

Story by Linton Weeks


Census data from the past is really hot. When the National Archives posted details from 72 years ago — the 1940 census — online recently, millions of Americans stampeded the website to try to learn more about their past.

But imagine how cool it would be if, by some twist of time, the National Archives were to make available detailed census information from nearly 70 years in the future — the 2080 census.

We asked James Dator, director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, what kind of information census takers will be soliciting seven decades in the future. Dator says that possible questions might include:

--Do you have a home, or "biophysical domicile"? If so, is it on Earth, the moon, Mars or elsewhere?

--What is your current sex?

--What is your permission number for drinking water?

In a minute, we'll show you more suggested questions from Dator — along with John Sweeney and Seongwon Park, two Ph.D. candidates in the University of Hawaii at Manoa Alternative Futures program — based on their research.

But before we delve into the "manuscript census" form — like the 1940 questionnaires that are so enthralling historians and genealogists at the moment — let's set the scene. Let's look at the aggregate information about America in 2080. How many people are there? What do homes look like? What kind of transportation is available?

In other words, when the census takers — or "enumerators," as they are called today — radiate out from Washington to gather data, what do they find in America 2080?

The 2080s

Barring any widespread cataclysm, there would be a lot more people in the United States seven decades hence. The Census Bureau projects a national population of at least 531 million in 2080. Given that U.S. life expectancies tend to trend longer and longer, however, the population could be much larger.

As envisioned by an array of scientists, researchers and science fiction writers, America in 2080 — its people, its living and working conditions, its government — is a hyperversion of today's model.

For example, in Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," a short story set in 2081, equality has been taken to extreme levels in America. Intelligent people are dumbed down by technology. Beautiful people wear uglifying masks. Athletic people strap on weights. Equality laws — established by the 211th, 212th and 213th amendments to the Constitution — are enforced by the Office of the Handicapper General.

The 2080s, as presaged by FutureTimeline.net and other futuristic websites, are seen as a time of great flux. Superenhanced transhumans (upgraded peoplebots with elongated lifespans) co-exist with naturals (those who opt out of mechanical and biological enhancement). Manufacturing industries and agriculture enterprises are upended by robotic workers. Unemployment is rampant.

One optimistic scenario, says Joel Garreau, author of Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human, allows that by 2080, "we will have conquered pain, suffering, stupidity, ignorance and death, and will have melded with our machines. And you will have unlimited abundance." He points to another just published book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, which projects such a rosy future.

In Paul Verhoeven's movie Total Recall, set in 2084, some people are able to control — and reprogram — other people's memories, to the point that Arnold Schwarzenegger's character does not know exactly who he is. Or whether he is really on Earth or Mars. Under these dystopian circumstances, census-taking could prove extremely challenging.

In 70 years, of course, it is possible there will not even be a Census Bureau, for many reasons. But assuming the census is still conducted, robotic info gatherers — several generations improved from the drones in the 2054 film Minority Report — may sweep through biophysical domiciles gathering pertinent data. Permission may not be necessary.

All census info collected by the bots may be real-time fact-checked against deeply personal data maintained by some internationally owned search turbine.

Let's call it GooYahBing.

The Family

The definitions of "household" and "family" may be even more fluid and multifaceted in 2080 than they are in 2012. Perhaps animals-formerly-known-as-pets, androidal beings and who knows what else will be folded into the notion of family.

Writing in Psychology Today, Deborah Anapol, author of Polyamory in the 21st Century, suggests that "group marriage" — in which a clutch of adults live as if everyone in the group is married to everyone else in the group — could be a possible arrangement in the future. Such a configuration, she suggests, "can mean a higher standard of living while consuming fewer resources. Intimate partners are more likely than friends or neighbors to feel comfortable sharing housing, transportation, appliances and other resources."

Other growing-ever-more-complex designations include race, ethnicity and education levels.

The Home

The biophysical domicile in 2080 relies on lots of transparency — in walls and ceilings, according to research in 2011 by Zurich Insurance and Arup Associates. The typical home — replete with solar panels and gas-filled triple-glazed windows — responds to, and capitalizes on, the natural elements for heating and cooling.

"To cope with peak summer temperatures that might regularly be seven degrees higher than today," the report explains, there will be geothermal pipes "carrying cool, recycled water built into, and around, ceilings and beams."

The home may become an expandable, contractable prefabricated structure with removable rooms and collapsible walls, to adapt to the vagaries of familial and communal needs. "A biomimetic building would be made from local materials, minimizing the energy necessary to create it," the report explains, "and most of the materials deployed could be reused at the end of their life."

Work And The Workplace

Shifting demographics, a changing climate, emerging technologies and other factors — foreseen and unforeseen — will no doubt change the nature of the American workplace over the next 70 years. By the year 2080, the work year may not be 2080 hours. Telecommuting, teleconferencing, telemedicine, telemanufacturing — using advanced 3-D printers and other technologies — robotics, even personal teleportation, may render many offices, malls, retail stores, classrooms, athletic teams, hotels, restaurants, hospitals and other places of employment obsolete.

Indoor Plumbing

In 1940, according to The Associated Press, only 55 percent of homes with plumbing had what the Census Bureau deemed a "complete system," that is, hot and cold running water, a flushable toilet and a bathtub or shower. By 2010, 99 percent of the houses in America had complete systems.

Come 2080, however, water may likely be very scarce in some parts of the United States. "As global temperatures rise over the next seven decades," Discover Magazine reported in 2011, "subtropical regions like the American Southwest will get drier, while more northern areas, including much of Canada, will get wetter."

But even in the Northeastern U.S., the magazine reports, water supplies may change radically because of fierce but fewer rainstorms, and longer periods of drought. "Water suppliers should be thinking hard about managing these extremes," water resources engineer Casey Brown of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst told Discover. "It will only get worse."

So when it comes to complete plumbing systems in American homes, the statistics for 2080 could look more like 1940 than 2010.

Additional Questions For The 2080 Census

And when it comes to fashioning future census forms, what will the 2080 census questionnaire look like? In 1940, the Census Bureau reports, most people who participated in the census were asked 65 questions — 34 about population and 31 about housing. By 2010, every household in America was asked just 10 questions.

No telling how many questions will be asked 68 years from now, but the Census Bureau is already looking toward the future. "We work on the questions years ahead," says the bureau's public affairs specialist Victoria R. Glasier.

So in the spirit of time travel, we offer the bureau a few more possible questions inspired by James Dator and his students, who in turn were inspired by futurists such as Ian Pearson and Frank W. Sudia:

--Do you consider yourself to be a:

a) Homo sapiens (natural human being)?

b) Homo cyberneticus (mostly human with some external cybernetic enhancements)?

c) Homo hybridus (mostly human with some genetic enhancements)?

d) Homo machinus (slightly human but mostly machine)?

e) Other?

--How many times have you changed your sex? What categories have you experienced?

--How do you generate your own nutrient and energy supplies?

--If you do not have a biophysical domicile, where would you say "you" usually are?

Regardless of where "you" are, thank you for your participation in the 2080 census. Remember: You cannot know your planetary alliance, unless your planetary alliance knows you.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.