How American cities will sound 30 years from now
Imagine the sounds of London, 1800. Maybe you hear hooves clomping on cobblestone, vendors yelling their wares, newspaper boys singing out hoarse and high. Now take your ears to Woodstock, 1969; you hear the raucous laughter, off-key singing from hundreds of voices, the guitar feedback cutting humid air. Let’s go forward — what does 2050 sound like?
It’s a strange question, what does the future sound like. But more and more, as I rest my eyes riding the metro home, listening to the chatter and viral videos blaring unencumbered by headphones, I start to wonder. I’m a cultural and consumer strategist by trade, and much of my time is taken up wondering about how we live, and paying attention to what trends are coming next. It’s no secret we’re on a rapid ascent of scientific and technological innovation. We can easily imagine a world with robot workers and 3D printed organs in our lifetimes. Yet, for how prominent and ever-present sound is in our lives, few of us can imagine the score that accompany this advanced future. Assuming that the Earth isn’t destroyed by then, what noises will greet you as you walk down a street in New York or Los Angeles in the year 2050?
When standing on our futuristic street corner 30 years from now, the first thing you’ll notice is the eerie silence.
At least, the streets will appear silent — inside our brains, however, will be as loud as any city ever was. Sound will continue its present march to become increasingly personalized and contained. From AirPods spring comprehensive cochlear sound devices, with no need to take headphones out or fear losing them in your bag. Nestled in our skin, it is the natural progression of personalized tech, and bionic improvement. Phone calls, videos, music will all play directly into our ears. Some experts believe 360 sound-system immersion awaits us, each of us in our own sound bubbles. By 2050 the sounds we hear will certainly become more focused. As you walk past billboards and storefronts, advertisers try to get your attention with directional sound — the kind that activate when you’re in range of its message. Marketers (like me) are able to tailor the message that you hear; each person is served a unique ad based off the data we have on you, no need to firehose all who pass-by. More relevant, more efficient.
The next thing you notice on your journey is the sound of people talking. It’s familiar, and a comfort, but it too, is different. The shifting demographics of the country changes the soundtrack of life. By the year 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau projects the majority of the population with be composed of Hispanics, Asians, blacks and other racial minorities. There will more mother tongues, including Spanish, and perhaps you’ll notice African American English phrases as more commonplace. Less commonplace will be the sound of children laughing and playing — birthrates continue to drop. More than four-in-ten Americans (46%) believe by 2050, we will be less likely to have children than we are today. Fears of environmental impact, an uncertain future for our offspring, and changing of priorities make the city parks a bit more hushed.
Another noise you’ll notice missing from your cityscape is one that almost defines a city — the sound of traffic. Self-driving cars will hum along by electric or other means. With no humans behind the wheel, there will be no symphony of honking you’re familiar with…proof the future isn’t all bad. Sirens from emergency vehicles are also absent — when vehicles can communicate amongst themselves, there is no need to tell drivers to get out of the way for a passing ambulance or police. Rattling beasts of transportation will modulate their outdoor voices, too; public transportation and delivery trucks move softly, with the likes of UPS, Walmart and Pepsi pre-ordering electric semis from Tesla, and self-driving, electric buses having hit the streets of Switzerland. All around is movement, all around is relative silence.
Overhead, the ubiquitous silent buzzing of drones can be heard. Much quieter than they are today, drones will have become regulated and widespread, going about their business delivering important news and items. Airplanes continue to soar above, but with quieter engines, even areas around airports are surprisingly peaceful. Another bright spot; based on their models, researchers project through the year 2050, the effects of climate change won’t negatively affect bird populations — they might actually increase in our warmer temperatures. Comforting to know, I suppose, that even if the Earth is a climate-change-zombie-wasteland, there will still be plenty of happily twittering birds in 2050.
All this innovation towards quieter technology won’t go unaccompanied. Human beings by nature, don’t particularly enjoy silence. At least, not for long. This is the reason why long, awkward elevator rides are dampened with elevator music, and why quiet isolation is reserved as a punishment. So perhaps in this world that strives to be quieter, we’ll also hear intentional ambient sound. Like blue light screen protectors devised to acclimate our eyes to a more screen-heavy world, our ears might find themselves cushioned with nondescript sound for our new, quieter world. Or better still, a personal soundtrack to better evoke the situations and moods we feel, played right into our inner-earbuds. And as for music? The odds of us predicting what we’ll be dancing to in 2050 is just as likely as someone in the roaring ‘20s predicting disco. But whatever it sounds like, you can bet futuristic grandparents will call it racket.
Futurism is a tricky business; a world war, civilization-altering innovation or pestilence can completely change the trajectory of mankind. There is just too much we don’t know to know what comes next. Add to that the accelerated pace of technological innovation, we’ll be lucky to guess the next 2 years, never mind the next 30. The only thing we can guarantee about the future is that our innate hungers won’t subside. The desires we have today — for more personalized, faster, smarter, more pleasant — are going to continue as they always have. From discovering fire to the invention of the Kindle Fire, if there’s one thing mankind is good at, it’s seeking ways to generate more comfort and happiness, whatever that looks like.
Or rather, whatever that sounds like.
Jess Watts is a culture and consumer strategist based in Los Angeles.