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What Will Be Essential in 2020?

By Philip Kennicott
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page B01

If you're one of those people who use this season to clean up and throw out the accumulated baggage of another year, just take stock of how deeply a basic optimism pervades the house. In the kitchen, a little bit of desiccated saffron waits for the proverbial blue moon when you decide to color a pot of rice. On the bookshelf, Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain" still inhabits its two inches of precious space, waiting for a long, undistracted summer to be given its due. In the closet, your youth hangs in between old winter coats and forlorn ties, waiting for the new you that will emerge from the gym and a regimen built on tofu and greens.

There is an optimism so fundamental to life that we hardly notice its presence, an optimism of essentials: We hoard and we plan and we muddle on regardless of a world that gives us little reassurance about our future. Our world is constructed of ephemera -- technology and entertainment and celebrities -- that we know will come and go. And often it feels full of dreadful omens. But before the mind darkens contemplating that glass -- half full, or half empty? -- the body thirsts, simply, essentially. So the glass and the water precede the philosophical messiness of the human condition. And it is comforting, and chastening, from time to time, to work backward, from the anxieties and ambiguous portents of daily life to the basics. What is essential? What will remain essential in . . . oh, let us say 15 years?

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Outlook has put this question to six diverse writers. Our choices reflect, of course, our own most basic bias toward the essentials of life. We assume that a decade and a half from now we will still be essentially what we are today: mortal beings who struggle in the world to raise families, stay healthy, satisfy curiosity, amuse ourselves and leave behind us a record of who and what we were during our allotted time on the planet.

It's never easy to answer this kind of question, which demands equal parts contemplation and speculation. And the question itself -- what is essential? -- is ultimately an elegant rephrasing of the most basic question we face: What is the meaning of our lives? But we ask it now because we are at a moment in American history that is filled with anxiety, and nothing allays fear like getting back to basics.

Fifteen years ago, when laptops and portable phones were rare and unwieldy luxuries, not essentials, we saw the Cold War come to an end. Four years ago, at the end of a summer troubled by missing interns and marauding sharks, we saw the post-Cold War idyll shattered by terrorism. One of the things that went up in smoke that day was a crude kind of futurism -- fantasies of a technological golden age, theories of rapid new human evolution. Today, the language of the future has a dark edge to it. We live in a time not just of known unknowns, but unknown unknowns, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said, none too reassuringly.

Remember the Long Boom? The theory put forth in the late 1990s that our big worry was no worries? That prosperity and technology and the end of the Cold War meant years, decades even, of troublesome peace and stability? Remember the end of history, Francis Fukuyama's hailing of a new post-ideological age, without the grand historical confrontations of the Cold War? Alluring ideas are not necessarily essential ones. But new ideas replace them, and some of them may prove more lasting.

In producing the pages you see here, we have chosen a span of 15 years to make it manageable. Except for the very aged, who may be excused for worrying less about a time they will not see, we can all make out, if somewhat dimly, the year 2020 on the horizon.

Thinking about someone else's future, a century from now, is pleasant sport, played without much responsibility; thinking about our own future requires more care and caution. Most predictions involve a little wish fulfillment (pundits are notorious for this), and the good that we wish for -- or the evil we would wish away -- says everything about who we would like to be.

In the end, the particulars of what people today think will be essential in 2020 matter less than the exercise of pondering the question. It is an antidote to the myopia and chaos of our public life, a bulwark against Cassandra and Pangloss alike, against fear mongering and complacency. This centering question -- what is essential? -- is elemental to our spiritual and religious life, our daily habits, our arts and sciences, and yet seems all too often utterly absent from our political world. A politician who would confront the rabble of Scandal, Cant and Empty Symbols with a little impatience and a dismissive wave of the hand, saying, "that's not essential," might rise to the first rank of public life. But then again, politicians are not a breed apart, but a reflection of some part of ourselves, perhaps that part of us which, like Milton's Mammon, keeps looks and thoughts "downward bent," admiring the pavement and not the vaults of heaven.

Perhaps in 15 years, if someone should return to these pages, everything he or she reads here will have been proved wrong. But a failure of prescience is not so lamentable as a failure of hope -- and by focusing on what will be essential, rather than what will change, we ground our speculation in hope. The future sketched here, even if it is not all that we would like it to be, is nevertheless one we expect to see.

Author's e-mail: kennicottp@washpost.com

Phil Kennicott, a staff writer for the Style section, is The Post's culture critic.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company