The Future

Julie Zhuo

Last week I saw two visions for the future.

The first is Her—a moving take on the nuances of relationships in an AI-possible world—and the other was this Infinity Augmented Reality concept video which had me in fits of laughter because it was so… well, just watch it for yourself.

I liked seeing both. However accurate or ridiculous (and how can we truly know until the future is here?), the act of inventing is what sparks the realities of tomorrow.

I’ll play.

In the not-so-distant future, you are overstressed, overworked, and getting by on barely four hours of sleep a night.

At least every morning, you get to wake up beneath the shade of beautiful, towering redwood trees.

Okay fine, the ceiling projection maybe wasn’t your wisest investment, but when all your friends are buying Rock-a-Bye Beds (for gentle rocking at night and non-REM-cycle wake ups) or talking about that new app that simulates realistic bird chirps in the morning (“Even birds can’t tell the difference!”), it’s hard not to be caught up in the hot new trend of “wellness sleeping.” Apparently effective sleeping increases personal productivity by 43% and happiness by 27%. You’re highly dubious of the happiness piece, but being able to take power naps with those smart glass windows set to opaque is probably the only thing that’s getting you through the days.

Image by Robert Couse-Baker

A brief line of text interrupts the view of tranquil trees. Product review with VP in 10 minutes.


As you leap out of bed, a perky voice starts announcing the morning news. “Shut up!” you yell, and with a certain sense of satisfaction, you hear the voice fall away to silence. Quickly, you grab a TastyBar from the fridge. These things are cheap, exceedingly healthy, and come in any possible flavor. (Like, literally any possible flavor. Tasty recently launched a massive ad campaign for the TastyMaker, a sensor that lets you capture the flavor profile of any food and turn it into a customized TastyBar order delivered straight to your home via drone in less than two hours.)

Normally, you’d savor your TastyBar—though the texture’s a little monotonous, nothing beats the flavor, especially Shoyu Ramen, your finest creation—but today you wolf it down just to get something in your stomach. Dashing to your desk, you flip on the camera in front of you, grab the Portal visor, and pull the goggles over your eyes.

“The Cloud Room at Swiftcard,” you say. A light flashes from inside the Portal to scan your retina for clearance. Seconds later, you see the room shimmer into view.

You are the first one there. You try to ignore the ridiculous fluffy floor and the cotton-ball looking chairs and concentrate on what you’re going to tell your boss about the state of the project.

Image by Jonathan Kos-Read

The minutes tick by.

Where is everyone? The whole team of six is supposed to be here. “Message Taylor and ask—” you begin to say to the ever-present, ever-listening Portal Concierge, but a warp in the room cuts you short.

It is your boss, the Vice-President of Engineering Services at Swiftcard. She is sharply dressed, with piercing eyes and impeccable bone structure. You always wonder if her avatar is bespoke designed, as it’s quite distinctive. But of course everyone is attractive, because why wouldn’t you pick an attractive avatar in a virtual world?

“I don’t know where everyone else is,” you say apologetically.

“It’s all right,” she says. Her words feel flat and distant, like she’s using a distorter. “We can get started.” She motions for you to sit on one of the cloud-stools but doesn’t take the lead, so you shake your head and continue standing.

“As you know,” she starts, “Swiftcard has not been doing well in recent years. Digital currency has shifted the market away from credit cards, and as a result, we’ve struggled to operate at our historical scale.”

A prickling sensation starts to climb up the back of your neck. None of this is news, so why is she telling you this? Since the arrival of crypto-currency, credit card companies could no longer win on convenience, so the strategy shifted to differentiating via services. That’s why you’ve been busting your ass for the past few months working on the latest suite of offerings—spending projections, targeted advertising for habitual expenses, weekly coupons. But something about her tone is off. It’s too… flat.

“What’s going on?”

She sighs. “We need to cut expenses. Swiftcard is downsizing, and there are no longer any funds to support your role. I’m sorry.”

The words hang in the air, heavy and foul, like a cumulonimbus on this fake, ridiculous, pun-of-a-room. Downsizing. All of the sudden, you feel a vast and terrible anger well up inside of you.

All those days spent in Portal rooms at the office. All those four-hour nights. You’ve worked so hard and so long. For what? This? To be told in a dead voice, in a nowhere place that there are no longer any funds to support your role?

You want to charge forward and break something. But everything in the room looks like marshmallows, and you can’t simply punch your boss in the face.

Or maybe you could, these being virtual bodies and all.

“So did you do it?” your friend Alex asks.

Your other friend Alison snorts. “Of course not. Punching people is not what teddy bears do.”

“I’m not a teddy bear,” you say sulkily.

“No, you’re just unemployed. Welcome to the club. Here, have another drink.” She hands you a beer.

Your head’s starting to feel woozy, but you take another giant swig out of the bottle. Tomorrow, you’re probably going to regret letting your friends drag you out.

“Cheer up,” Alex says. “You’ve got tons of time now. You can go traveling! I’ve got a friend of a friend in Iceland who lives in an actual giant ice igloo and he gets all his guests to help him keep building it out. You know, I was just reading one of those top ten lists the other day about places to travel—” he pulls out his phone and says, “Justice, find me that article with—”

Alison shoves his phone down. “We’re at an Offline bar,” she hisses. “No phones.”

Photo by Christian Senger

Alex rolls his eyes. “Because pretending like gadgets don’t exist somehow makes us better human beings.”

“Because doing stuff on your stupid phone after your best friend loses his job definitely doesn’t make you a better human being,” Alison shoots back. She turns to you. “Look on the bright side. Now you finally have time to date.”

“Yeah,” Alex chimes in, “Have you heard of StripLove? It’s like Strip Poker.”

“How charming,” says Alison drily.

“Don’t judge the cow before tasting the milk.” Alex insists. “ It’s actually pretty sweet. They’ve got searches and match-making like any other dating service, and of course you do your first few dates via Portal. But here’s the clincher—on your first date, it’s all avatar-based, but on the next date, a part of you sheds its avatar part and becomes real. Like, maybe at first it’s your feet. And then on every subsequent date, you lose another piece of the avatar until by the fifth date, you’re seeing how each other really looks and sounds.”

The beer in your hand is once again empty. “Not sure I can think about dating when I have no idea what to do with my life,” you say.

“What about teaching?” asks Alison. “You must have a skill someone else would love to learn via Portal. Like…” she frowns and furrows her brows, “Um… for example…”

You glare at her as she racks her brains. Coming up short, she quickly adds, “Or what about becoming a virtual interior decorator? You’re obsessed with spaces, and every company, school, cafe, and bar in the Portal keeps looking to upgrade. I mean, you bought that stupid ceiling projector, for crying out loud.”

“No, no, no,” says Alex. “You know where the real money’s at? Teledildonics! Everyone already in the Portal all the time, so just imagine if you could hook up what you see with—” He’s cut off with a slap from Alison.


He shrugs. “I’m just trying to help our friend identify the most lucrative industries to get into.” He claps a hand on your shoulder. “Or just play video games for a few days. Nothing wrong with that.”

As you ponder the options, he waves over the bartender. “Another round, please.”

By the time you get home, you’re feeling a little sloshed. But for some reason, you don’t really want to go to bed. You sink onto the couch instead.

They say anything is possible in the future. They say you just have to find a direction and walk.

“Show me online classes that I can take starting tomorrow,” you say. Immediately, the wall across from you bursts into life with a gigantic display of course listings.

With a flick of your wrists, you scroll through the options. They’re endless. You can choose any course from any university, many of them free. And—like Alison said, there are offerings as well for whatever any one person in the world wants to teach.

Retinal engineering. Spanish. Spanish architecture in virtual settings. 360-degree cinematography. Serendipity optimization. Sound meditation. Robotic dog mods. Voice painting. Violin. Virtual real estate.

Some lessons are a few hours long. Some courses take months, or even years. But within an hour, you make the first tentative gesture. With a tiny hook of your fingers, you select The Basics of Robotics.

“Enroll for class starting tomorrow morning at 11:00am?” the dialog asks.

You pause. You don’t know anything about robotics. None of your friends do, either. It’s probably hard. You’ll feel stupid, and you’ll stumble and fall and look like a fool.

But it’s just one class. And it’s just one small step. What do you have to lose?

You look at the screen. “Yes.”

When it’s finally time to sleep, you stare up at the ceiling. It’s a cloudless night, and the stars above look like a sprinkling of fairy dust.

Times change, but some things never change. Like entire industries falling and rising. Like friends helping you get through a shitty day.

Like the feeling of camping beneath huge, towering redwoods as you fall asleep, dreaming of great adventures ahead.

Image by Justin Kern

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Thanks to Mike Sego.

    Julie Zhuo

    Written by

    Product design VP @ Facebook. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

    The Year of the Looking Glass

    A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.