LOS ANGELES --- It was Yogi Berra who supposedly said, "It's very hard to predict things, especially about the future." But then he also said, "I never really said all the things I said." He even talked about politics and the presidency: "You know Texas has a lot of electrical votes."
A group of five students at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, where I teach, took up the challenge when they chose to do a project on what election coverage would look like 50 years from now. Their names and hometowns answer part of that question: Matt Hamilton from Wilmington, Del.; Shunqi Lin from Shanghai; Melissah Yang from Orange County, California; Byron Tseng from Hong Kong and Angelina Velasquez, who grew up in Southern California and Sicily.
Before talking about their predictions for the political and journalistic landscape of 2062, it is worth remembering that 50 years can be a very long time -- going backward would take us to 1962, a very different time for both politics and journalism, and even different for technology. That, after all, was the time of typewriters, carbon paper, mimeograph machines and dial telephones.
So here is some of what first-year graduate students thought would happen in the next 50 years:
"Let's first examine what we mean when we say election night: a tradition that is not so much a tradition as the latest iteration of political journalism. Election night is, or has been, primarily a television event ... networks' stable of stars gather round tables, report in from swing states and party rallies, monitor incoming poll numbers, stand before maps as the Electoral College votes are selected. ... The victor emerges and addresses the nation....
"Cue the credits."
Obviously that is going to change. Viewers, or as the students say now, "the audience," will have all the network tools in any number of devices from handheld to big screens of their own.
"On the media end: digital media, user customization, audience interaction, and the ever-increasing rapidity of the media are disrupting the foundations of election night," they write. "The shared experience of digesting election results through television has given way to a multiplicity of means to learn about and stay abreast of the electoral outcomes. ... Digital technology continues to insinuate itself in all facets of our lives: financial, commercial, medical matters, romantic, social, and professional information and communication."
Why should politics and governance be any different?
Now come the scary parts: "Customization will increase exponentially, and it will occur without people having to press a button. ... In 2060, it is plausible that customization will progress to the point where people themselves do not need to consciously pick their content, rather the content will be selected for them. ... This customization does not require mind-reading technology, for it would be unnecessary; companies like Google and Facebook already have ample information on each of their users....
"While this might make a person more narrow-minded and ignorant of important topics outside that person's interest sphere, it also enables a person to visit sites they otherwise would not. Imagine this future of customization to sort through a library and zeroing in on the few books you are interested in."
Maybe. But I would guess citizens will be content with accepting what the machines give them. It's not that different than when The New York Times promised "All the News That's Fit to Print." Now, instead of green-eyeshaded editors deciding what we should know, digital chips and our past history will do our thinking for us. Maybe the chips will be implanted at birth.
I also think my students, who know more about such technology than I do, are being too cautious, too conservative. My guess is that most of this and more will happen in 10 years or so. In 50 years, I think, for better or worse, we'll have a new planet and new kinds of democracy and governance.