Forget camp as you know it, because the world is changing faster than camp professionals are holding their ground. Forget camp’s unique combination of community living away from home in a beautiful natural setting with a recreational premise. Forget its proven power to accelerate youth development. This 160-year-old concept has a bleak future if current trends continue unchecked. In the coming decades, I predict these seven revolutions.
One: Cyborgs Will Replace Humans
We are currently witnessing the inseparability of young people and their smartphones, of classrooms and computers, and of entertainment and electronics. In the near future, electronic technology with the capacity to learn and grow (aka “artificial intelligence” or “AI”) will evolve from cute (e.g., a robot vacuum cleaner that can learn the floorplan of your apartment) to creepy (e.g., a human child with computerized eyes that can see in the dark).
Cyborgs — entities that blend human tissue with computer parts — will become so prevalent that debate will erupt about how much human tissue children must have in order to be considered human. As a result, many countries will create two kinds of camps, two kinds of schools, and two kinds of other youth-serving organizations: those for cyborg youth and those for purely human youth.
Although some people will argue for radical acceptance of technology differences among those assigned 100-percent human selves at birth, fears about technology will galvanize the different positions on humanity. Ultimately, each side will accuse the other side of discrimination. Many families, wanting to avoid being associated with such a polarizing issue, will decide not to enroll in summer youth programs.
Two: Immersion Will Eclipse Communication
In most camps, as well as most classrooms, immersion in virtual reality (VR) will be used in everything from pain control and video games to sailing instruction and first aid certification. Already, immersive pedagogies — such as augmented reality, wherein a smartphone or a set of VR glasses serve as the overlay to an actual activity — are in widespread use. (Remember Pokémon Go?)
In the future, staff will still take campers for nature walks, but everyone will be wearing semi-transparent VR glasses. Rather than having the group leader point out the damsel fly that has alighted on the lady’s slipper next to the decaying spruce log, the kids will simply look in the direction of the log and labels will appear to hover above everything in the child’s field of vision. And by blinking at the label, participants will be able to activate a voice that explains the ecological relationships among damsel flies, lady’s slippers, and rotting wood.
With prodigious quantities of information seamlessly integrated with their reality experience, young people’s need to talk and interact with their human supervisors will mostly disappear. Indeed, adult-child relationships that have curiosity and wisdom at their core will mostly disappear.
Three: Resource Independence Will Rule
The population of most countries will increase almost exponentially, along with humans’ use of fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas. Increased emissions will accelerate global warming, and the scarcity of fossil fuels will eventually drive their prices up to unaffordable heights. To be successful, day camps and overnight camps will have to generate their own food and fuel. Becoming “resource independent” in this manner will necessitate an increase in acreage as well as the shift of outdoor programming from primarily sports to primarily farming by hand.
Because air conditioning will be so expensive and the world will be hotter than it has been in millennia, camps in the south will have to close or relocate to northern latitudes, where summer climate control is still unnecessary.
A niche industry of off-the-books southern camps that serve ice cream and feature air conditioning will become popular among families who can afford the astronomical tuitions required to offset the camps’ enormous electric bills.
Four: Nature Will Become Extinct
Deforestation and the resultant landslides, along with pollution of air, soil, and water, will cause the extinction of enough flora and fauna to destabilize the entire ecosystem that humans depend on for food, water, and oxygen. More than three-quarters of the world’s population will live in urban areas, marking the first time in history that most children will grow up only reading about — never seeing or touching — plants and animals.
Ironically, nature’s near-extinction will coincide with the disappearance of the Internet. The notions of “going online” and “visiting a web page” will seem quaint. Thanks to the prevalent (and mostly invisible) integration of electronic technology into human bodies, there will be no need to find a computer or smartphone and “Google” an answer. Human sensory decoding, content recall, and behavioral analysis will be out-performed by the technology they wear.
Although one result of wearable tech will be realistic and safe holographic experiences of bygone natural worlds, this artificial immersion will cause children’s developing minds to lose their sense of self. Therefore, successful camps will have to market themselves not as offering a “back-to-nature” experience, but a “back-to-self” experience. At a high-quality back-to-self camp, young people would be carefully weaned from their augmented reality apparatus and provided simple, spontaneous, think-for-yourself experiences.
Five: Minds Will Unhinge
In addition to the disappearance of low-lying coastal land, the extinction of nature, and the insidious loss of self, other global crises — such as conflicts about what it means to be purely human — will traumatize a large percentage of the population. Young people will be born neurologically resilient but will become fragile as a result of the conspicuous absence of ambiguous situations, minor social strife, and opportunities to fail. Without independent experiences and adventures, young people will have no chance to develop effective coping strategies, making both global crises and daily hassles potentially traumatic.
Well-intentioned adults will try to protect young people from the traumas of urbanization, dissociation, and violence by designing and constructing robots to perform almost all mundane tasks. However, the side effect of kids not experiencing boredom will be short attention spans and low frustration tolerance. Successful camps will market themselves as cloistered environments where leisure and occasional boredom serve as the foundation for building attentional capacity, patience, and creativity.
Prevalence rates of anxiety, depression, and psychosis will increase among children and adolescents as a result of their diminished ability to cope, understand their individuality, resolve social conflicts, and nurture their instinctual desires for cognitive and social generativity. Here, too, successful camps will tap into the emerging market for mental wellness experiences.
Six: Decentralization Will Engender Carelessness
Blockchain transactions — defined as “a distributed network of transactions that are authenticated by mass collaboration and powered by collective self-interests” (Tapscott, 2017) — will usher in a new era of online security. Fears about hackers stealing credit card numbers or entire identities will dissolve. However, the resultant complacency about online privacy will lead to greater and greater carelessness about what the public — including young people — share online.
Large corporations will continue to mine massive databases of people’s online behavior, allowing them to provide highly customized products and services to young people. Some of this customization will serve ethical ends, such as educational products and services that best meet a particular child’s learning style. Other customization will serve unethical ends, such as marketing legalized recreational drugs to young people most likely to be addicted given their other online purchasing and family history.
Successful camps will have metacognitive programs that teach young people to focus on their own thinking rather than relying on the analyses large corporations provide. Campers who can successfully decouple from their virtual worlds will spend time at camp reflecting on their heartfelt, individual needs and learning to distinguish between what they really want and what corporations tell them they want. At camp, young people will learn to think and feel carefully.
Seven: Biases Will Persist
Rather than seeing an end to pernicious isms, such as racism, sexism, and ageism, humans will form ever-faster first impressions of other people. Our natural inclination to stereotype will be inadvertently enhanced by virtual aggregates of data that have the veneer of objectivity but have human bias baked in from the start. As a result, kids will become more resolute in their judgments about others, some of which will be inaccurate.
Combined with the erosion of their conflict-resolution skills, young people’s misjudgments of others will increase misunderstandings and actual conflicts, thereby making stereotypes feel like full-blown truths.
Successful camps will need to teach kids to rely on other pure humans to provide pragmatic feedback on interpersonal interactions. The once ancillary practice of debriefing an activity or interaction will now become the centerpiece of many camps’ programs. Rather than offering baseball, swimming, and high ropes, camps will offer de-biasing activities such as sportspersonship, interpersonal competition, and assessment of others. Old-fashioned activities will become the backdrop, not the focus, of an updated program whose goal is not fun but deprogramming.
I have an eighth, optimistic prediction, one that assuages the harm I predict from the woeful first seven.
Eight: One of Your Campers Will Change the World
Great camps have always been countercultural vehicles for positive youth development. Just because mainstream culture is changing does not mean that the original purpose of camps has to change. In fact, giving children and teenagers a wholesome and intense oasis of unplugged, interpersonal activities is more important than ever. This sentiment has graced the pages of Camping Magazine many times before; I’m inclined to restate its hopeful message after my miserable series of predictions.
In The Rise of The Image, The Fall of the Word, Mitchell Stephens (1998) provides convincing evidence that older generations have always been suspicious of technological developments. For example, Socrates is said to have remarked that the invention of writing would induce forgetfulness and only a semblance of wisdom, not truth or sound judgment. His student Plato, agreed, scribing “Writing is a step backward for truth.”
Technology threatens our humanity — the compassion, morality, and intimacy that define our species, our sense of self, and our civilization. No wonder technological advances in communication, education, and entertainment feel threatening to many older members of society. But if some of your campers — a handful of young people — are going to change the world, they would need to be motivated, to feel similarly threatened by the insidious side effects of technological advancement.
Alternatively, perhaps some of your campers will fall in love with the simple life and feel motivated to preserve what is good, rather than avoid what is bad. In that case, our job as youth development professionals is to preserve our core; to defend our program against the encroachment of corrosive forces, against anything that dilutes the experiences we design.
As a practical exercise, I recommend you handwrite a list of the dozen biggest changes that have occurred at your camp in the past two decades. (Feel free to consult the prior owner/director if you’re fairly new to the organization.) Then, next to each item, write “defends/enhances camp’s core” or “erodes/dilutes camp’s core” and describe how. Base your labels and descriptions on honest summations of the intended and unintended consequences of each change on your list. The best time to undo mistakes and reinforce institutional successes is now. Sure, campocalypse is sensationalized, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Stephens, M. (1998) The rise of the image, the fall of the word. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Tapscott, D. (2017, July 6). Blockchain: The ledger that will record everything of value to humankind. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from weforum.org/agenda/2017/07/blockchain-the-ledger-that-will-record-everything-of-value
Christopher Thurber, PhD, is a board-certified clinical psychologist and the co-founder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, an Internet library of educational videos for youth leaders. He is dedicated to positive youth development and has been invited to deliver keynotes, contribute articles, and lead workshops at schools and camps on five continents. His forthcoming book is entitled Fumble. Learn more about Chris’s books, articles, videos, and in-person workshops at DrChrisThurber.com.