The Future Is Messy and We Aren’t Even Close to Ready

As I have read the various articles and blogs about Google Glass over the last few weeks, it has led me to marvel at how completely people are missing the point.  Whether it’s arguing that Google Glass won’t be attractive to consumers, or it’s Congress worrying about privacy, it just strikes me as a side show.  Kind of like arguing while Nero played the violin about his choice of bow resin, song choice or quality of the performance.

It’s not just in connection with Google Glass.  Over the last few weeks there have been more than a few observations made about the possibility of creating machine and software based vessels for the human brain and consciousness.  Will it work? Won’t it? Will you still be you if your brain is transferred to the web?

Here’s my point, technology advances because of the combination of human curiosity, the desire of innovators and inventors to leave their mark on the world and plain and simple commerce.  So long as some part of our world provides incentives (or at least doesn’t prohibit it), technology will continue to progress.  Technology and humanity have become intertwined, as a form of expression and as part of a complex feedback loop.  As technology advances, it creates challenges to existing social structures and the status quo, and ultimately shapes society.  Which, leads to further changes and so forth.

For example, technology has given us the ability to communicate via phone, email and messaging as we move through our day.  Look how that change has shaped and changed society.  What is acceptable behavior in social settings have changed.  I bet you weren’t upset when a colleague took a look at her Blackberry during lunch (you probably took a quick glance at your iPhone at the same time). Think about the email/text you sent ahead of the meal saying “you would be five minutes late.”  It used to be that being on time was showing up on time – now on time is sending a message of your likely arrival time.  These simple examples show how the existence of the technology of ubiquitous communication have changed social conventions. 

There are many other examples.  Consider how the existence and structure of the web has changed how people get information about the world, and how fragmented our political system has become.  It’s not an accident.  Have you thought about oil fracking recently?  Think how our country will change as it becomes energy independent – with hydrocarbons that pollute our water table, perhaps.  And have you really thought about the implications of autonomous cars, 3D printed guns and cybernetic limbs? How about artificial life (created from real DNA), quantum computing or mining space?

One of the things that I find most concerning about our current political climate is how our representatives spend many hours arguing about a future that they haven’t really thought through. They argue about privacy where the horse is already so out of the barn he is over the hill and far away. They argue about “death panels” as medical technology converges on technologies to allow humans to live for extended periods.  They argue about how to create free markets, while they enable concentration of our dominant industries.  But, what they rarely do is think ahead.

However, in this case I do think that they are truly representative of our democracy.  These days we do not really spend much time thinking about the future as it will be shaped by technology, and instead speak more and more of the need for austerity.  Discussions of a different future are somehow seen as trivial and “not serious” as we are encouraged more and more to believe in a future of scarcity.  By doing this we end up limiting our horizons and ability to make good decisions about how our country will progress.  This is a mistake.  History shows us clearly that for good or for ill the one thing that we can count on is that technology will progress, and change will occur. 

Here are some examples that come to mind:

  1. Assume that advances in medical technologies continue as they are.  Within a relatively short time horizon, technologies will exist that will dramatically expand the lifespan of humans.  Who will get these technologies?  How will they apportioned?  Just for fun, imagine a world where they go to those that can afford them.  Or, a world where they apportioned by lottery.  They would be very different societies.

  2. Assume that Google Glass and Siri are the thin edge of a trend. Within the next ten years the line between what we know, and what we can find out, will blur to the point of unrecognizability.  What will knowledge mean when all knowledge is available by asking the right questions of our personal assistant?  Think we are educating our children properly for this world?  Think education will matter?

  3. Assume that data mining and surveillance technologies continue to advance.  What will privacy mean?  Who will care?  How will you react when it becomes clear that there is in fact nothing unknowable about you to the government, advertiser, employer, colleague or stranger?

  4. Assume that 3D printing progresses to a point where first simple manufacturing and eventually complex manufacturing can be done on a desk top machine.  What will happen to manufacturing employment as a result?  How will intellectual property rights be handled?  What will it mean to work, or not to?

I could go on for many more paragraphs but by now I expect you have seen my point.  The future won’t be like today, but the way that society adapts to new technologies will define what that future becomes.  We can either engage in meaningless discussions on the side show, or we can address the real issues at hand.  The more that we look ahead to the challenges that technology can create, the more likely we are to benefit from them.