(Originally Published on nmc.org, July 2017)
I seem to be have been hit by the Futurism bug recently. I say “hit” rather than “bit” deliberately. I’ve been fascinated by Futurism ever since I read Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy as a child. The idea of psychohistory has stayed with me. Part of the reason is that I recognize prediction as largely an effort centered around the human rather than the machine. With psychohistory, Asimov argued that, given a large enough sample size, one could predict the future through the aggregated actions of vast numbers of people. Note that his version of futurism was based on societal factors, not technological ones. It is only when societies accept the new cultural norms imposed by technological change that we can say that change has actually occurred. When we focus on specific technologies, we miss the point.
In a recent post, Bryan Alexander remarked how little the world has apparently changed since the 1980s. With the exception of smartphones, there is scant visible evidence of change seen while walking down the street in Boston or DC. The cars and buildings are similar to what existed in 1985. Bryan and I are almost exactly the same age and we both graduated from high school in that year. I suspect we both expected our hoverboards by 2015.
In supporting his argument, Bryan references a great book, The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton, which makes a similar point to Asimov: namely, that we miss the pace of change because we focus on technology, not the human element. Edgerton remarks on the repeated persistence of traditional technologies well past the time when histories seem to imply that they were long gone. Everything from the use of horses to the longevity of radio as a medium is cited in this excellent book.
Edgerton’s book, written in 2007, somewhat misses a fundamental shift that occurred in the way that technology has evolved. Most of the technologies that Edgerton highlights require heavy capital expenditure to change, and large swathes of this planet do not have access to the latest and greatest. I can understand when seemingly anachronistic technologies seem to persist and/or are adapted into weird hybrids like the tuk-tuk in Asia (a hybrid of the rickshaw and scooter). Modern taxis are simply not economically feasible in many cities in less prosperous parts of the world. It makes sense that the locals try to maximize functionality of the limited resources available to them. This is what humans do; they adapt their tools to their needs.
At the same time, I wonder if this argument only makes sense when applied to physical media (and that may be shifting, too). The barriers to entry for virtual technology are much, much lower than those required to operate a New York City-style taxi in Phnom Penh. In the developing world, hacking can now be applied in revolutionary new ways. Several years ago, I read an article about how West African “hackers” were converting discarded PCs (did you ever wonder where that seven-year-old Dell winds up after your IT department carts it away?) into 3D printers.
Circuit boards are the physical manifestation of the rapid diffusion of “invisible” tech throughout the world. I carry around the rough equivalent of a 1985 Cray supercomputer on my belt. Those seven-year-old Dells are still more powerful machines than my iPhone 6 — and we’re throwing them away. Even more accessible, the Raspberry Pi delivers similar performance for just $35 — making it far more prevalent than an $8 million Cray ever could be (bench not included, however). Moreover, that is only the tip of the iceberg. The utility of these supercomputers on our belts and the basic ones embedded in almost every facet of our lives is that many of them are connected to a much larger “computer” that is the network. I don’t need to store the entire contents of Google Maps on my belt-mounted computer (or in my car, for that matter), as long as I’m connected.
The one area that Edgerton really doesn’t discuss is communications technology, and it is in this area that everything else is being upended. This is true both globally and locally. You can now hail a tuk-tuk on the streets of Phnom Penh using Uber. In many fundamental ways my own life has shifted, especially in the last few years, from what it used to be. I would put the blame for this squarely on one invisible technology: the Network. When I refer to “the Network,” I’m talking about a vast array of wired and wireless communications, from broadband internet in the home to Bluetooth in my car to cellular networks that pervade every fiber of my existence as well as the ubiquitous computing technology that binds it together. I think we often underestimate the pervasive ways that it changes everything we do.
This may surprise many of you, but I am a technological conservative. I rarely get excited about the “Next Big Thing” that will “change the world.” They rarely do — and I don’t adopt things until I can personally see utility that supersedes the old model by enough of a margin to justify the opportunity cost of changing my habits. I frustrate some of my more technologically progressive friends by resisting change until it suits me. I also get mad when I’m forced into a technological downgrade due to a company’s commercial interests. Some good examples of my recent frustrations in this area include Apple’s decision to get rid of most of the ports on their “Pro” laptops and Facebook’s forced transition to a separate app for Facebook Messenger.
That being said, I have noticed some significant changes in my behavior over the past half-decade or so, particularly in media consumption and transportation, both related to the Network. I am more likely to buy books on Kindle than I used to be, and that is usually because of a need for immediate gratification and the added benefit of synchronization across various devices. I recently took my first trip ever where I didn’t pack a paper book. While I still enjoy the serendipity of browsing through CDs, I find that I’m increasingly buying my audio in downloadable form. Both of these are partial shifts, impacting perhaps 50% of my media purchasing these days.
My video consumption, on the other hand, has shifted almost 100%. Other than sports, I watch almost nothing live anymore. I can’t be bothered to conform my schedule to that of some random network scheduler. That means that, unlike 1985, there are no more “Must-See Thursdays” in my life. If I want go out or my kids have a game, I can do that when I want, regardless of what’s on. I don’t feel the need to fuss with DVR or recording a VHS tape anymore, either. I watch what’s available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or HBOGo. I buy a very limited selection of movies, but more and more, I won’t buy a DVD/Blu-ray unless it comes with a free digital download. In most cases, the physical media don’t even get used.
In the area of transportation, I have to ask myself, how many of the fossil fuel-driven “dumb” cars that Bryan Alexander references have Google Maps running on their phone? I am a heavy user of Google Maps. Even when I know where I am going, I run the route before departing to warn me of unexpected traffic. In the past few years, rideshare services like Uber and Lyft have exploded onto the scene. They are heavily dependent on Google Map-like software to get their drivers where they are needed as quickly as possible. While not a Tesla, my Mazda 6 includes sensors that warn me of nearby objects when I back up or when someone is sitting in my blind spot; the car also adapts its cruise control to vehicles in front of me. When I am driving a car without these features now, I really notice it.
The one thing I don’t know, and that neither Bryan Alexander nor I can see with our eyes, is just how widely diffused these technologies are. There is plenty of evidence that “the Network” has proliferated far more rapidly than “physical” technologies, such as those described by Edgerton. While the developing world may have become a technological junkyard, those pieces are being repurposed into cutting-edge technologies, perhaps leapfrogging the ideas being produced in the technologically fat and happy “developed” world. While transportation in crowded urban centers remains challenging, friction-free dispatching and navigation services are now facilitating it.
What Edgerton argues persuasively is that when people see a need, they will adapt their tools to that need. “The Network” facilitates tool adaptation in ways unimaginable in 1985 or even when Edgerton was writing 20 years later. While I may not have my hoverboard, I can watch Marty McFly anytime without physical media (he inhabits my iTunes library). In the very near future, I will be able to experience him in a VR environment from my sofa so I can get the hoverboard experience without risking injury to my knees. The outside world will continuously adapt to these new realities. In the meantime, the street will look much the same, but those of us who have taken the red pill will see the matrix that imperceptibly lies beneath it.