I remember the first time I saw an iPhone. It was probably 2007 and a co-worker held one in his hand, showing me a full screen picture of a glass of beer. He shook the screen slightly, and I could see the beer foam rock and slosh in reaction. I was impressed, but clueless about the revolution I was seeing.
There are plenty of experts that have predicted the future. Highly educated and experienced technologists, culture observers and entrepreneurs predict the future all the time. When they do, it’s always more of the same. Current trends are simply extrapolated, and since technology has exploded in the last century, it’s always seen as the driver. Trends that rely on a tailwind of technology will accelerate; others will slow. So all experts imagine that technology will drive winners and losers in our culture.
But it’s the other way around.
Moore’s law, the doubling of computer power every 2 years, correctly predicted the transformation of computers to home computers, to laptops, to phones. And now to the Internet of Things. When experts predicted how the increase in available computing power would affect society, they just saw some current, compute-intensive trends continue.
Similarly when networking took off in the 80s and 90s, experts predicted it would be used to increase the rate at which data could be shipped between data centers, and that increasing bandwidth between computers would further multiply the increase in usable compute power. Highly networked computers could solve new business problems. Business that rely on complex scheduling and resource allocation would be aided, because because more compute power and data would be available.
For example, in the 1970’s when I first studied Computer Science, Moore’s law was well know, and the Arpanet — the backbone of the internet, was just starting. No one predicted computer gaming — no one predicted computers would allow developers to create computer games. But humans love, love games, and so first we created the single player text puzzles like Adventure, and now we have the the online, muliplayer, international, jousts. Computer gaming is bigger than Hollywood. Experts knew computers would be used in gaming, but they just saw fancier arcade games. They didn’t envision that people would love to create new, better games.
No one, in the nineties, predicted the culture of social networking. Personal computers were becoming as ubiquitous as TVs, and the growth in broadband made them competitive with TVs as a time sink for many people. AOL chat was just starting. But no one then, as far as I knew, foresaw a culture where almost everything we do get photographed and recorded immediately, and posted to friends. No one foresaw Twitter, with it’s instant mob of admirers or detractors.
No one, in the nineties, predicted how cellphones would actually evolve. First it was a phone, then it became a web crawler, and now it’s the primary means of connectivity between individuals, and between people and businesses.
It started as just a phone, with the expectation that technological improvements would make it a better phone. Truly portable, and a valuable resource for people on the go. Like Captain Kirk, we’d flip open our communicator and just . . . talk.
Today we can indeed talk on our Androids and iPhones, but we rarely do. Some young people consider a phone call almost rude, because it demands and unknown amount of undivided attention, right now. So many of us stay in contact by queuing brief, declarative texts back and forth. So “texting” — a word that didn’t exist a few decades ago — has because the primary means that families use to stay in touch during the day.
You could say that changes in technology created texting, but that’s an illusion born from hindsight, Looking forward from the nineties, talking and browsing were foreseen as likely winners. Culture drove us down a different path. Technology opens up paths of possible development, but culture takes that capability and drives it where no one expects.
No one predicted, or expected, the cultural effects of ubiquitous video recording at our fingertips, and its virtually free distribution on YouTube. No one foresaw that ubiquitous video would create a population of behavior monitors, recording both crimes and police activity.
I beleive that the ubiquity of cell phones is an important factor in the dramatic reduction of crime during the last few decades. A reduction no one — no one — expected.
All of this should give us caution about predicting the future. We knew computers would become more powerful, but no one predicted how this power would first enable many of our purchases, then log them, and then support algorithms like collaborative filtering, to suggest new purchases. As I write this, my phone is playing music on my Bluetooth speaker. It’s playing an automatically generated playlist from Spotify, suggesting music based on what I’ve listened to, and saved, and what similar users have saved. It’s remarkably good, and I’ve discovered much new, enjoyable music. No one would have predicted something like this 20 years ago.
With the growth of phone technology, and the culture it enabled, I think we’ve passed a critical threshold in communication. So many people now are able to communicate quickly, and easily with so many others. Those same people can communicate with voice, text, and video, and they can link to supporting evidence to give their opinions more weight.
In the past, relatively stable elites defined boundaries for the societies they presided over. Now — possibly for the better, possibly for the worse — we’ve become unmoored from that. It’s not clear to me whether we’re drawing together into a single more sympathetic and informed people, or fragmented into competing mobs.