DAILY MAIL & GUARDIAN
July 07, 1999
May you live in interesting timesPart 2 / Part 1
* Are you suffering from data overload?
hen my nephew Nicolas turns 30 (in 2019), he will be living in a world surrounded by information devices, the way that today's urban citizens are surrounded by electrical devices. They will be invisible and ubiquitous -- simply part of his life. He will have access to more knowledge than anyone in generations past, and will slide seamlessly between the physical and the virtual worlds. The technological revolution will be at full steam.
But he'll also have much to think about.
It's not uncommon to see the growth of various new technologies in messianic terms. The computer revolution was supposed to improve human existence, for example, making it so that we could do more in less time, thus being better able to relax and enjoy our lives. The computer (and, later, the Internet) was supposed to be transformational technology. Similar pronouncements were given about the telephone and television (at the time of its introduction, TV was declared to be a terrific boon for education and the human spirit), and we'll undoubtedly hear the same sorts of statements about future technologies.
The problem with new technologies is not that they do not fulfill these transformational prophecies, but that they do so in unexpected ways. Unanticipated results often turn out to be far more important than the early, grand predictions. Perhaps not surprisingly, inventors are often the least able to foresee how a new technology will be used, or what its real effect will be (Alexander Graham Bell's prediction that his newly-invented telephone would be used to transmit opera performances to the masses is the classic example).
Sometimes the unanticipated results lead to entirely new markets and industries. When Tim Berners-Lee of the European research group CERN invented HTML, the HTTP protocol, and the world wide web, he thought he was developing a useful tool for scientists to use to share data. He didn't realize that he was actually building the software that would make the Internet accessible to the masses. Those of you who had access to the Internet in 1993-1994, when the web was first emerging, will remember how quickly people adopted this new tool, and how quickly "the web" became synonymous with "the Internet".
When unanticipated results are slow and subtle, however, they can hit a technology after it has gone through its early revolutionary days, emerging as the technology becomes commonplace. In late May of 1999, a research group funded by cellular phone manufacturers announced findings that suggested that, yes, there is a correlation between cellular phone use and increased incidence of brain cancer. More study is clearly required, but if these findings are supported, the rapid growth of the global wireless phone industry could be stopped dead.
It's not uncommon for unanticipated results to show up not in the technologies themselves, but in how the technologies change our behavior. It's well known now that supposedly "time-saving" technologies like overnight delivery, faxes, and electronic mail have instead pushed individuals to work harder with shorter deadlines. The continued rush to adopt more invasive and inescapable systems, from global satellite e-mail to "object positioning systems" that track the location and identity of physical items, could push us all even harder into the realm of hyperaccelerated competition. It could also have the unexpected result of causing a backlash, a rejection of ubiquitous information tools.
Lastly, unanticipated results can include how social structures themselves are affected by new technologies. When information technology is described as a tool to empower the individual, for example, little thought is typically given to what it means to dis-empower the group. Societies and cultures emerged as a means of perpetuating collected learning, passing it along to new generations. The memory of a society can be very long; the memory of an individual lasts, at best, the course of his or her lifetime. Societies also distribute the costs of large actions across their many members, making it possible to undertake tasks that no individual could easily -- or profitably -- accomplish. If individuals are empowered at the expense of society, it may well be more difficult to solve problems (such as global climate change) that don't have clear sources or solutions at the individual level.
So what does all of this mean for Nicolas?
Over the next twenty years, there is no question that there will be an astounding (and sometimes troubling) array of new technologies stepping onto the global stage. Ubiquitous information systems, biotechnologies, new energy systems such as fuel cells, even the possibility of seemingly intelligent machines -- each could unleash radical changes in the way Nicolas lives his life. He will have to deal with that, recognizing that change is inherently neither good nor evil, but is a fundamental aspect of twenty-first century life.
But dealing with change means thinking critically about it, evaluating how a new system, a new method, a new device fits into one's existing structure of life and, more importantly, re-evaluating it time and again as its implications become clear. First impressions are often wrong, and important results sometimes take time to emerge. Nicolas will have to ask himself whether he likes this change, how he can encourage it if he does, and how he can stop it -- or adapt to it -- if he doesn't. Simple acceptance of anything new can be as dangerous as obstinate rejection.
When Nicolas is 30, he will know that awareness is the key to successfully navigating the changing world. He will need to both scan for the new ideas and systems coming over the horizon and look back to see how established technologies and concepts have affected his life. He will know that he'll have to be able to adapt. Finally, he will know -- and I won't let him forget -- that new technologies are simply tools to let him live his life with greater happiness.
© Daily Mail & Guardian - July 07, 1999
* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.
Published weekly by the Electronic Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa. Send email comments to the editor, Gavin Dudley