I recently heard a radio show describing the best unanticipated technologies: thinking back to what you expected of technology back in the 1980’, what has surprised and delighted you now that it’s 2010?
It’s a great question: here’s my winners (and a few losers):
- Telecommunications: A computer that you can hold in your hand, find your location, take pictures, browse a library, anywhere, anytime, in hi-def color for almost no cost. This matured so fast I still haven’t caught up.
- Personal Media: Surrounding myself in a cocoon of my own choosing, from games and music to lectures and commentary. I can completely tailor my media to my taste and mood, from virtually infinite selection.
- Architecture: Buildings have become more efficient, more livable, more stylish, more responsive. There are so many great examples in the Netherlands, from striking skyscrapers in Rotterdam to eco-friendly homes nestled into the soggy landscape. Architects are building in harmony with man and nature, defying the the Brutalist 60’s and their urban planning dystopias.
- Neuroimaging: The brain used to be a fuzzy black and white mess on x-rays: now we collect pictures of neural architectures down to the synapse and functional scans that show it all working in real-time. If only we could pin down the conscious mind.
- Social Networks: My Christmas card list was shrinking year by year as friends moved, addresses were lost, people couldn’t be bothered. Then there was Facebook, and suddenly I am densely networked with my past. time and distance both shrinking dramatically. I can’t imagine keeping in touch with distant relatives and friends any other way.
- Visual Arts: Maybe I’m new to art, but I marvel at the creativity that artists show with the new media they’ve been given. Modern galleries can still be incomprehensible, opaque for both purpose and meaning, but they are also engagingly populated with endlessly fascinating works that spring from new technologies.
- Knowledge Access: When I moved overseas, 13 boxes of books, my extended memory and portable library, tagged along. Now I can look up almost anything, at any depth, from anywhere using search engines, literature libraries, and social media. I‘m not weighted down by a need to remember; I’m free to assemble and create.
Of course, there have been some disappointments:
- Mass Media: What happened? Death of newspapers, 300 TV channels with nothing worth watching, shrieking talk radio, shrunken glossy magazines, the 24/7 celebrity culture. All that technology and potential, able to communicate, inform, connect, so wasted.
- Artificial Intelligence: We couldn’t explain the mind, but we thought we could replicate it. Today everything from speech recognition to learning systems, semantic searches and visual / narrative understanding, remain beyond our machines. The whole field of inquiry has disappeared: will computing still take on such grand challenges?
- Ecology and Conservation: In 1970, Congressman Phil Crane mocked me in a public forum for asking about the Alaska Wilderness bill. Today, the obvious need to preserve forests, wildlife, air and water quality, and open spaces is still under attack as un-American, anti-progress, and Luddite. How did we lose this battle?
- Aerospace and Transportation: It wasn’t just commercial flights to the moon and flying cars, it was efficient, cheap, clean, fast movement of goods and people. And it was just around the corner. But we’re still stuck in the traffic miles from that turn.
- Education: We were all going to learn in our sleep, aided by marvelous teaching machines. But wisdom is still imparted from teacher to student, using books and whiteboards, assessed with true-false and multiple-choice, and too many children still fail.
- Finance: Easy access to credit and distribution of risk have degenerated to more and more sophisticated means of rent-collecting. The bankers got rich, innovative businesses can’t get funded. Too much money is still made from resource hoarding and real-estate speculation, not enough from social good and small-scale economic development.
- Energy: Fusion was going to make power too cheap to meter; no more damming the rivers or leveling the mountains. Maybe next decade?
On balance, though, I love the surprises, and the things they’ve enabled in my life.
And, no, my chosen fields of medicine and biotechnology are still neutral for me, meeting expectations but not yet really astounding me.