Imagining the future – or why the tech press lets us down
Posted by shannonclark on June 29, 2012
This week in San Francisco is Google I/O where Google gathers together some 6000 developers and woos them with the devices and API’s of the future that Google hopes will happen.
In the past this hasn’t always worked, sure it included launching Android which has been, mostly, a success but it also included launching Google Wave which while cool was not a success.
This year it included launching a pretty interesting Android tablet (the Nexus 7), a beautiful to look at in-home consumer electronics device (the Nexus Q – notable for among other reasons being made in the US), new Chromebooks, a new version of Android that (apparently) finally solves many of the UI issues that mobile OS has been plagued with and a bunch of other new APIs and services for developers to leverage to build new products on top of Android and Google+ (and other products of Google such as Maps).
Oh and it also featured one of the founders of Google channeling his full on geek ID by taking to stage in a homage to Tony Stark (Iron Man for you non-geeks, most specifically the movie version of Tony Stark played by Robert Downey Jr in the current Marvel series of major films, less so the original comics version) anyway Sergey Brin channeled Tony Stark with his keynote demonstration of Google Glass (and Hangouts and less clearly the hacker ethos and money of Google) to pull off perhaps the best demo in tech history. It involve skydivers leaping out of a Zeppelin while live-streaming multiple feeds of images and landing on the roof of the conference center in downtown San Francisco.
But with all of that happening this week we still see a technology press that mostly misses where the future is going – finding it hard to imagine mythical “real people” using any of the products demonstrated by Google this week and further mostly focusing on the tactical achievements of one company or the other in raising money or launching some latest and greatest version of something.
Where has the imagination gone?
My reference to Tony Stark/Iron Man is a telling one – a small handful of major motion pictures in the past few years, starting back with Minority Report and more recently with The Avengers do take seriously the attempt to envision the technology of the near-future and illustrate how we may interact with that technology in the future.
In many ways the story of the 1990’s (and early 2000’s) was a that of a generation of geeks who had grown up on Star Trek making much (though not all) of the technology of their childhood imaginations reality. Starting with the communicators (which gave us the industrial design inspiration for Motorola’s flip phones) and leading up to tricorders (our modern smartphones are coming close though still lacking a few sensors out of the box – though increasingly you can build something akin to a tricorder if you try…. and our iPads (and other tablets) have inspirations from Star Trek as well.
But if you think of the iconic fiction of this generation you see little to inspire future generations, few explorations of the real possible impact of technology that could be possible in the future.
And almost noone even gets what is possible today right in fiction – across any medium.
What is possible – not possible as in some obscure military lab – but possible as in “you can order it for next-day delivery” is beyond the imaginations of our creators of today. Sure Google Glass’s small formfactor wearable computer is only just available for pre-oders (and not shipping until sometime in 2013 – 2014 for consumers) but other examples of wearable computers have been around for years now. Our nearly throwaway devices – smartphones available for free (when you sign up for service) have more power and processors and sensors than the computers of just a few years ago.
We have autonomous cars, flying vehicles and walking robots (in many sizes and shapes and styles0. We have 3D printers in the home capable of amazing things. If you can imagine it you can also now get it made and delivered to any part of the globe in a phenomenally short period of time. And people across the globe are exploring what it means for billions (not millions – billions) of people to have digital access to each other.
The number of cell phones on this planet is rapidly approaching the number of people on this planet.
Yet out fictions rarely think about what happens when billions of people can share with each other, when billions of people are reachable and can pool together – sure in “small” groups but when billions of people are connected “small” can be millions of people.
The core assumptions of most of our economic and political thinking needs to change to accommodate the real impact of pervasive connectivity and technology on the globe but our creators in whom we rely upon for images of the future have let us down.