I was intrigued by the way the FutureLab’s “2020 and beyond” parallels the Horizon Report, and yet adds these vignettes of what it will be like to live in the near future. The question I asked as I read was, “of all this, what is likely to really happen and what isn’t?”
The pervasive technology for personal use reminded me of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). In that book, I recall two technologies standing out. One was the home music system, which piped music in to the home, and was controlled by dials on the wall. Another was the umbrella-like covering that was deployed over the entire city when it rained. The first of these came to be, in the form of our stereo systems, sensurround, Musak, satellite radio. The second did not.
In that context, perhaps it is the personal, small technologies that come to be, and the larger, environmental technologies that are predicted incorrectly.
In Star Trek, the epitome of technology prediction models, they had the hypospray, a device that injected medication through the skin without needles. They also had the transporter, which dissolved the body into molecules, sent them through space, and reassembled them at the other end. Again, the first one has come to be, through medications administered in skin patches and nasal sprays. The second (unfortunately for those of us who deal with traffic every day) has not.
In that context, perhaps it is the technologies which are close to what we already have that will come to be. In the 1960s, we were already aware of substances that could be processed into units so small they could be absorbed through the pores of skin. But we had nothing that could dissolve a human into fairy dust.
Consider, then, Future Labs’ predictions. The Personal Devices (combined devices, wearable technology) become likely on an individual basis — we already have these as novelty items. But the Intelligent Environments are less likely. Although we have the technologies (I think of the sensing devices embedded into rubbish bins in London), the infrastructure of something like a mobile game would take a concerted effort and a system with many small parts, often embedded in public spaces, to provide continuity without large base installations. A few may attempt it, but it is likely to go the way of city-wide wifi: suitable for densely populated city centres but too extravagant for anywhere else.
The Network (combining of our various communication devices at work and home)is already happening, although again I doubt the viability of cooperative effort, suggested by the Ambient Networks, to do this in a larger environment. We can’t even get cellular mobile phone companies to share towers to create efficient coverage. Competition has made the likelihood of workable networks lower, as each company tries to profit from its own. That’s what’s happened with Ricochet in my area; it’s become useless. Such network competition also produces electronic pollution, radiation from huge ugly towers just so people can say “‘sup?” to their friends. We have to go elsewhere to find analyses of market forces and how they relate to the likelihood of adoption.
Also in this Network section I began to notice a pattern. Each of the vignettes had us going somewhere (“you’re walking down the street”) and sharing the same sorts of stuff we share now (photos, video, notes). That’s where things became less innovative, and even Processing just seemed to support what we do now (sharing animations, making stories). Most of the technology here and in the Storage section was for the purpose of recording and sharing human action (film the kids, “capture an audio-visual record of every second of your life”). If we did that, when would we watch the films, view the record? Would we stop doing other things to watch ourselves, to the point of experiencing our own trivialities like reflections in multiple mirrors?
All the wonderful things mentioned in the “Questions for education” sections (experimentation, evolution of ideas, sharing information) are being done now, even without sophisticated technology. Tools for collaboration aren’t collaborators, they are still tools, at the service of people’s needs. In asking questions like “Will recall of facts and events become obsolete as a socially valued skill?” we’re missing the idea that we already act as if recall is archaic, that we’re entering a post-literate society, which is not necessarily a good thing. What use is anytime access to great ideas, writings and art when we don’t know how to read? We may not have to recall facts, but how do we decide when we want to find some?
It is telling that much of technologies predicted will be for personal, and relatively trivial, use. Everything here seems an answer to the question, “I’m bored: what should I do?” Play games, share photos, record your whole life. I won’t be one of the people ordering the communicator embedded in my belt. I think I’d rather pin it to my shirt, keeping the technology separate unless I want it there. You know, like in Star Trek.