Friday, May 18, 2007

Brave New World?

Every so often, I get to wondering about the future, and how things will be. My overall impression is that while things are never going to be quite as nice as some futurists would have you believe, neither will they be quite as bad as the doom-criers say. We'll muddle along, much as we always have. Well, maybe...

Because, every so often, something happens that forever changes what follows.

For example, the last hundred years changed two fundamental facts about the human condition. For most of our history, no one ever moved faster than a horse could gallop. And for most of our history, doctors were pretty much confined to treating the symptoms of disease. In the last hundred years that has changed. Now, at least in the industrialized world, we have unprecedented mobility: cars, planes, trains, you name it. Also, many diseases can be treated quite effectively with modern medicines. Doctors can fight back against disease now, and win more than they lose, these days.

This has changed us in ways we don't often think about. Our cities look vastly different, now. They're sprawling and decentralized. It's easy to tell a city that grew up before the automobile. It's got a well-defined city center, and people still live there. It's got a great subway system. And almost no one drives. As much as people bemoan urban sprawl, that bell isn't likely to be un-rung. People like living in the suburbs, and like the convenience of driving, for the most part.

Anyway, what will the next hundred years bring? Charles Sheffield is a science fiction author, which means he speculates on the future for a living. He's got some interesting conjectures. Money quote:

Meet your descendants. They don't know what it's like to be involuntarily lost, don't understand what we mean by the word "privacy", and will have access (sooner or later) to a historical representation of our species that defies understanding. They live in a world where history has a sharply-drawn start line, and everything they individually do or say will sooner or later be visible to everyone who comes after them, forever. They are incredibly alien to us.

He's extrapolating the convergence of two technologies here: the ubiquity of GPS technology, combined with the ubiquity of mass storage. The social changes this will bring about are quite astonishing, when you sit down to think about them. Further, Andrew Sullivan linked to a rather interesting line of research being pursued at a university in Germany. Apparently, your brain is very nimble when it comes to interpreting new sources of sensory data. You can learn to "see" by touch-sense input on your back, even on your tongue. Wild ... And there's more, like the compass belt Andrew mentions in the snip that he listed. If you always know which way is north, the world begins to look different to you.

As an engineer, I tend to see tools as the means by which we shape our environment. I tend to think about shaping tools to solve a particular problem at hand. But to what extent do our tools shape us? And is this something we should start worrying about?

Or should we just embrace it?

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