The Future is Now: the Recession and the Steep Upward Slope

Brenda Cooper @ 17-11-2010

It’s a recession.  The housing market is tough, the job market is worse, and the country is so sharply divided we’ll be lucky if anything useful happens in Washington D.C. in the next two years.  Whole economies are backpedaling into austerity programs.  This does not feel like a ride up the steep right-hand curve of the emerging technological singularity.  But I think that’s where we are – in that place of so much change we can barely keep up, and in a time when many people are falling so far behind that they will never catch up. Continue reading “The Future is Now: the Recession and the Steep Upward Slope”

Form, functionality and tradition: why aren’t lightbulbs flat?

Paul Raven @ 09-04-2010

The snap answer is “because no one ever made a flat lightbulb“, but Wired UK now puts the lie to that one: someone displayed a flat lightbulb concept at a design show back in 2008, apparently, though it seems never to have made it to production.

The second (and more considered) answer would probably be “because when they were first being made, limited technology for glass manufacture meant that globular capsules were easier and cheaper to produce, and by the time the technology had improved the shape of a lightbulb was an established given that no one thought to alter“. (I’m not certain about the limitations of early manufacture, but it’s a self-educated guess; anyone who can enlighten me further?)

The paranoid answer might be “their frangibility appeals to the sort of corporate mindset that came up with the concept of planned obsolescence” – in other words, lightbulb makers make lightbulbs that are easy to break because they can then sell more lightbulbs. Pretty sure there’s a logical flaw in there somewhere, though…

But anyway, this tangential waffling is the result of that lightbulb story making me wonder how many other household objects are the shape they are, just because they’ve always been made that way. And from there, it’s a short step to thinking similar thoughts about intellectual and cultural institutions, political theories and so forth…

… yeah, so I’m having one of those Fridays where my mind wanders a lot. Lucky you, eh? 🙂

Here comes everyone – why the internet won’t belong to the West forever

Paul Raven @ 25-09-2009

Wired UK has a passing mention of a keynote speech by BBC internet pundit Bill Thompson, who points out that the days of the internet’s predominantly white Western constituency are numbered:

Thompson has just returned from a BBC trip to Kenya, where he explored the internet take-up in Africa, specifically the effects of one of the six cables being laid to boost bandwidth to the continent. “The internet has been dominated by the West,” he says, but now “our little pond is going to be replaced with an ocean as millions of new internet users come along.”

This is nothing but a good thing, says Thompson, as with the surge of users will come new ideas. The internet, he says, is soon to enter a period of “punctuated equilibrium”, in which we will all be trying out new technologies and those that fail will sink.

The real successes, he said, could come off the back of the failures: “People will need to feed on the carcasses of other people’s failed ideas,” he says, immersing themselves in a process of innovation “play and flow”. To quote countless life coaches: “In this day and age there’s no such thing as failure – only feedback.”

I love the smell of change in the morning. Smells like… victory.

[ In case you’re wondering as to my choice of title, by the way, it’s not a homage to Clay Shirkey’s book (which I have yet to acquire and read). It’s actually a reference to the music of my youth… UK readers of a certain age may remember an early-90s indie band called The Wonderstuff. And as I’ve already posted two videos today, why not make it a hat-trick? I don’t think there was ever an official video for the original, but here’s Wonderstuff frontman Miles Hunt performing “Here Comes Everyone” (with one cuss-word, for them what’s worried about such things) at the Womad Festival a while back:

Off-topic? Yup, sure is – but hey, I’m the editor. Gotta take my perks where I find ’em. Enjoy. 🙂 ]

The slowing of technological progress

Tom James @ 02-09-2009

technology_plug_laptopAlref Nordmann writes in IEEE Spectrum of how technological progress is, contrary to the promises of singularitarians like Ray Kurzweil, actually slowing down:

Technological optimists maintain that the impact of innovation on our lives is increasing, but the evidence goes the other way. The author’s grand mother lived from the 1880s through the 1960s and witnessed the adoption of electricity, phonographs, telephones, radio, television, airplanes, antibiotics, vacuum tubes, transistors, and the automobile. In 1924 she became one of the first in her neighborhood to own a car. The author contends that the inventions unveiled in his own lifetime have made a far smaller difference.

Even if we were to accept, for the sake of argument, that technological innovation has truly accelerated, the line ­leading to the singularity would still be nothing but the simple-minded ­extrapolation of an existing pattern. Moore’s Law has been remarkably successful at describing and predicting the development of semiconductors, in part because it has molded that development, ever since the semiconductor manufacturing industry adopted it as its road map and began spending vast sums on R&D to meet its requirements.

there is nothing wrong with the singular simplicity of the singularitarian myth—unless you have something against sloppy reasoning, wishful thinking, and an invitation to irresponsibility.

This is the same point made by Paul Krugman recently. Nordmann points out that most of the major life-changing technological changes of the past 100 years had all already happened by about the 1960s, with the IT revolution of the last fifty years being pretty much the only major source of technological change[1] to impact him over his lifetime.

This arguments suggests that the lifestyle of citizens industrialised countries will remain fairly stable for a lengthy period of time. It raises the serious point that the best we can hope for vis a vis technological change over the next few decades will just be incremental improvements to existing technologies, and greater adoption of technologies by people in poorer countries.

This would be no bad thing of course, but the suggestion that Ray Kurzweil’s revolutions in nanotechnology, genetics, biotechnology, and artifical intelligence may not arrive as early as Kurzweil predicts is pretty disappointing.

It could be that, to paraphrase William Gibson, the future is in fact here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

[1]: By “major source of technological change” I mean things like antibiotics, mass personal transport, and heavier-than-air flight. There certainly have been improvements in all these areas in the last 50 years, and much wider adoption, but these have not had as great an initial impact.

[from IEEE Spectrum, via Slashdot][image from Matthew Clark Photography & Design on flickr]

Krugman on slowing pace of change

Tom James @ 12-08-2009

changeNobel economics laureate Paul Krugman, speaking at Worldcon, holds forth on the slowing pace of change:

“The pace of change has actually, generation by generation, been slowing down,” he claimed. “The world of today is not as different from the world of 1959 as the world of 1959 was from 1909.”

So let’s say that you travel 30 years into the future and find yourself in a shopping mall. You’ll be astounded at the “great gizmos” that are for sale there, but you’ll still be able to recognize it as a shopping mall, said Krugman. On the other hand, lots of trends are likely to come to a head over the next few decades, including climate change and peak oil, and they could result in a drastically different world.

It kind of makes sense. In the Western world technology – specifically consumer electronics, medicine, communications, and computers – have developed enormously in the past 40 years, but cultural and social change has been less pronounced. We still live a fairly automobile-centric, consumer-based, culturally egalitarian lifestyle[1] that would have been recognisable to someone living in 1959.

But Krugman points out that this could change in the future, with climate change, peak oil, disruptive biotechnology, radical life-extension, resource wars, AI, and the changes in attitudes and culture that these thing could lead to.

[1]: I think that we (i.e. the Western liberal democracies) are certainly a more culturally egalitarian society (with greater gender equality, gay rights, and less racism) than we were in 1959, but I’m not entirely sure that 1909 was substantially more racist, homophobic, and sexist than 1959. Question: did our *culture* (as distinct from technology) change more between 1959 and 2009 than between 1909 and 1959?

[from iO9][image from kevindooley on flickr]

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