While A.M. Turing Award winner Alan Kay’s most famous quote, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it," makes sense as an incentive to make a contribution to our technological future, it can also be taken as a caution that predicting the future is very difficult — particularly since most of us do not have the wherewithal to "invent the future." So, then, how are we, who may have concern about what is coming, to know enough to prepare ourselves for this future?

Well, we can rely on experts in the field to predict where we are going.

Not so fast! There is more disagreement among "experts" than there is between Yankees and Mets fans. There have been a number of books published, each well written by a recognized expert in technology. Yet, there is little agreement among them, other than that we must recognize the opportunities/problems presented by the technological path and do whatever is necessary to harness technology for the benefit of all.

Approaching The Future; 64 Things You Need To Know Now For Then

A good place to start in framing the questions to be analyzed is Ben Hammersley’s "Approaching The Future; 64 Things You Need To Know Now For Then" (Soft Shull Press; ISBN: 978-1-59376-514-9). As the title suggests, Hammersley takes us through sixty-four technologic facets of the present, examines the history, and points out the ramifications for the future. He begins with an examination of Moore’s Law, the 1965 observation by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, that stated that every year (revised in 1975 to every two years) the number of components used on a microchip doubled while the price remained the same. To the layman, this means that the power of computers doubles every two years while remaining at the same price. (I say "to the layman" because technically this is not completely correct — but close enough!). In the same chapter, the author introduces us to the lesser known Kryder’s Law (named after engineer Mark Kryder) which holds that "the amount of data you can fit on a magnetic disk of a given size will double every year."

More importantly than merely providing this information, Hammersley throws out some ramifications of these developments for the reader to "chew on":

  • "An eleven year old will see a sixty-four fold increase in computing power by the time she leaves secondary education."
  • "We are planning cities today that will one day hold technology more powerful than we have ever seen, smaller than we’ve ever seen, and so cheap to be almost free."
  • "A career executive taking twenty years to reach upper management will be greeted by a technological landscape half a million times as powerful as the day he started."
  • (Assuming the usable lifespan of a new building is 50 years) "The technology used within it as the wrecking ball is swung will be thirty million times as powerful as today."

Heady stuff — thought provoking, I hope! — and the entire book is full of explanations and challenges. Hammersley takes us through the "rebirth of distance" — a website, no matter where it is located, is only as far away as the distance to a computer or smartphone; "cyberspace" as physical location where more and more of the economy resides; "nanotechnology" and other areas that will shape our future. Each of the sixty-four topics that Hammersley selected (and I think he made excellent choices) presents challenges.

I think that the author is optimistic about the future — he ends with, "The Internet has shaped us and will continue to define the contours for the foreseeable future. It is us and we are it." If, as the author writes, "we are it," we should be able to mold the future to our benefit — or so it seems to me.

Who Owns The Future

Not so, says virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, in his new book "Who Owns The Future" (Simon & Schuster; ISBN: 978-1-4516-5496-1). Lanier lets us have it right from the beginning, writing in Chapter 1:

"Maybe technology will then make the needs of life so inexpensive that it will be virtually free to live well, and no one will have to worry about money, jobs, wealth disparities, or planning for old age. I strongly doubt that neat picture would unfold. Instead, if we go on as we are, we will probably enter into a period of hyper-unemployment, and the attendant political and social chaos."

Lanier goes on to write, "The outcome of chaos is unpredictable, and we shouldn’t rely on it to design our future. The wise course is to consider in advance how we can live with a high degree of automation." While that excerpt sounds very similar to Hammersley’s view that we must control the future, the tone of the two books is very different (Janet Maslin captures the tone of Lanier’s book very well in her New York Times review, "Fighting Words Against Big Data").

Lanier bases his objections to the present course we are following in his belief that technology is destroying the middle class, the group that is necessary to drive a consumer economy. He provides many examples of this — such as the recorded music industry; I quote:

"Musical recording was a mechanical process until it wasn’t and became a network service. At one time, a factory stamped out musical disks and trucks delivered them to retail stores where salespeople sold them. While that system has not been completely destroyed, it is certainly more common to simply receive music over a network. There used to be a substantial middle-class population supported by the recording industry, but no more. The principal beneficiaries of the digital music business are the operators of network services that mostly give away the music in exchange for gathering data to improve those dossiers and software models of each person."

In that paragraph, we have the crux of Lanier’s concern:

  • Technology allows digitization and network distribution to replace mechanical processes and human work — music is only an example; he points to newsgathering and dissemination, photography and surgery as other examples.
  • The replacement of the human endeavor removes wealth from the middle class and transfers it to the few who manage and control the network servers.
  • One of the benefits to these information handlers is the large gathering of data about consumer choices, likes, purchasing habits, web use, etc. with firms able to build individual dossiers based on such things as Amazon, Sears, Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Home Depot, etc. purchases; Facebook "likes," "shares" and "friends"; News services visited and type of articles/videos read/watched; Netflix and OnDemand movies watched; etc. — in short, anything we do online or use a credit card for.
  • This process leads to the network service providers receiving great benefit from the information furnished by consumers — who receive no remuneration for sharing their own information.

Lanier harkens back to the 1960s vision of Ted Nelson, considered the father of Hypertext, in which there would be a universal online market and each participant would be both a buyer and a seller with sellers receiving micropayments for any information they were willing to share. Nelson called his vision (which existed long before there was any real networking) "Xanadu." Lanier wants us to find some way to recapture that vision rather than see our technology destroy the middle class as he fears it is now.

Radical Abundance: How A Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization

Another very differing view of the future comes from K. Eric Drexler, considered the "Father of Nanotechnology," in his book "Radical Abundance: How A Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization" (Public Affairs; ISBN: 978-1-61039-113-9). Nanotechnology is, quite simply, the programming at the "nanoscale" (the atomic and molecular) level to create objects or tools. Drexler, whose 1987 book "Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology," popularized the term, calls nanotechnology "a prospective technology with two key features: manufacturing using machinery based on nanoscale devices, and products built with atomic precision. These features are closely linked, because atomically precise manufacturing relies on nanoscale devices and will also provide a way to build them."

Drexler goes on early in the book to describe the impact of such technology: "Nanoscale parts and atomic precision together enable atomically precise manufacturing (APM), and through this technology will open the door to extraordinary improvements in the cost, range and performance of products." From this jumping off-point, Drexler goes on to explain how this technology will change everything for the better, leading to great scientific breakthroughs and a change in our perception of work.

I believe in the potential of ARM and am sure that the technology will exist, at some point, to activate the potential. I do not, however, have a good feel for the societal impact of the technology. Lanier writes "Capitalism only works if there are enough successful people to be customers." I agree and, without proper planning, I don’t see how Drexler’s world will provide the robust middle class that Lanier calls for as mandatory (coincidentally, both Lanier and Drexler, while on book tours, were on Leonard Lopate’s WNYC show; the two interviews, I think, are excellent).

So, What Should We Do?

So, if we can’t trust the experts to agree on the future, what can we do to prepare? I have only a few suggestions:

  • Accept the fact that technology will cause massive changes in the way we manufacture, market, distribute and communicate.
  • Further accept the fact that the changes will be disruptive and cause job loss, in some cases permanent.
  • Learn as much as possible about the opportunities and challenges presented by the technologies on the horizon.
  • Lean on elected officials to ensure they have some understanding of the economic challenges that technological innovation brings.
  • Demand that officials have a plan to deal with these challenges.

This may be the only way that we can "invent the future" — by ensuring that we have a political and economic environment that will fairly support the benefits that technological innovations will bring.