The human species has two abilities that I marvel at. The first is that, collectively, we are able to bring such radical technology out of vapourware, into R+D labs, and eventually weave it into the fabric of everyday life. The second is that, as individuals, we become accustomed to such technology, to the extent that it becomes almost completely unremarkable, as natural as the air we breathe. This latter trait may play a part in ensuring the Singularity happens without us noticing. It’s commonly believed that its coming will be heralded by a cornucopia of wild technology entering our lives, and yet today technologies beyond the imagination of our predecessors are commonplace. It can make for amusing reading to look back on the scepticism levelled at technologies we take for granted. A legal document from 1913 had this to say about predictions made by Lee De Forest, designer of the triode, a vacuum tube that made radio possible: ‘De Forest has said… that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public… has been persuaded to purchase stock in this company’.
To get an idea of just how much attitudes have changed, consider the research that shows users of search engines are satisfied with results delivered within a twentieth of a second. We grow impatient if we’re made to wait much longer. In 1913, the belief that the human voice could be transmitted across vast distances was laughed off as ‘absurd’. In 2007, we have what amounts to a computer-on-a-planet, allowing not only global voice communication but near instantaneous access to pretty much all knowledge, decentralized communities sharing text, images, music and video and even entire online worlds where you can explore every possible facet of self. Our modern society is clearly filled with technology beyond the ‘absurdity’ of trans-atlantic voice communication, so why are we not in a profound state of future shock?
Well, recall the difference between ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ innovations. Radio waves transmitting voice across the ocean almost instantaneously, actually TALKING to someone on the other side of the world as if they were IN THE SAME ROOM was truly unprecedented. On the other hand, chatting on a mobile phone or online via Skype are just variations on established innovations. In the future, we may have homes fitted with white light LEDs, replacing incandescent light bulbs. This would provide low energy light, and unlike existing light sources it could be readily adapted for optical wireless broadband internet access. Again, I could cite the advantages that this would have over current wi-fi and other radio wave-based wireless. I could also play devil’s advocate and cite all the technical challenges that must be overcome before it is practical. But how much of this will be noticed by the user when they connect wirelessly to the web, as many of us do now? There is nothing here that is startlingly innovative, not any more. It’s now utterly unremarkable that we can flood our homes with light at the flick of a switch, that we have electricity whenever we need it, that the airwaves are filled with radio, TV and telecommunication. It’s all so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our society that it is invisible. We only really appreciate how much we depend upon it on those rare occasions when we hit the ‘on’ button and, thanks to an equipment or power failure, nothing happens.| ← Previous | | | Next → |