January 6, 2012

Thinking About the Future

The past is behind us, what has been now is gone
But right now is with us, and we must carry on
- "This Time" by David Meece

It's been years since I've heard that song, but its opening words have been playing in my mind a lot lately. A new year always brings new predictions for the future, some plausible and some risible. What I think matters most in making these sort of predictions, though, is to remember that there will not be a return to the past. There may be patterns of a sort in history, but I have yet to see any large society completely roll itself back by decades or centuries. Even when parts of society fall apart or regress, as in Somalia or Afghanistan, we can never entirely escape the present.

Fearing the Future

In his latest long-term predictions, Bruce Sterling says that our future will be about "old people in big cities who are afraid of the sky." I think he's right, at least in part. The old will always fear the present to some degree. Has there ever been a time when older folks didn't long for the good old days? To put things in perspective, right now is likely the time I'll be reminiscing about when I'm old. ("Whatever happened to Joss Whedon? Let me tell you, sonny, that man could make a show!") And there will be a lot more old people in the future, percentage-of-the-population-wise. But I don't believe that's all we have to look forward to.

The Last Big Thing

The last big technological advance was related to communication. Think back to the 1980's: how expensive it was to talk to someone on the other side of the country, never mind the other side of the world; how the only way to get your voice heard in the media was to write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. What did early hackers target? Phone companies. What was ARPANET about? Communication between researchers.

After decades of innovation, communication isn't much of a problem anymore. I can converse easily with almost anyone anywhere at any time for little cost. There are still details to be worked out, refinements to be made. And we'll likely be living with the fallout of the communications revolution for years to come. But the big leaps forward have already been made.

The Next Revolution

So what big problem do we face right now? What's holding us back?

From my point of view, it's transportation. Where I live, it's difficult, inefficient, and expensive to get myself and my stuff from one place to another. I'm particularly noticing this right now since I was in a car accident on New Year's Day and have been stuck at home this week while my husband takes our remaining car to work. (Thank goodness for the communication innovations that let me work at home!) I could theoretically walk or bike to the store if I needed something badly enough, but the roads here are not designed for anything but car traffic and I'd be literally risking my life. And it's not just me, where I live. Our state's capital city can't even manage basic public transportation, and the capital of the neighboring state can't build streets that let people get from one place to another without getting killed.

Transportation is ripe for innovation. I look forward to seeing what people come up with to solve these problems. I may even post some crazy ideas here myself. By the middle of the century, I want to be one of those old people remembering a simpler time when people didn't just zap in and out of existence right in front of you. How rude! Kids nowadays...

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