It seems like a silly question to ask. As I type this from an extremely thin and powerful portable computer, do I really have to wonder if I’m living in the future? I can speak to a machine and it will respond to my commands. Run computations… done. Play 80’s music… done. Find the nearest pizzeria… done. Nothing like this has been possible before… or has it? Supposedly, if technology is growing fast now, it should grow even faster in the future. But as I look back at the last two decades of tech, what has really changed?
About 21 years ago I was introduced to the Internet. I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t see the value of it. Today, the Internet is how I make money. So, when the futurists suggest that humans can have a tough time understanding exponential growth, I can understand that. Eventually, I saw what the Internet meant for journalism, photography and video games. I quickly became an early adopter of the Internet and eventually changed careers.
Yet, there’s this nagging feeling that’s been troubling me lately. What has really changed? I remember the computer that I was using back in March of 1995. It was a Macintosh Quadra 800. The CPU was a blazing 33 MHz. The base RAM was 8 MB. I don’t remember the exact size of the hard drive, but it was likely 1 GB or less. The computers I use today are easily 1000 times more powerful, but am I 1000 times more productive?
Sadly, it doesn’t feel like what I do today is much different than 20 years ago. I used to visit websites, build websites, check email, create publications and play video games. If I’m not seeing such amazing growth in the past 20 years, why should I believe such fantastical tales for the next 20 years?
Sure, Siri is like living in Star Trek. It’s like I command the Enterprise. I talk to a computer and it responds. It feels amazing – when it works. When Siri gets confused, it’s frustrating and leaves me longing for a keyboard and mouse. It also reminds me of “Voice Commands” on the Mac. Siri isn’t new technology. I remember talking to an old Mac. “What time is it?”, “Empty the Trash” and “Tell Me a joke” were spoken. Using the phrase “computer” before each command gave it more of a Star Trek feel. But even more than a decade apart, the technology still doesn’t feel finished.
OK, maybe voice recognition is a fluke. Surely wearable tech wasn’t as powerful 20 years ago as it is today. I remember watching Knight Rider. Not only could Michael Knight’s car talk, but it also included a wrist watch. With Apple launching the Apple Watch, isn’t the future now? Is the modern era better than yesterday’s sci-fi fantasies? Car Play certainly has lots of the same tech as KITT, minus the turbo boost. And even without KITT’s bulletproof molecular bonded shell, a car today is certainly safer and more advanced than a typical car from 20 years ago. In the next two decades cars will likely drive themselves. That could drastically change human employment – putting truckers, cabbies and other drivers out of work. Yet, today’s car is still basically a car. A new car doesn’t get me to my destination any faster. (NYC speed limits actually decreased recently.) Most new cars don’t fly. Lately, the buzz is around electrical cars. While electrical cars are gaining in popularity, that tech has essentially been around for 100 years.
If cars haven’t changed that much in the last 20 years, homes have changed even less. If you lived 1000 years ago, and you had to build a computer or house from scratch, which would be harder to do? I’m thinking that I could build a house from scratch if I really had to do it. While it might not be as good as one that’s professionally built, it would probably be better than my makeshift computer. Software, hardware, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. So, why is a 20 year old computer worthless, while a 20 year old house is worth several times its original value? Where’s the revolutionary house tech?
In an optimistic view of the future, houses are 3D printed. This could bring all sorts of potential to housing. But in another scenario, computers become self-aware and kill all the humans. It’s tough for me to reconcile those extremes. Some of the most aggressively optimismic futurists suggest that death itself can be overcome. Through advanced medical technology, people could live indefinitely. Quite often, breakthrough technology is only 20 years away. Revolutions in medicine, energy, education, transportation, agriculture and many other industries are supposedly within the range of my lifetime.
How do I prepare for that? Do I stay pessimistic? Do I look back at the last 20 years and doubt the possibilities of the future? Do I compare the Oculus Rift to the Virtual Boy? “Bah, it will just give me a headache.” Do I look towards the future with excitement? Will I live in a world where super intelligent computers won’t try to kill me, where a reasonably priced Tesla is less than $35,000 and a new house won’t cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest payments alone?
Part of my frustration and confusion might be with this site. Photics.com has been around for almost two decades. Technologically, not much has changed… not since I installed WordPress. Clearly, web development has advanced in the last two decades, but has it really? The blink tag has been phased out, but a webpage is pretty much the same. Practically, what’s really different? What makes life better? Maybe if I can figure out that question, I can figure out a better direction for this website.
I have some ideas, but I realize that technology alone is probably not the answer. I can’t just look at a Moore’s Law curve and say, “That’s where I’ll be in five years.” There’s more to progress than raw computational power. That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic towards the notion of exponential technological growth.