Read Latest Issue now

All Technology, No Future

No matter how much tech we have, the future is only as bright as we want it to be.

Words by Neal Romanek

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. Like it or not, we humans are designed for technology and technology is designed for us. Millions of years ago, the nimble fingers of our ancestors led to the creation of increasingly sophisticated tools. And using those tools affected how we evolved, which then affected how we made our tools, which in turn affected how we evolved, etc. In other words, there’s no such thing as a Luddite. If you’re a human, you’re a tech-head. 

We have some really powerful technologies available to us now. With the devices in our pockets, we can access, more or less, all the world’s knowledge. We can communicate with just about anyone on Earth – and do it face to face. We carry around more computing power than existed in all of NASA a generation ago. 

So What Do We Use This Amazing Tech For?

Well, me, I look at cat videos. I also get into angry arguments with people about things I know little about. I enjoy flipping through news sites, looking for things to be outraged about. I check emails constantly, just in case someone needs me to defuse a bomb or join Danny Ocean’s new heist. 

I mean that’s not all. I also watch/listen to lectures by Yale professors on YouTube. I’ve been watching some great new comedy series on Netflix and am working my through the glorious BFI catalogue. I get to FaceTime my family thousands of miles away in the US. I automatically log my workouts. I take videos and stills and record a lot of interviews for this magazine.

But, call me an ingrate, I still feel like there’s something missing. 

The Connected Divide

One of the great clichés about our time is that we’re living in a fully connected world. Unfortunately, a just as common cliché is that we are more divided from each other than we’ve ever been.

It’s also generally put out that our digital technology saves time, saves money and makes things easier for companies and individuals. But most people seem to have less time than ever, less extra cash and things seem more complicated than they ever have.

As earthshaking as our digital technology has been, I want to argue that it has largely been backward-facing, rather than forward-facing. Instead of leveraging digital tools and infrastructure to create something new, something from our dreams, we end up using it to perfect our ability to gawk, eat, mate, make more money, kill our boredom and target our enemies.

Not much different from when we started millions of years ago.

Technology without a vision is just more of the same – sometimes a lot more of the same. But quantity is not quality. We’ve seen over and over the sci-fi trope of a technologically undeveloped society wasting an amazing technology on some absurdly primitive task – we laugh as they use the tricorder to crack space walnuts. And I fear that’s where we are now. 

I think we’re in a rut. I think there’s more we could be doing.

Adventure Time

People like to watch adventures, but they hate having them. I don’t mind watching Indy Jones in a pit full of snakes, but I’ll pass. Adventure is hard. Adventure means having no idea about what’s going to happen next. 

And that may the problem. Most of our technology is built on smoothing the edges, killing time, giving us more of what we want. Supercomputers that can beat chess masters are working day and night trying to give app users and video viewers exactly what they want and at just the right time, so they will avoid going back out into that cold, rainy world – so that they will avoid adventure. Who wants to battle snakes in a pit? Better to watch them on your screen.

So how do we get out of the rut? First, we have to decide if we want to get out. We may all be fine with how our technology is working. We may not mind that our current digital media seems to actually decrease people’s sense of well-being, according to a number of studies. Or we could try something new, have an adventure. 

The adventure begins when we start pitching outrageous ideas, such as: what if everyone had a flying car? (I personally think this is a horrible idea, but it is an idea.) Or what if through digital technology you could create a single point of access for every movie and TV show ever made anywhere in the world? 

Or what if, through digital technology, you could provide free, high-quality university education to anyone on Earth who wanted it?

Or what if, through digital technology, you could consult trusted advertisers about what you needed and they went off and tried to find a solution for you?

Or what if digital technology could direct you back into a fuller, richer experience with your real life and the people around you, rather than trying to cut you off from them? Or what if, through digital technology, you could rebuild a system of accurate and reliable local and regional news, and through it give a voice to and build trust in divided communities?

“What comes into Focus is how powerful our tech is but how limited our collective vision is.”

Tech Is Easy, People Are Hard

As you start pitching your new, outrageous ideas, many of which may be no-brainers technologically, the barriers quickly start to become apparent. What comes into focus is how powerful our tech is but how limited our collective vision is. Barriers to innovation are always based on our innate tendency to be backward-looking – how can I keep getting more of what I’ve already been getting? 

Most of the time when we say that something is impossible, we don’t mean the technology. Technology is rarely as much of a barrier as we’d like to think it is. What we mean is that it’s impossible for us to change our minds about the world. We all know that world hunger is pretty easy to eliminate and so is our reliance on hydrocarbons for energy. There are relatively few technological barriers to solving either of these problems. 

The question is not can we do it, but do we want to do it? Are we willing to do it? Are we willing to go on the adventure?

There’s a lot to be grateful for in the technology we all have at our disposal. It’s pretty amazing. I love my Netflix, Steam, BFI Player and Twitter account. But I think we deserve even better.