Sunday, January 13, 2008

Future Not

I just heard an interview on Living on Earth with a man named Ray Kurzweil, who is described as a "famed inventor and futurist". Now, he may be well known among that cohort of people who follow lone inventors and "futurists", but I had never heard of him. Furthermore, listening to the interview, I felt that my ears were being assaulted with the same crap I heard from Alvin Toffler disciple Newt Gingrich.
[In the early 21st century, imagine waking] up to a wall-size, high-definition television showing surf off Maui. (this is my favorite island - you can pick your own scene) You walk or jog or do Stairmaster while catching up on the morning news and beginning to review your day's schedule. Your home office is filled with communication devices, so you can ignore rush-hour traffic. . . . When you are sick, you sit in your diagnostic chair and communicate with the local health clinin. Sensors take your blood pressure, analyze a blood sample, or do throat cultures. The results are quickly relayed to health aides, who make recommendations and prescribe medicine. . . . If you need a specialist, a databank at your fingertips gives you a wide range of choices based on cost, reputation, and outcome patterns. You can choose knowledgeably which risk you want to take what price you want to pay.

Now, in some ways, this future is now. His vision of a "diagnostic chair", right out of Star Trek, isn't; his imagination concerning health care delivery - individual choice in lieu of serious health care reform - is the nightmare most people without insurance face, without all the gee-gaws, and also with limited financial resources to meet the need.

More to the point, has any of this wonderful technological innovation changed the fact that we are in the midst of a deteriorating occupation in Iraq? Is the promise of "nanobots" (Kurzweil's term; I much prefer "nanites", which comes from Star Trek: The Next Generation; they all amount to the same thing) mitigating the current malaise brought on by inept and corrupt public administration at the federal level? At its most fundamental, "futurists" tend to be wild about all sorts of gadgets, imagining how they will revolutionize our lives, while forgetting that our social and political lives have deeply entrenched problems that no amount of gaping at a hi-def scene from Maui will repair. That is, they are wrong about the social and political impact of technological advancement because they have no interest in or understanding of either.

Technology does create new opportunities, and challenges and problems as well, and they do alter the social and political landscape, although very often not in ways we imagine. The "futurists" have been spectacularly wrong about the implications of all sorts of technology; indeed, they are often wrong in their predictions about the directions technology will take, because they mistake technology for something independent of human beings who make it. By assuming the stance "if it can be built, it will be built", they ignore all sorts of reasons why all sorts of contraptions aren't built. Or aren't utilized (my mother used to tell me how, as a young adult in the late 1940's, "futurists" confidently said that by the 1970's helicopters would replace automobiles as the favored form of individual and family transportation).

I tend to think of the future as something that is largely driven by human social, economic, cultural, and political needs and desires; technology is a subset, and hardly the most important, of "cultural" in this list. It would do well to remember that, no matter how clear the sound in those new Bose speakers, they don't change the fact that Ann Coulter is still employed, Rush Limbaugh still has millions of listeners, and George Bush is still in the White House.

Virtual Tin Cup

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