Wednesday 11 March 2009

Smash or Build? The Next Fifty Years in Technology

Dedicated to the Fifty at Fifty, in the hope that we may all continue to live as young as we feel.

The One-Hundred Year Question
Imagine you're approaching a milestone birthday in your life, one at which, by many people, you'd be considered old. For the sake of argument, let's choose fifty. Imagine that you are blessed with people all over the world who love, respect and admire you, and whose lives you have touched deeply just by the way you live your own life. Finally, imagine that you had been smart enough, industrious enough, and fortunate enough to have the means to make enough room in your budget to throw a phenomenal birthday party. Now that you have imagined yourself in this position, I have two questions for you, that will require you to wrap your head around a span of one hundred years. How would you celebrate those first fifty years? How would you prepare for the next fifty?

Let me throw out a few ideas to answer the first question. Why not invite all those special people from all over the world to join you for the celebration and, just to make it fair for everyone and help give them an incentive to come, offer to pay their way. Of course, few people have the luxury of being able to cross continents and oceans just to attend a party, so sweeten the pot a little by stretching the party out a bit, to not just an evening or even a day but an entire week. Then, find a place for all your guests to stay where they can be themselves, away from the world at large, where they can celebrate together not only your birthday but also their own lives and achievements.

Tricky Logistics
What would you do to keep them busy all week? It would be easy to assume that, as adults, you could just leave them to their own devices when you didn't have something planned, but , hey, you invited them, and with such a mixture of personalities and backgrounds, you would want to make sure that this week-long party were the best it could be. Some like to stay at home, some like to go out, some like to talk, some like to listen, some like to chill, some like to party, some like to eat and, well, some like to drink. Short of plying them with a cargo hold full of intoxicating beverages, how would you keep them all happy? To accomplish all that, you'd have to have a pretty detailed plan.

A Late Tribute
Depending how far out you are in my circle of acquaintances, you may know by now that this very event did take place, in Vancouver, in September 2008, with a couple very special hosts and a very special group of people. In fact, the impetus for this post came because I was there, and I was honoured to be asked to make a presentation during the event, being the resident "tech expert" in the group, about what I thought the next fifty years might bring us in terms of technological change. The bottom part of this post is a loose rendering of the notes of that presentation. I promised these notes to those of you in attendance back in September, and it's taken me a while to get to that, but hopefully you'll understand that, to pay official tribute to and express appropriate gratitude for such an event as the one in which we were involved, I'd better make very sure to do a proper job of it. If you weren't among the attendees, I owe you at least a brief explanation of the context before I get to the notes from my presentation.

Of Angels and Adventures
I must first say a little about the person to whom I have already referred privately as our "angel of hospitality". You may or may not be comfortable with a metaphysical reading of the concept of angels, so I will use it here in the colloquial sense. My own definition of an angel is of a spirit that has the uncanny and often inexplicable knack of being present exactly in times of great personal need. Clarence Oddbody, the angel from It's a Wonderful Life is a great example of one who was rendered as a metaphysical entity, but each of us is no doubt aware of some human examples as well. Whatever form they take, angels have the capability to perceive need in others before those others perceive it themselves. So, our "angel of hospitality" ensured that every single one of our needs and even wants were considered beforehand, so that when we actually felt them, we had no need to ask that they be fulfilled because the fulfillment had already been arranged. Whether that extended to a glass of champagne and somewhere to prop your feet at the end of a busy day, a new toothbrush for the one you'd forgotten to pack, or information for getting home after a particularly late night, it had already been taken care of, just like a home you've already been living in for a few years. In other words, it was like being on an adventure, with all the great new places, people and experiences that entails, in your own home.

Times of Which Stories are Made
With all that taken care of, exploration of the area and development of relationships with the other celebrants was just that much more pleasurable. There were probably hundreds of great stories every day, some of which are likely being told as I write, but that would take me forever, so here it is in very condensed format. By the way, if you were there, and you have a great story, please tell it in the Comments section below.

Monday - Golf tournament at "British Columbia's most scenic golf course". Prizes and grizzly bears included. Skill at golf and replacement balls not included.
Tuesday - Cruise by private yacht up the Indian Arm inlet near Vancouver, complete with Titanic-like hijinks on the bow and a colony of possible nudists frolicking in a waterfall. Low-stake high-competition poker, complete with cigars, at night.
Wednesday - "The Grouse Grind" up Grouse Mountain, and a zip-line part-way down. Wine-tasting, quaffing actually, with some of BC's best wines in the evening.
Thursday - 50-year roundtable discussing the next 50 years, covering finance, entrepreneurship, health, emergency preparedness, real estate and, my contribution, technology. Canada's best Caesar, comedy night complete with hecklers, followed by general debauchery involving Red Bull, a professional hockey player, sceptical young women, and a lot of sweat.
Friday - Bacchus' Union of Recipe & Presentation (BURP for short), an evolved Iron Chef competition, in which 11 teams each get 20 minutes in the hosts' well-appointed kitchen to prepare their favourite recipe paired with a wine that they have brought especially for the competition. Undoubtedly the best combined dining, drinking, and socializing implementation I have ever witnessed. I could swear I saw Bacchus himself in attendance.
Saturday - 50th Birthday Gala and Costume Party, in which invitees were told to dress as their alter ego. Think about that for a second. Not a mere costume party, but one that requires you to think about yourself in thinking about your costume. In order to define your alter ego, you are immediately classified as a super-hero, from which point you then need to be able to define your alter-ego. Imagine the surreal spectacle of a school bus full of such characters driving through the streets of Vancouver in the late afternoon, waving to passerby, and arriving at a city restaurant that had been completely made over for the night into a groove-tastic 60's pad, complete with a house band led by none other than Austin Powers. To finish, a rousing rendition of "My Way" by a chorus of souls who had truly lived the lyrics. Attendees included Elvis, Lawrence of Arabia, a dangerously hot female cop, a chain-smoking impregnated nun (remember, it's okay to kiss a nun, but don't get into the habit) on the arm of the devil, a Buddhist monk, Boromir, Lara Croft, Jackie Chan, Trinity, Bob Marley, Indiana Jones and a wide assortment of other rabble. If you weren't there, feel free to guess which one I was.

50 in 20?!?
Lest you conclude that the sole purpose of this week of festivities was something as banal as pure enjoyment and celebration, I step further backwards in time from that final party to place myself again in that room full of keen minds on Thursday, the Advil-assisted period post-quaff and pre-Caesar. The question I was asked to answer in my 20-minute presentation was "How do you see the next 50 years in terms of developments in technology?". Summarize 50 years in 20 minutes? With my propensity for verbosity, I'd be lucky to cover 20 minutes in 50 years.

Crystal Balls
Now that you can hopefully appreciate the challenge of using this space now to do what I could not adequately accomplish then, I want to start by reiterating from a previous post my long-held belief that certain elements of the future are somewhat predictable. I'm not talking about whether or not you'll get run over by a bus or struck by lightning, I'm talking about things over which we have some individual and collective control. To me, predicting the future isn't so much about guessing what will happen, but more about correctly interpreting what is happening. It follows from this view then that I need to characterize technology as I see it today if I want to have any idea where it will be tomorrow. Certainly, it can be hard to know where to look, but I did come up, after considerable thought, with some instructive places to start looking, which I believe are already starting to show where things are going. I must apologize in advance if your current understanding of technology is either too basic or too advanced to find any of the following instructive. In my inimitably and sometimes excessively diplomatic way, I have tried to make this accessible to as broad a range of readers as possible, but I will have inevitably ended up either patronizing or pandering to at least someone by the time I've finished, and hopefully that someone won't be you.

A Singular Intelligence
Aritificial intelligence is as good a place to start as any, as science fiction storytellers and filmmakers from Philip K. Dick to Stanley Kubrick and Isaac Asimov to James Cameron have seized upon this particular aspect of the future of technology's most prominent and disturbing trend. Elements of enhanced artificial intelligence are everywhere already. If we apply timelines to Moore's Law, which tells us that the processing power of computers still doubles regularly, and Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns, which applies that law to other fields, we almost have to accept the notion that the future as foreseen by popular films such as The Terminator and I, Robot is only a few decades or even years away. One authority on artificial intelligence even believes we'll be falling in love and having pretty decent sex with robots by 2050. If the notion on which a film like The Terminator is predicated, the technological singularity, does in fact occur, models predict a world economy whose output doubles every week and an almost complete replacement of human manual labour in the space of a couple years. It doesn't seem that much of a jump to assume that the combination of a vast interlinked network, lightning fast processing power, and control via the network of a host of human-facing machines from elevators and manufacturing robots to aircraft and cruise missiles might possibly result in some ambitious cluster of bits and bytes deciding to run a few experiments.

Feeding the Monster
Google even has a pet name for it - CADIE. Such an intelligence could master the art of human relationships pretty quickly, too. Search algorithms recognize queries of greater and greater length and complexity, and Google predicts that, before long, it will be able to search not only by keyword but by symbolism, plot and context. In other words, you'll be able to speak naturally to your computer, instead of typing something like "pizza restaurant Toronto free delivery", and it will be able to find what you are looking for. Sticking with the movie theme for a minute, more personalized searches and ad delivery are already crossing the line into intrusiveness, like that great scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise walks down a corridor in a public place and has digital advertisements refer to him by name and interest. So, Facebook with its advanced data mining and MySpace with HyperTargeting are both close to if not already at the stage of knowing not only that you are a 50-year-old male interested in kayaking whose birthday is coming up, but also of being able to serve your friends an ad or send them an e-mail about what to buy you. There are a host of new platform-agnostic services that can pull together data about us from all of our networks and online activity, and subsequent "managers" to help manage our online presence and what kind of information people can find about us. None of this is what I would call true artificial intelligence in and of itself, but it certainly presents a massive bank of personalized data that a true artificial intelligence could draw from, if it were ever to arise.

What Was That Again?
It's valuable to step back and think about how much of our thought processes and memories we have outsourced to technology already. Whether it's a phone number directory, a math function, a historical fact, or even a personal memory, our cell phones, calculators, data sources, and online photo albums continually remove tasks that we used to have to think about, supposedly freeing us up for higher thinking and self-actualization. The trend of outsourcing memory is not only continuing but accelerating, so now we see a voice mail to text feature, a service that reads and catalogs written notes, applications on the iPhone that collect and digitize sounds from one's environment, and YouTube analyzing and pulling text out of its videos. In other words, we are already at the stage when, if we choose, we can digitally archive everything around us. Once something is digital and organized, it can of course be easily retrieved, manipulated and even re-purposed. This is great news for what we recognize as valuable knowledge, such as the contents of all the world's books, but of course it could just be seen as digital clutter, bad digital feng shui, and most of it may just go the way of those boxes of stuff we in the part of the world with too much stuff keep in our basements, attics and garages that we think we may someday need.

Groupthink & Groupdo
Of course, individual memory and lower cognitive functions aren't the only things we've outsourced. Organizations, still just groups of individuals organized to achieve a common purpose, are outsourcing their lower functions to focus their own resources as well. I'm referring not only to the cost savings by moving processes to where labour is cheap, but more about eliminating the need for certain types of labour altogether. If we have already seen robots and cheap labour obsolesce assemblers, and voice recognition systems supplant switchboard operators, we are now starting to see entire marketing, news distribution, and support teams being pushed aside by the phenomenon of user-generated content. Whatever technical problem you're having, the answer is in a forum somewhere, much more likely answered by a user than the actual company about whose product you're inquiring. The same goes for marketing, which really is just accelerated word of mouth. With the growth of customer and user communities and the ability to communicate freely and en masse, the message no longer needs an accelerant so, in theory, the company should be able to focus its resources more on creating a great product than in supporting it and trumpeting its benefits. The same principle applies to the explosion in open source software. If you can't afford the army of developers necessary to build a complex piece of software that you need to accomplish something, create a structure that you can still manage and direct but give it to your community to do it.

Community as Credibility
Whether generated and used internally or externally, collaborative knowledge creation and management mechanisms such as wikis have multiple advantages. First and foremost is the tendency of the community to police the quality of its own knowledge, and the corresponding relief that brings to the "owner" of that community that no longer has to. Secondly, user-generated content also has much more credibility than any "on message" communication from the organization, so as long as the organization itself has an open culture itself that listens to its community and then adjusts itself internally, it can ride this wave of user discourse for as long as the community has something to say. Finally, a welcome phenomenon for those who don't buy into the notion that the corporation is the apex of human organizational achievement is the birth over the last little while of new organizational paradigms, in which people can get together to accomplish goals that they once required companies to accomplish. The emergence of truly grand user communities such as Wikipedia, Napster, and craigslist around purposes other than the pursuit of profit signal the beginning of new kinds of community organizations. It is no longer even the case only with organizations dealing, as Wikipedia does, with what we consider as fact. We're now starting to see the growth of communities of collaborative opinion, rather than just communities of collaborative knowledge, where not only knowledge can be added to and refined, but opinion as well. A great example of this "Opinio-pedia" concept is our own Globe & Mail's public policy wiki, an attempt to distill, direct and present group opinion in a way that polling never could. This has been the traditional role of the political party, and therefore has the possibility of partially transforming the role of the party and even government from maker and subsequent executor of policy to simply one limited to execution.

Snakes & Ladders
Because of the amount of quality information available, the ability of technology to focus it, and the ability to broadcast en masse for almost nothing (roles that agencies currently serve), the agency of any kind will change, as an intermediary will no longer be needed in many cases. This is already the case from Radiohead to real estate, and is found anywhere that those intermediary agencies have not demonstrated enough added value to prevent those who usually depend on them from taking the initiative themselves. Much is made at the moment of the demise of the traditional news organization, and what type of organization, if any, will replace it. I'll take my feed reader, my own personal newspaper, over our local paper any day as a source for the exact information I want to receive, both professionally and personally. I have written in a previous post of the potential of personal publishing and new ways to express yourself, of the convergence not only of media consumption but also of media production, but the growth of Twitter in the past year has added a new and even more concise means of personal media production to the mix. The phenomenon of micro-blogging activity through services such as Twitter is both an unfortunate symptom of a progressively shorter span of collective attention and an effective and evolving way of figuring out who to trust to provide information. On the surface, one would think it's pretty hard to change or even interpret the world with sound bites from our philosophical meanderings and thoughts about what we're eating for lunch, however effectively presented or organized. That said, put the sound bites together and a picture can indeed emerge of what is newsworthy, so models are already starting to evolve on how to parse this enormous bank of information into something that resembles coherent content streams from which news and trends can be gleaned. The trend here is the trading of individual attention span and ability to process information for the collective intelligence that removes the need to do so, that mortgages cognition for ability to live more fully and spend less time on reaching the bottom rungs of Maslow's heirarchy of needs. It remains to be seen whether the steps in the heirarchy represent the ascent of a ladder or an elevator, and by removing the rungs, we are in fact making it harder rather than easier to reach the top, especially if the elevator goes out of order.

Life in the Fishbowl
Those displaced by this particular set of processes will still have to pay the bills, and can still leverage their knowledge to bring value, so agency organizations will evolve with the need to clearly demonstrate that value, in terms of information filtering and consulting expertise. I love the fishbowl analogy to describe life online not just because of the aspect of transparency, but also of the tendency of the glass to magnify everything happening within the bowl. Unacceptable behaviour becomes more and more difficult to hide when living in the fishbowl, leading to a greater focus on personal and corporate responsibility, especially as verification systems evolve that will allow those looking to entrust their money and information to a greater variety of unseen agents to determine that a person's online presence can be traced back to his or her physical presence. The positive side of this brings the opening of organizations and processes because of the ability to easily diagnose, document, and disseminate abuses of ethics or power. The negative side is that the verification mechanisms also bring greater intrusiveness into a medium that prides itself on lack of censorship and the ability to remain anonymous. My view on how this inherent contradiction can be managed is that we will retreat to traditional sources of credibility and authority, namely those in our own network, to provide us with the balance of verification and privacy that we will require more and more. Examples of this in its earliest phases already exist with services such as LinkedIn, but this system will only work if users adhere to strict rules of not allowing anyone to influence or advise them if they do not already know them well. This would seem a simple enough rule to follow in principle, but the temptation to use such an important vehicle of credibility as a sales tool is already compromising such existing services. This tendency will create the need for a greater set of self-enforcing checks and balances to be built into such systems to maintain their integrity.

Digital Mentoring
This is where I'm betting my money, from a commercial perspective. Online knowledge technology now is search-based, the premise being that, by using a search engine, you can get the information you need to support your own decision-making, wth both a commercial and non-commercial element. As mentioned above, the application of artificial intelligence research to this will mean that online knowledge will try to evolve into an understanding of requested item or concept (ie. bowling ball, career planning) based not on a presentation of existing information about it but interpretation of how that information applies to you. This requires an understanding by the artificial intelligence engine of the very essence of the item, not just its applications. It requires an understanding of context and a removal of possibly subjective human opinion from the analysis of the item's relationship and usefulness to you. In other words, it analyzes not whether you want or need it, or how to get it, but whether you should have it, whether it will be a positive agent of change in your life. This cannot be based only on commercial considerations, but obviously must take them into account. The point is not to make decisions for you, but to supplement your decision-making intelligence, in the way a good consultant, a mentor, or parent would. This will mean that commercial organizations will have to do more to demonstrate the intrinsic value of their products, and non-commercial ones will have to demonstrate the personal or societal "good" that will come from your establishment of a relationship with them. With artificial intelligence still a fair few years from achieving this on any level of scale, the tendency will be to use technology to leverage networks we already trust to help us make those better decisions. Following in italics is an excerpt from the business plan of Mediazoic, my software development company, about what I think the world of technology will look like in five years.

The current paradigm among even the most successful technology companies is what may be referred to as "the wisdom of the cloud". In this paradigm, technology is leveraged to generate and analyze massive amounts of relational data and make recommendations based on that analysis. For example, a Google algorithm tells you where to find what you're looking for, a Genius scans your music collection on iTunes and recommends music you'll like, and a wiki brings to bear the knowledge of thousands when you're doing some research. With the wonderful access to information that this brings however, come huge privacy and security issues, filtering difficulties and, most importantly, a credibility vacuum. We all know that there is still nothing like shaking hands or sitting across a table from someone to evaluate credibility and compatibility, and, when in doubt, given the choice between going to an authority you already know versus one you don't for an important piece of information, it's almost always better to go with the devil you know.

Personal and professional communication have evolved into a converged, customized, synchronous, personal space whose raison d'etre it is to ensure that the digital you comes as close as possible to reflecting the real you, in real time. This space is with you everywhere you go and keeps up with your exploits automatically, regardless of your choice of hardware, where microblogging has evolved into microbroadcasting, where online is on the air, broadcasting to the world, but only when you want to, and only to those whom you know are interested in the transmission.

In the Mediazoic era, the concept of passive income will be one understood not only by you but by just about everyone you know. You know that people still need to be paid, but nobody wants to be actively selling stuff to their friends, so just set your system on glide and it will take care of who is selling what in your space. It will also ensure you get paid every time someone else is getting paid. And of course, what goes through your space will be decided on not by some Internet conglomerate but by you, because you know what's cool - what people in your world will respond to and what they won't. Integrated with this effortless commerce will be a heavy dose of imagination, where, in this digital space, you are represented by your favourite movie character or by some splendid, whimsical digital being of your own creation. Far from being just a simple avatar, this creature will have personality, grow, learn, entertain, and act as your personal assistant, reminding you of your appointments and suggesting what to get your hard-to-buy for aunt for her birthday.

This is the Mediazoic era, where media has evolved to represent the real you in real time.

Beyond the Silver Screen
It seems almost too obvious to mention that all of this will take place on devices of greater mobility and smaller scale, but I think just as interesting a phenomenon will take place on devices of some mobility but much greater scale. Properly integrated software components will find ways to be liberated from our current notion of display devices and painted across many canvases, not all of them digital. Public spectacle is as basic a human psychological need as private reflection, and so while so much information gets delivered in smaller and more customized units, that which resonates across the boundaries between individuals will use whatever spaces we can imagine to continue to add incredulity to magic in theatre, depth to music, communicative power to political demonstration, and even greater solemnity to worship.

AI Reprimand
I want to draw this to a close by putting technology in its rightful place, which is as merely another tool wielded by the evolving but far from fully evolved human ape. There is a tendency when sitting in front of a screen of any kind to assume that everything worthwhile happens on that screen. So, extrapolating from that a bit with a couple examples, people who spend a lot of time online feel that everything relevant is happening on the computer, and point to the demise of television, whereas people who spend a lot of time in front of the tv feel that everything relevant happens there, and look sceptically upon the notion of the Internet as a harbringer of all important future content. My view of this is that to sympathize predominantly with either side of this type of discussion is akin to deciding that you love one of your children more than the other(s). In fact, each has its own arc of development and ability for self-determination and growth, not to mention that ability to spawn further generations with certain characteristics of the former and certain traits that are wholly new. It also ignores the fact that most of the people in the world still do their real living offline, either as a matter of choice or because these admittedly addictive tools have not yet reached them.

Towards The Source of Light
The challenge of the next generation of technology, whatever it looks like and whomever it resembles, will be to accomplish what all media delivery mechanisms have always tried to accomplish - the ability to access one's community for knowledge, sustenance, and fulfillment. I find it just as likely that one of the main goals in ten years will be to provide low-tech ways to leverage high-tech functions in the offline world - an example I'm thinking of is the wind-up laptop - instead of continuing to consume energy by pressing the envelope of processing power. As long as power and growth are the main parts of the mix, and in limited supply, the technology that they enable will be tethered. If I know that my energy supply is unreliable, I'll take a solar-powered laptop, solar-powered server and localized power grid for communities (like the old idea of a generator) over a supercomputer that burns unsustainable energy any day. We are heliotropic, like plants, and we will turn toward wherever the light is coming from, but our screens are too far removed from that which truly sustains and nurtures life to ever hold our attention as a collective group for any longer than a brief period of our history.

The Next Big Thing?
Which brings me to the potential game-changer. No discussion of the near or distant future is complete without mention of 2012. You know it's serious when Hollywood is making a movie about it before it happens, a treatment even Y2K didn't get. Would-be demagogues, who in my view are more numerous than most of us realize, will mobilize communities and use the hype around the date to converge on their plans of a "day of reckoning" or new world order. Whether or not you believe that this type of calendar event is cosmologically pre-ordained, the human brain's tendency to want to form connections and make sense of things from disparate aspects of existence will likely create the impression among many that the idea of a blossoming and subsequent dying off of the human bloom has merit. Having just spent a little time among the Mayans, the whole thing is interpreted by many of them in a less cataclysmic context, but, as is often the case, the further the message gets from the messenger, the more likely it is to be hijacked and co-opted by agendas and worldviews. 2012 presents a perfect opportunity for an accelerated leap forward to everyone with an agenda and an audience. So, whether considered as cosmically ordained, or as a self-fulfilling prophecy, us humans will allow it to rear its head as both. 2012 has a human element that Y2K didn't have, and a highly accurate indigenous calendar system has historical street cred that neither George Orwell nor even Nostradamus could have commanded. Add psychotropic substances and the Internet as an open library to the mix, and you have a recipe for the happening of the Omega Point just in time for the darkest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.

If I Had a Hammer...
My view is that Life, all life, needs to band together to fight what it can't control, rather than looking for robots, aliens, reptilians, conspiracies, Omega points and monsters. In other words, let's not forget the biological viruses as we speculate about the computer viruses. Monsters certainly do take many forms, many of them suspiciously human, but, unlike biological ones, I haven't encountered too many first-hand that weren't invented and sanctioned by us. Life itself, from the most basic bacteria to the most complex organisms is what we should be fighting to understand and protect. All of it affects all the rest of it, in ways that we are only just at the very beginning of understanding. Species go extinct, and ours will too, but it should be some cataclysmic cosmic event or virulent strain that does it, not an event of our own making. Technology gives us the tools to elevate our time on this earth but also the tools to completely waste it. Any technology tool that does not contribute to our understanding of our place in this world is no better than any other tool that we elect to use to smash rather than build.

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