Looking back at a year like 2013 is like writing a travelogue about the first, deep drop on a roller coaster ... while you're on it. And looking forward is equally fraught with the potential for serious miscalculation. There are, however, a few major themes that merit at least an attempt at exploration.
Technology: From Top-Down to Bottom-Up
The major feature of 2013 and the several years preceding it, is without a doubt the exploding progress and multifaceted adoption of technology across virtually all sectors of our culture. Millions of words, including some of my own, have been written about the changing impact of technology on society and business, but stepping back, it seems that today's major difference from eons past may be less the blazing speed of technology development, and more the changes to its entry points into society.
In years past, certainly from the 19th century forward, technological changes have tended to enter society at the top -- through business, the military, academia and other cultural groups with large funding, government and established infrastructure. As new technologies were digested at the top, they filtered down into society at large, often taking decades, controlled by real or de facto monopolies, and exacting a price that restricted them to the relatively few who could afford them. Even Henry Ford's revolutionary automobile assembly line techniques introduced in 1913 didn't make automobiles affordable for the masses until the mid 1920s.
While this materially slowed progress, it also provided an opportunity for society to anticipate and prepare for the impacts to come.
Bypassing the Middlemen: Technology Straight to the Consumer
Beginning in the 1970s and accelerating from the 90's forward, new technology has begun entering use ever closer to the consumer/user level and with less filtering by the culture. Coupled with a globalized economy enabling manufacture of complex technology-centric devices with shorter lead times and ever lower cost, this bottom-up phenomenon has further accelerated, making new technology not only available but affordable for the consumer, even youth, marketplaces.
A device with the power of today's smart phone, for example, that would have cost five figures just 30 years ago and been far too large for any pocket or purse, is available today for no more than a two-year contract with a communications carrier.
This growing downward pressure on entry has been further accelerated by a breakdown of the ad hoc technology monopolies of earlier periods. After the first telephone exchange allowed well-heeled consumers to have communications in their home in 1878, the telephonic communication world was controlled, almost exclusively until 1984, by what became known as the Bell System.
Beginning my career with Ma Bell in California in the mid-1960s, I can attest just how much of a dictatorship, albeit nominally benign, it was. Beginning with the court ordered break-up of the Bell System in 1984, the communications industry has moved toward ever more open architectures and operations until today when most anyone can connect to and use the Internet with little or no capital and only perfunctory regulatory permission.
This, I believe, is the most important part of the sea change that has revolutionized the digital world, for better ... and for worse.
If I'm correct, this change dictates that much more pre-thought be given to the likely impact of new consumer technology on our culture lest we find ourselves dealing with the negative effects before we have even realized anything is changing.
Life … Still in the Technology Fast Lane
Although perhaps most important, technology's entry at the consumer level is not the only major change with which we are dealing. Driven by the apparent validity of Moore's Law of exponential computing power growth, the increasing speed with which new technologies enter the marketplace is also a major factor.
One of the more benign effects of the increasing speed of technological development has been the ability of consumer product manufacturers to continually create new products and versions, keeping the buying public’s interest alive and the cash registers humming. This is evident in Apple’s ability to sell millions of each new iPhone based on new functions, capacity, speed and colors, even when the differences are less than breathtaking.
Leave aside for the moment the health of the technology product industry, with its successes -- the Apple and Android product lines -- and failures -- Microsoft's debacle with its Surface tablet. Our biggest challenge in dealing with accelerating technology development may be our need to understand and respond to the pluses and minuses that come with the increasing connectedness technology brings us.
Much has been written about the negative effects of social media and gaming on society, especially the younger generation. At the same time, the industry -- hoping to sell more and more technology gadgets -- has hyped the attraction of instant connection for almost everything. Taking these two together, it seems evident that with every new technology and its adoption across the culture, there comes a two-edged sword that can cut both to our benefit and detriment.
Like it or not, we will live with the negative effects to the extent that we don't act to ameliorate them. We must not only anticipate and deal with the negatives but must seriously commit ourselves to the full development, adoption and benefit of the potential of technology for good. A few examples come to mind:
Social media has increased the isolation of many people, especially youth, whose world becomes their screen, and exercise becomes an active video game, certainly qualifying as negatives for our socialization, mental and physical health.
At the same time, medicine is leveraging technology in ways we wouldn't have dreamed a few years ago. Doctors can test vital signs remotely, diagnose serious ailments and even perform surgery on patients they never see. Heart pacemakers can record cardiac function, automatically transmit the results to remote clinics for analysis; signal an adverse event even before the patient is aware and soon, using GPS, call for emergency care wherever the patient is located.
In education, students appear to increasingly use technology to co-opt the intellectual efforts of others, becoming passive information consumers instead of doing the hard work of research, evaluation and expression themselves.
On the positive side, online schools and universities are eroding the virtual monopoly on higher education held since the 1960s by brick and mortar institutions and education lenders, and with that erosion, the hyperinflation of college costs. When I started college at UCLA in the late 1950s, for example, my total fees per year were $496. Today, matriculating in Westwood will set you back nearly $13,000 for the same educational experience.
If this trend toward more diversity in educational resources continues, students will no longer have to leave college with a staggering debt that will take years to retire, and students seeking a trade certification in place of the standard four year degree will be able to choose from a variety of sources, taking less time, costing far less and providing, in many cases, better instruction.
The Genie is Out of the Bottle: We Must Manage Its Magic
Neither George Orwell nor Aldous Huxley, prescient though they may have been, could have imagined a world in which people are as connected or technology-dependent as the one we are building.
We are dealing with a future in which commentators like futurist Ray Kurzweil are predicting a level of computer “intelligence” that will exceed humans -- Computer Singularity -- becoming like a god and taking control of all life. If we wish to avoid becoming mere vassals to our machines, we must act decisively to prevent it. History has shown us that technology will not stop by itself, even in the face of violent resistance, but will continue on its course to wherever we allow it.
Given this, our task is to ensure that the negative effects of technology are acknowledged and aggressively dealt with, while the positive potential is fully supported and funded. We are probably not doing that with sufficient balance today. If Kurzweil is correct and god-like computer singularity can be expected sometime around 2045 -- some commentators put it even sooner -- we had better get going.
If we are to manage our technological future, we must work together, acknowledging the challenges we face and establishing working partnerships between the technology makers and the users. Even if we can't fully control what's around the corner, we must make every attempt to anticipate and prepare for it.
Editor's Note: This isn't the first time Barry tackled this topic. Read more in What History Can Teach the Tech Industry About Public Backlash