Today’s blog is not about broadband, or perhaps only peripherally. As I write this holiday weekend blog, I find myself thinking a lot about an article written last month by Shannon Vallor in the MIT Technology Review. She asks the question, “We used to get excited about technology. What happened?”.
The world is full of new technologies, yet I’ve had the same feeling as Shannon that these new technologies don’t excite me as they once did. She recalls a few technologies that brought her wonder and awe, such as her first ride on the San Francisco BART, seeing a Concorde for the first time, or her first Commodore PET.
We all have our own list of technologies that thrilled us or that we recognized instantly as game changers. My list includes things like Alan Shepard in the first Mercury flight, my first DSL connection that got me off dial-up, online music libraries like Napster and Spotify, and seeing the first iPhone.
The technological breakthroughs I loved the most were good for me or good for mankind. The childhood me saw the Mercury flight as the first step towards mankind expanding our boundaries past this planet. DSL liberated me to finally search the whole world from my living room. Online music meant I was no longer constrained to the music I could afford to buy and could explore the forty different genres of music I like. The iPhone gave everybody a portable handheld computer. The many other technologies I loved at first sight had similar benefits.
The article discusses how a lot of new breakthroughs feel small and somewhat tawdry because they are aimed at helping the companies that sell the technology more than the people who buy it. She cites how farmers feel captive to John Deere because of the way it controls self-driving tractors. She talked about how Roombas and smart refrigerators spy on us – our transaction with technology companies doesn’t stop when we bring the technology home.
I remember going to Epcot when it first opened. I’m the first to admit that Disney’s vision of the future was schmaltzy, but the vision shown in the Epcot globe is how the history of technology is inexorably tied to making people’s lives better. The century before I was born saw amazing new technologies like electricity in homes, automobiles and planes, refrigeration, vaccines against some of the worst diseases, and mass communications through telegraphs, telephones, and radio.
The article talks about how technology breakthroughs today seem to be more about making the developers rich. If there is any one technology trend I’d like to see undone, it is how we’ve decided to reward companies with breakthrough technology as unicorns and make the founders into instant billionaires. I’m having a hard time getting as excited as I once with space when we’re using the latest technologies to provide private space rides to billionaires. It’s disheartening to see drones becoming the next weapons of war that can threaten us all. It’s disturbing to see vaccines going to wealthy countries instead of everybody. It’s scary that a lot of the electronics we bring into our homes are watching us and reporting back to parties unknown.
However, while I share the same unease as Vallor, I also read a lot about science breakthroughs in labs around the world. We are surrounded by breakthroughs that would have amazed us a few decades ago that barely rate a mention in the press. We’re discovering amazing materials that will enable the next generation of energy use and communications. The breakthroughs in biology are amazing, and we’re probably not far from finding a cure for the common cold and many cancers. We don’t seem to be far away from the first working generation of fusion reactors.
I guess I’m still hopeful, but at the same time, I’ve been thinking about reducing the number of gadgets in my life instead of adding more. I say all of this knowing that I might get thrilled with a new technology announced tomorrow. But then again, maybe I won’t.