There’s a technique for pondering emerging technologies that originated, I think, with Jamais Cascio. Imagine you’d been instantly transported back in time x years in a particular place. How many years would you have to have travelled before you noticed you had slipped back in time? What would give it away? People’s clothing? The music on the radio? Headlines on newspapers in the first papershop you come across? The cars, the phones people are carrying, the TVs you can see through the windows you pass? Sat where you are now, could you tell if you’d suddenly dropped back to 2006? 2001? 1989?
Ok, you’re on the internet, so that breaks that, but it’s a fun game to play if you travel a lot, and can be also quite revealing within institutional buildings. Applied to business processes or cultural values, it can uncover a good deal too.
My variation on this is to look for the places, or the ideas, or the writing, that is the most future-dense. What sentences can we find that contains the most stuff that, were we to fall back in time only a few years, would make no sense whatsoever. What contains the most embedded understanding of wholly modern concepts. Here’s a good one, from this morning:
There are bots that scan GitHub for accidentally shared AWS keys and use them to run EC2 instances to mine bitcoins http://t.co/rQDOeIhE0D
— Simon Willison (@simonw) December 31, 2014
See what I mean? Go back ten years, and that would be crazy. Go back thirty years, and you’d have to start from such first principles, you’d be considered mad.
Here’s another from earlier this year, that at first glance reads, technologically at least, entirely, boringly, banal:
If you fell back thirty years to 1985, think of all the things about this screenshot you’d have to explain, and all the layers you’d have to fill in before you could. “Ok, so…[deep breath] the President of the United States is a black man named Barack Obama. Yes, really. This is a message he has left on a microblogging service on the web…ermmm, it’s a service based around a new hypertext protocol on the internet. Yes, that thing the scientists use. Kinda like a bbs, yes. But with a few billion users. Yes. Billion. With a B. Anyway, he’s saying he’s going to binge-watch a show on Netflix. Netflix? It’s a streaming video site…oh…well, it’s a place…errrrr…Retweets? Spoilers?…I…you know…I think we should drop it.”
Anyway, looking for these brings me to a couple of things. Firstly, it’s a useful koan-like personal thought experiment to find new insights around a place or an organisation or a cultural moment. At the very least, it’s entertaining.
But secondly, I think it raises, once again, the realisation that our future world is heavily, fundamentally layered: that problems have no simple solution that a single technology plonked on top will fix. Instead, it is the interplay of the complex systems – complex, not necessarily complicated – of culture, technology, politics, culture and so on that will come together to make tomorrow’s banal commonplace thing. That complexity, I think, is both deeply exciting, and – hopefully – humbling. The future is not about the tech. It’s perhaps the other way around.