It’s that time of year again; the turn of the seasons when the urge to create summary lists describing here that is passed in the year yet to come becomes overwhelming. When I worked for the government some years ago, I used to observe that the funniest possible reading was the set of five-year plans prepared two years ago. Barely behind them generally come technology plans of any sort. It’s become a truism that we are living in an age of rapid tech change. But it’s also been observed that in recent years most of the changes involve applications and devices, rather than fundamentally new technologies. We seem to be steadily on the cusp of breakthrough technologies, but they are not right around the corner, at least the part of the corner we can see around using our 90° scopes.
ExtremeTech is a website/blog specializing in new and entertaining technological developments. Less gee-whiz-neato than Gizmodo and more scientific/researchy than Gartner, ExtremeTech tends to be interested in long-term developments. They look backward rather than forward; they also have the honesty to invite the reader to examine their 2011 picks, as a way of assessing their credibility regarding 2012. Comparing their lists between years provides an interesting exercise. 2011’s list featured nanobots, IBM/WATSON, graphene, humanoid robots, and batteries, among others. 2012’s list, by contrast, features electronic/photonic chips, quantum entanglement, 3D printing, infinite capacity wireless, DNA information storage, and – batteries! Batteries are one of those generally non-fashionable technologies that have , it seems eternally, been right on the brink of major breakthroughs, but don’t quite ever get there. Quantum entanglement and the promise of an unbreakable quantum computer on every desktop are wonderful ideas to conjure with, but realistically unless we get a whole lot better batteries a whole lot sooner, they won’t be worth a tinkers’ dam.
Overall, while 2011’s picks seem to be of continuing scientific interest, they have not for the most part ignited a technological revolution. The same could probably be said for the 2012 picks, although one item on the list is a sleeper that in my (not unshared) view, is about to unleash all holy hell on the world’s economies. No, it’s not batteries, although it’s high time it was. I’m referring here to 3-D printing, which already has consumer models on the shop floor at a significantly better cost-to-value ratio than the personal computer had when I bought my first one in 1980.
3-D printing essentially promises to render fundamentally valueless a very large portion of the world’s low-tech manufacturing sector. While it’s cheap to pay a Chinese or Zimbabwean worker to put together your flip-flops, it will pretty soon be significantly cheaper to punch a button on your home machine, have it feed in some cheap plastic feedstock, and have your brand-new flip-flops in hand within five minutes. If you don’t like the color, feed them back into the machine and print out another one. If you don’t have the right kitchen tool to get together tonight’s risotto, go online to download the plans, punch a couple of buttons, and have your risotto stirrer drop into your hands. For that matter, just download the plans for a risotto, pour in some starches, amino acids, and flavorings, and have your risotto printed out into the lovely quasi-hand-painted serving dish that you downloaded earlier this afternoon. And if you’ve eaten too much risotto and accompanying fine Barolo, just print yourself out a new liver and drop around to the do-it-yourself surgery outlet for installation.
Okay, maybe the latter is just a bit of an exaggeration at present. However, the printing of new human organs is in the testing process and will be available in the near future. Of course, pretty soon you will be able to download the plans for printing out your very own all-plastic assault rifle and ammunition, not to mention a new designer derringer for each of your kids to match to their school outfits each day. Don’t you feel a whole lot safer on that account?
The fact is, my friends, that despite the fact that technological change moves by fits and starts, sometimes imperceptibly and sometimes by surges on the NASDAQ, there is a long-range trend toward more complex technologies and their deployment in society. Here’s a basic fact to ponder: there has never been a single technology developed by human beings that has not eventually been used by some group for their own ends. In the past, we’ve had communication breakdowns and information barriers to thank for whatever ability we have had to systematically manage technology implementation. Today, we no longer have such buffers, and we’re going to be contending with things pretty much as they come out of the gate. But none of this has repealed the fundamental propositions of sociotechnical design, which assert that implementing technology requires simultaneous adjustments to both the technical and social systems within which they are deployed. So in practice, we have less and less time to make more and more complicated social adjustments to deal with pyramiding technical changes.
‘Tain’t funny, Magee! In some future postings here, I’ll explore some further implications of this increasingly tense situation and suggest some potential actions. I don’t claim to have the full answer – but the fact that I can pose the question puts me well ahead of whole lot of the geewhiz futurists strutting their stuff today.
[In case you’re wondering, today’s logo is an old card sorter, on which I learned some of my first statistics lessons back at the beginning of the New Stone Age.]