Friday, May 8, 2015

The World of the Future: Has it Already Come and Gone?

Science fiction has promised us a glorious future full of lots of shiny gizmos.  But is it possible that technological progress has stalled?

Consider this:

My grandmother was born in 1903, one month before the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane at Kitty Hawk. By the time she was my age, jet airliners were crossing the Atlantic from America to Europe in just a few hours. In my lifetime, aviation has evolved from jet airplanes to... overcrowded jet airplanes.

When my grandmother was born, infectious diseases were the leading cause of death. In her lifetime, antibiotics wiped out most bacterial infections, while vaccinations banished viral illnesses such as polio, and childhood diabetes changed overnight from a death sentence to a manageable condition. My lifetime has witnessed a grinding war on cancer (more like guerrilla warfare) and the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

What else did my grandmother live through? The invention of (and more importantly, the wide dissemination of) radio, movies, and television. Automobiles advanced from primitive curiosities to ubiquitous necessities. Air conditioning was invented, and refrigerators replaced ice boxes. Vacuum tubes led to the birth of electronics, and then were themselves replaced by transistors. Nuclear power was born.

We have seen nothing like this level of transformation in the course of my lifetime. Certainly there have been incremental improvements over the past 40-50 years. Airplane travel (never very dangerous) is much safer than it was even 30 years ago. Automobiles pollute less and get better gas mileage. And if you experience cancer or heart disease, your prospects are clearly improved over what they would have been in the 1970s. But we've experienced no "penicillin moment" when it comes to cancer treatment -- no sudden magic bullet that wipes out cancer at a single stroke. And if you have an infection, you might have been better off in the 1970s!

The one enormous area of progress in my lifetime, of course, has been in computer technology. If I had wanted to publish something like a blog back in the 1970s, I would have printed it on a mimeograph machine (if you're under 40, look it up!) and mailed it out to a few dozen readers. The experience of writing itself is infinitely easier on a computer than it once was on a typewriter. I can buy almost anything I want online without leaving my computer. Access to information itself has expanded unimaginably -- with a few clicks I can get a (usually reliable) answer to almost any question of fact, including the plot lines for dimly-remembered TV shows from my childhood. I can contact someone across the globe with email. And I can watch almost any movie I want, as long as it's on Netflix.

But is this really the same kind of revolutionary technological change that my grandmother witnessed? Has it had the same level of impact on our everyday lives as the airplane, the automobile, movies, television, or even air conditioning? I would say "no."  I think we've picked most of the lowest-hanging fruit. A possible exception is the explosive growth in our understanding of genetics, which has the potential to revolutionize medicine over the next few decades. And maybe nanotechnology will soon live up to its promise. I just hope that I live long enough to see it.  I want my shiny gizmos!


robk said...

actualy almost in this year 1903 was write short story E.M.Foster the machine stop where he "predict something like net with global comunication chat video chat etc etc :-)

Bill said...

Prof. Scherrer perhaps underestimates the revolution which is ongoing, the continuation of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, impacting marriage and family in ways that his grandmother or he cannot envisage. These changes may not be the toys that Scherrer is looking for, but their influence on what what it means to be human may be as profound as the information explosion has been on our daily lives.

Robert Scherrer said...

Certainly the social changes that have occurred between, e.g., 1960 and 2015 are much greater than the social changes between 1905 and 1960. And I think science fiction, to the extent that it has predicted anything, has done a much worse job extrapolating societal changes than technological ones.