False Futures in Technology

Commentary about the tendency for mobile devices and other technologies to give us a false sense of the future.

One of the big selling points for certain companies isn’t the actual product, but the cachet it carries. Some of that is and will be social exclusivity or stylistic. But some products have a futuristic quality.

The problem is that society can tend to gorge itself on false futures and avoid any real social progress. Futures where the only thing that changes is that our shoes buckle themselves, or we colonize other planets with our white picket fences.

It can be harder to see real future, in part because it’s so easy to forget the past. By the time I came around, and probably you too, segregation was gone. That’s a hard thing to know: that if I aged backwards through time instead of forwards, society would have developed segregation by now.

There is still progress on social justice, though, and it doesn’t come with a wall charger.

False futures like digital media with severely restricted markets. An electronic book reader would be a great thing, if the market were there for it. If the publishers competed on price, quality, anything but exclusivity and DRM.

The real future comes first in places where industry beckons it, as industry does not feel impeded like many individuals do, by laws made to prefer industry over people.

Drones are being touted as revolutionizing search and rescue operations. I have no doubt they will. Overall I do see drones and robotics as positives for the future, both for safety, but for efficiency and versatility as well.

But we need the laws and systems to avoid abuse, and we need to ensure that their use does not numb us to risks we shouldn’t take.

The same can be said for object printers or three-dimensional printers. As they grow larger, and we begin structural printing, we need to empower people with the tools to make sure the structures they build remain safe.

Taken together, within a few decades we may have the ability to build a new city in a matter of weeks without a person on the ground there.

But will that new city be subject to the same limitations we feel in society today? And will its newly relocated denizens still find the future in their mobile device or screen? In their ability to teleconference or have a robot vacuum their carpets?

I hope not. That sort of kick is false future to me. Technology that makes you feel like you’re in the future, instead of fading into the background, seems like a waste.

Literature and music can give you the same kick, without the high price tag. And it does a better job, because a song never crashes. A good story can take you places we will never go, places you are glad to visit but wouldn’t want to live in.

But as long as the device makers and technology companies have limited visions for the future, they will try to sell you a device to make you feel like you’re holding a piece of the future. All you’re really holding is a ticket to a false future.


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