August 24, 2009
Technologies Don't Transform, Societies Do, Pt. 2
As a follow up to my first linkpost on this topic, I’m adding an exhibit: Apple’s celebrated “Knowledge Navigator” late-80s concept video. Watch it, then come back.
Here’s the thing that’s always struck me about this video. Technologically, it’s wonderfully optimistic. (I love it when the professor flubs the name of the researcher he’s looking for, and the computer figures out the right name, like a Google-search correcting spelling.)
But socially, it’s incredibly conservative. Basically, it treats the computer interface as a synthesis of secretary, research assistant, and wife to the prototypically WASPy-dude professor. He doesn’t even have to learn how to type! Imagine how short his Acknowledgements page will be! And his mom still nags him about his dad’s birthday party! Oh, will life’s problems never go away?
The assumptions are that 1) a breakthrough communication technology and 2) probably quite a bit of time passing won’t produce any social changes at all. It won’t create any new problems, either. It will simply make life easier.
We’re actually usually pretty good at forecasting technological change. But we’re astonishingly bad at predicting social responses to it. This is why most past attempts to predict the future strike us as unintentionally funny in retrospect: it’s the mismatch between their creators’ social imagination and our own — or rather, between the constitutive blindnesses of their creators’ social imagination and our own. We see and say things that they can’t, and (often enough) vice versa.