The Future is where we’re all going to live: Cargo Cults and Ghosts in the Machine

by David Solomonoff

Recently I participated in a panel sponsored by the y+30 meetup group which is a “forum for discussing what the world might look like in +30 years.” Moderated by Jeremy Pesner, the topic for the panel was the “Future of Digital Communication.” Because of time constraints for the very broad topic, Jeremy and I agreed to sponsor some more events, to be cosponsored by the Internet Society of New York.

This post will be the first in a series looking through my crystal ball at possible directions and challenges society will face as a result of the accelerating pace of technology in the next thirty years. Because the breakthroughs in digital communication, specifically the impact of the Internet, are the glue that ties and transforms every other aspect of technology and society, that will be my main focus.

Predicting the future is a tricky business but something everyone likes to try. My favorite futurist is the Amazing Criswell, a psychic known for wildly inaccurate predictions, who said “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”

Often futurists and science-fiction writers describe a “future” that is already occurring. Former cyberpunk William Gibson said “The future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed.” Then he gave up writing novels about the future. He now writes fiction about the present where new technologies play a part.

Arthur C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” True now more than ever before because information technology, specifically software, has more in common with magical invocation and prayer than it does with earlier mechanical technologies like steam power or internal combustion. We tell machines what to do and hope they’ll do it rather than shoveling the coal, turning the crank, or opening a valve.

We think we are superior to people in less technologically advanced societies, but few people understand how technologies they use actually work.

Carl Sagan said “We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology.” This makes us vulnerable both to accidents and acts of malice we cannot comprehend. Are we destined to devolve into a cargo cult or to struggle against malevolent ghosts in our machines?

Part of the problem may be that technological skills and intellectual property are seen as commodities to be outsourced, bought and sold, rather than shared. But as an evangelist for open source everything, I think this is only part of the problem.

To be continued …

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