Thinking about the future can
help you shape it. Thinking too much about the future can make you spacey.
By the year 2019, thanks to
information technology, humans will have largely overcome the limits of our
humanity. We will have found cures for the major diseases that kill 95 percent
of us in the developed world. By 2029, we will become as gods, with tiny
computer chips embedded in our bodies, stopping disease and reversing aging,
ever expanding our lifespan.
Such are the prognostications of
the current Pied Piper of the digital utopia crowd, Ray Kurzweil (<span
In a syndicated newspaper feature, he recently shared these and other rosy
predictions about the power of IT. His main thesis is that information
technology leads not just to linear growth such as humanity has experienced in
the past, but to exponential growth, and not just in IT.
Kurzweil is the author of such
books as The
Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology; <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Fantastic Voyage: Live Long
Enough to Live Forever; and <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>The Age of Spiritual Machines. In them
he has made other astonishing predictions. My favorite: Human and machine
intelligence will merge and become indistinguishable, growing exponentially
until we will be able to control how the universe evolves.
It’s easy to dismiss Kurzweil. His
background is in speech recognition, a technology that despite its years of
promises has never crossed into the desktop-computing mainstream because of its
inability to perform as well as pecking away at keyboard and pushing a mouse
If you do dismiss him, though, you
risk looking like a change-averse Luddite. The past is littered with failures
of the imagination, even among those deeply involved with information
· Ken Olson, founder and chairman of
Digital Equipment Corporation, said in 1977, “There is no reason anyone would
want a computer in their home.”
· Thomas Watson, president and CEO
of IBM, said in 1943, “I think there is a world market for maybe five
· Talking about talkies, H.M.
Warner, co-founder and president of Warner Brothers, said in 1927, “Who the
hell wants to hear actors talk?”
· According to an 1876 internal
Western Union memo, “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously
considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to
Kurzweil’s vision of the future is
enticing, like a comic book, and he has his followers. Who wouldn’t want to
become a Superman or Wonder Woman?
To be fair, computers are indeed
PCs allow you to communicate with
far more people than a phone or letter. They help you write far more
efficiently than a typewriter or pen and paper. They make it possible to keep
track of people and things far more easily than a written roster or list. They
let you budget, forecast, and plan far more effectively than a calculator or
table. And they make education far more compelling than words and pictures on
What’s more, unlike just about any
other product on the market, personal computers over time decrease in price
while they increase in power and ease of use.
Yet what our noggins do far better
than today’s fastest supercomputers is “pattern recognition,” allowing us to
know faces and appreciate a sunset.
Kurzweil thinks that, a
quarter-century from today, common computers will have these capabilities and
others, including consciousness and the ability to have emotional and even
spiritual experiences. I don’t think so.
As littered as the past is with
failures of the imagination, it’s equally littered with products of overexcited
imaginations. When is the last time you commuted to work in your flying car?
What are you doing with all the free time created by time-saving washing machines,
microwave ovens, and other home appliances? How did you enjoy that vacation on
In his 2001 book <span
Narrative, Holism, and the Romance of the Real, Richard Coyne
discusses the romanticization of digital technology, contrasting it with
rationalism and pragmatism.
Technorealism is a name that has
been coined for thinking critically about the role that information technology
plays in society and history. At the Web site Technorealism (<span
you can read about its principles.
Sure, think about the future. Plan
how to get where you want to go and what to do if the unexpected arises. But be
careful what you say about tomorrow. It’s a slippery place. As Lao Tzu said in
the sixth century bce, “Those who have
knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.”
Reid Goldsborough is a
syndicated columnist and author of the book <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or members.home.net/reidgold.