Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change

The other day a friend shared with me an interesting article that argued that one of our basic notions of how the brain works is completely wrong. The article, titled The Empty Brain, begins with this somewhat controversial fundamental premise: Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer.

A lot of us have grown up with the idea of our brain as something like a computer. We assume that our memories are stored in the same way the documents and files are etched onto a hard drive. It may not be ones and zeroes, but it's something akin to that. Our synapses, I've believed, were like electrical impulses that work like software protocols. And, as many a sci-fi writer has suggested, one day scientists will be able to patch our brains to real computers for augmented powers and other currently inconceivable experiences. I myself have talked about this as if it were almost a sure thing. In fact, my short story The M Zone is built on this premise, that we'll one day be able to access our memories by means of electronic devices.

The article comes at an interesting time in my readings since I've lately been voraciously consuming books about the future, about the world of tomorrow. Most striking is how varied these authors' pictures of the future have been. In fact, they're often downright contradictory, whether it's cars, geopolitics or the environment.

In the realm of computer science, some writers believe that an A.Il singularity will occur in our lifetimes. Others suggest it will never occur at all, ever. Some see humans living in space stations on Mars in the not too distant future. Others scoff as if this notion is ridiculous.

One of the books I've been enjoying this past week has be Bob Seidensticker's Future Hype. The title alone encapsulates the author's premise. Here's the book's description at Amazon.com:

Conventional wisdom says that technology is the greatest new growth frontier, coupling infinite potential with an ever-growing number of faster, more efficient, and more reliable products and instruments. According to this view, we live in an unprecedented golden era of technological expansion. ""Future Hype argues the opposite. Author Bob Seidensticker, who has an intimate understanding of technology on professional, theoretical, and academic levels, asserts that today's technological achievements are neither fast nor progressive. He explodes seven major myths of technology, including ""Change is exponential,"" ""Product cycle time is decreasing,"" and ""Today's high-tech price reductions are unprecedented."" Examining the history of tech hype, Seidensticker skillfully uncovers the inaccuracies and misinterpretations that characterize the popular view of technology, explaining how and why this view has been created, and offering specific strategies for measuring progress against what is actually known rather than against what its boosters have promised.

Over the years I've written several times about mistaken predictions by people supposedly in the know (c.f "Who Are Your Experts"). And being aware of this tendency (to envision futures quite wide of the mark) nearly all predictioneering begins with extensive qualifying statements that indicate that the author is fully aware that the further into the future we go the more wildly askew we might be.

In fact, this is one of the big question marks for those who write about A.I. No one can really know what will happen when the machines are so smart that they knowledge becomes exponentially greater than ours. It's a moment in time beyond which we cannot see. That is, if it happens at all.

This is what makes this book mentally entertaining. It's an antidote to the unbridled optimism some writers have expressed.

Here's an Amazon.com review from a reader named Byron Justice:
As an audio specialist these last 30 years, I've seen my share of technology hype. Even though history is littered from horizon to horizon with inflated expectations, broken promises, unfounded predictions, and a few outright lies, I'm always amazed at how easily people are goaded into throwing down their credit card for the latest tech toys. Of course, this book reaffirms that which I already know--technology for its own sake may be cool, but has no other benefits. I was predisposed to enjoy this book, and I wasn't disappointed. The guy who should read this book is the same guy who replaced his Beta tape library with LaserDiscs.

A reviewer named Brian wrote:
The people of every period in history tend to think that the time in which they live is somehow special: dramatically better than, or worse than, or in some way fundamentally different from all the times that came before. (And/or the people of today are *themselves* somehow different from the people of yesterday.)

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In one section of the book the author notes that although times have changed people aren't that different and that many times in the past there have been writers lamenting the fast pace of change taking place in their time. I myself have written about how people in many eras of history have felt this sense of being overwhelmed by the fast pace of change. An article in The Atlantic from the 19th century and another by Kafka back in the Twenties both expressed the emotional exhaustion caused by the breathtaking changes taking place and the feeling of being rushed, pushed, shoved by life. On the other hand, there are many who have become weary by how long the changes are taking place in our time. The author of Future Hype claims the rate of change is actually slowing down.

Seidensticker devotes the middle portion of his book to presenting specific myths and misconceptions such as (1) the idea that change is exponential, or that (3) important new high-tech inventions are arriving ever faster. He even calls Moore's Law a myth, or rather, the notion that it really matters. And even the changes wrought by the internet are overrated.

Ultimately the book serves as a nice antidote to the roiling media hype about all the "inevitable" changes that are moving toward us like a steamroller. You can find it here at Amazon.com.

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This book brings to mind an article I once read in Writer's Digest about making money by writing articles that are contrarian. This is certainly that kind of book. Nearly every argument has two side, and it is often quite easy to shoot holes in what are often popular misconceptions. (By mentioning "shooting holes" I'm not aiming to veer this blog post toward the topic of guns.)

Anyways, I'm fairly confident that this author enjoyed assembling his book. I also believe it can serve a useful function to keep things in perspective.

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If you like short stories and enjoyed The M Zone, you can find my Unremembered Histories at Amazon.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Just keep breathing.

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