net.wars: Futures

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 15 June 2009

"What is the future of computers, freedom, and privacy?" a friend asked over lunch, apparently really wanting to know. This was ten days ago, and I hesitated before finding an out.

Wendy M Grossman

"I don't know," I said. "I haven't been to the conference yet.

Now I have been to the conference, at least this year's instance of it, and I still don't really know how to answer this question. As always, I've come away with some ideas to follow up, but mostly the sense of a work in progress. How do some people manage to be such confident futurologists?

I don't mean science fiction writers: while they're often confused with futurologists and Arthur C. Clarke's track record in predicting communications satellites notwithstanding, they're not, really. They're storytellers who take our world, change a few variables, and speculate. I also don't mean trend-spotters, who see a few instances of something and generalize from there, or pundits, who are just very, very good at quotables.

Futurologists are good at the backgrounds science fiction writers use – but not good at coming up with stories. They're not, as I had it explained to me once, researchers, because they dream rather than build things. The smart ones have figured out that dramatic predictions get more headlines – and funding – than mundane ones and they have a huge advantage over urban planners and actuaries: they don't have to be right, just interesting. (Whereas, a "psychic seer" like Nostradamus doesn't even have to be interesting as long as his ramblings are vague enough to be reinterpretable every time some new major event comes along.)

It's perennially intriguing how much of the past images of the future throw away: changing fashions in clothing, furniture, and lifestyles leave no trace. Take, for example, Popular Mechanics' 1950 predictions for 2000. Some of that article is prescient: converging televisions and telephones, for example. Some extrapolates from then new technologies such as X-rays, plastics, and frozen foods. But far more of it is a reminder of how much better the future was in the past: family helicopters, solar power in real, widespread use, cheap housing. And yet even more of it reflects the constrained social roles of the 1950s: the assumption that all those synthetic plastic fabrics, furniture, and finishings would be hosed down by…the woman of the house.

I'll bet the guy who wrote that had a wife who was always complaining about having to do all the housework. And he didn't keep his books at home. Or family heirlooms, personal memorabilia, or silly gewgaws picked up on that trip to Pittsburgh. I'm not entirely clear why anyone would find frozen milk and candy made from sawdust appealing, though I suppose home cooking is indeed going out of style.

But my friend's question was serious: I can't answer it by throwing extravagantly wild imaginings at it for their entertainment value. Plus, he's probably most interested in his lifetime and that of his children, and it's a simple equation that the farther out the future you're predicting the less plausible you have to be.

It's not hard to guess that computing power will continue to grow, even if it doesn't continue to keep pace with Moore's Law and is counterbalanced by the weight of Page's Law. What *is* hard to guess is how people will want to use it.

To most of the generation writing the future in the 1950s, when World War II and the threat of Nazism was fresh, it was probably inconceivable that the citizens of democratic countries would be so willing to allow so many governments to track them in detail. As inconceivable, I suppose, as that the pill would come along a few years later and wipe away the social order they believed was nature's way. Orwell, of course, foresaw the possibilities of a surveillance society, but he imagined the central control of a giant government, not a society where governments rely on commercial companies to fill out their dossiers on citizens.

I find it hard to imagine dramatic futures in part because I do believe most people want to hold onto at least parts of their past, and therefore that any future we construct will be more like Terry Gilliam's movies than anything else, festooned with bizarre duct work and populated by junk that's either come back into fashion or that we simply forgot to throw away. And there are plenty of others around to predict the apocalypse (we run out of energy, three-quarters of the world's population dies, economic and environmental collapse, will you burn that computer or sit on it?) or its opposite (we find the Singularity, solve our energy problems, colonize space, and fix biology so we live forever). Neither seems to me the most likely.

I doubt my friend would have been satisfied with the answer: "More of the same, only different." But my guess is that the battle to preserve privacy will continue for a long time. Every increase in computing power makes greater surveillance possible, and 9/11 provided the seeming justification that overrode the fading memory of what was at stake in World War II. It won't be until an event with that kind of impact reminds people of the risk you take when you allow "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" to become society's mantra that the mainstream will fight to take back their privacy.

Technorati tags:   
There will still be Victorian houses... - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).