I have followed the writings of Shelly Palmer for several years. He knows everything about what is happening with the newest consumer electronics. In his commentaries, besides useful technical information, he often shares many intriguing thoughts how new technologies can change our lives, sooner and more profoundly than most of us expect.
In a recent essay Mr. Palmer asked his readers: How Do You See the Future? Trying to guide his readers, Mr. Palmer offers 20 theses about things that he believes will happen soon and asks his readers: “What do you believe?” At this point, I had to disagree with my revered author. Technological progress and its social ramifications are not a religion, they are about science. Beliefs should be put aside; what I know and understand matters.
I copied the text of Mr. Palmer’s essay and, by one click, assigned numbers to his 20 theses. Then, I marked in yellow 10 theses (2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14) that reflect the very nature of the civilization’s progress. The thesis number 11, “Data is more powerful in the presence of other data,” is the most representative for this group. When two prehistoric men shared their experiences, occasionally, it sparked a new idea much more powerful than what they knew, moving civilization forward. Since then, until today, this process is exactly the same; it is exponential. The difference is that in the remote past the population was sparse, not too many people had ideas worth exchanging, and it was difficult to propagate them; hence, it took millennia to develop and spread just one invention. Today, everything happens almost instantaneously. For us, the practical difference is that up to a generation or two ago, for most people, the biggest technological shifts happened less often than once per generation. Today, for most of us, that shift happens every few years. It means that we should be prepared to change our professional careers as often.
Mr. Palmer sounds pessimistic when he claims that “New technology will not replace all of the jobs that new technology displaces.” Behind this statement there is a not formally expressed assumption, by some, that if my job is eliminated by a new technology, a replacement job should be given to me. If I read it correctly, Mr. Palmer does not imply that it should be this way, but he worries that too many people are not prepared for the near future when there will be no jobs they can take, and, if they want to work, they will need to create a job for themselves.
This problem can also be seen as the dysfunction of the American society. Mr. Palmer writes about it more directly in four more theses. In particular Mr. Palmer might be right that in the current political reality, technological progress will cause the big to get bigger, the small to survive and the middle to perish. But this is not universal for technological progress; this is how it happens in the U.S. right now. He might be right, as well, that the rising health care costs might form political pressure on the big food companies. But he misses the elephant in the room, because the big food companies did not cause health costs to rise; we have a systematically dysfunctional health care policy.
Similarly, Mr. Palmer is plainly wrong that due “to the increasing world population, we cannot train enough doctors, dentists, and other health care professionals.” Again, this is just the problem in the U.S. On the other hand, the Philippines, which has population density about 10 times higher than in the United States, produces medical professionals in abundance. Mr. Palmer is wrong, as well, when lamenting that “the entire education system is too expensive and is not producing qualified candidates for newly created jobs.” Once more, this is just another unresolved American problem. India produces plenty of software engineers, more than capable to deal with the challenges of the future. Mr. Palmer does not dot the i’s by not bringing up what we all know; that most Americans do not want these educated immigrants to come and work among us, despite the fact that Americans are not well-prepared for the technological challenges that some of us may face tomorrow, most of us within the next decade or so.
Summarizing, the simple answer to the Mr. Palmer’s question is that the future looks bright, but … for others. In the United States, we still have too much that is unknown. Nevertheless, I do not share the pessimism that one can sense from Mr. Palmer’s essay. In another of his 20 theses Mr. Palmer noted aptly that the “tools used to access the free and open Internet have enabled users to filter out anything that makes them uncomfortable and have exacerbated the negative effects of confirmation bias.” In plain words, we use the modern information technology not to learn, but to reassure ourselves that what we already know makes us wise. Paradoxically, in a time of unprecedented ability to communicate, we have lost the ability to communicate on issues that matter. All these dysfunctions of our political system mentioned above can be linked to this diagnosis. Be it health care, immigration, education or climate change, Americans are divided along ideological lines and have lost the ability to reach any constructive consensus.
There is an old maxim that every problem can be resolved if one can identify its very nature. Hence, as bad as our problems are, my note of optimism stems from the fact that we know well where the problems originate. For years I have been absorbed by this national-divide issue and have seen many attempts to overcome it. Mass media are often blamed for this problem as it is easier to make a buck by telling people what they are pleased to hear, not what the truth is. Consequently, many attempts to break this national divide have been initiated by not-for-profit ventures trying to compete with media giants. Not an easy task.
I sense that those among us who are weary of being flattered all the time and who seek satisfaction from learning something new are plenty enough to support a commercial venture aimed at overcoming that national divide. I put my engineer’s mind to work and invented the concept of Virtual Agora, www.virtualagora.net. At Virtual Agora, people are challenged to prove that they are smarter than others, and as a result are tricked to learn from others. This venture is designed to make a profit by addressing the biggest problem that American society is facing today. Could it be more American? I bet that others will follow, and this is my source for optimism that the future will be bright not only for others.