The law of technological mundanity
[ opinion - march 08 ]
The past is littered with triumphant futures. A quick look at the website www.paleofuture.com will entertain and instruct in equal measure. Humanity, in the last 150 years in particular, has been wonderfully creative in imagining a whole series of bright shining utopias, with holidays on Mars via teleportation as routine, intergalactic travel in luxuriously appointed space craft de rigueur, and monorails and hovercraft darting around gleaming urban utopias of glass and steel. On www.paleofuture.com we see - and snigger at - the lurid visions of the future such as 1958 comic strips about weather control.
It is a commonplace that speculative visions of the future reveal more about the contemporary present than the imagined future. Arthur C Clarke's observation that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic has become as much of a cliché - so much of a cliché that it obscures the more profound truth that any sufficiently established technology is indistinguishable from mundanity. And in contemplating the dramatic futures posited on www.paleofuture.com, and looking at the world around us, we must realise that we are not so far from technotopia as one might think.
We have the global information network, so often described with suggestive metaphors such as web or net or information superhighway. We have the near ubiquitous penetrance, and not just in the industrialised West, of those personal communicators of global reach otherwise known as mobile phones. All our friends are organised into little groups on social networking sites, and all their friends, and all their friends' friends. No one can escape an ex, a friend now an enemy, a colleague or fellow student one would rather not have contact with. Our lives are saturated with technology. Whether we are the richer for this is another question, beyond the scope of this brief essay.
Techno-enthusiasts have had mixed fortunes in the last quarter century. From stock market boom to oil depletion bust, from initial dot com euphoria to monumental dot com hangover to Web 2.0 indulgence, the New Jerusalem and the lurch into darkness alternate. Techno-pundits are reliably hyperbolic. Web 2.0, and the supposed global genius of user-generated content, now reigns triumphant. The apostles of Web 2.0 postulate in the not too distant future we will all be into "life streaming" - a new generation entirely without the vague qualms about privacy and boundaries that even Facebook and myspace addicts are prone to will be all too happy to have every aspect of their lives documented online for their friends, all the time.
Aside from being indescribably boring (imagine the millions and billions of life-streamed commutes, life-streamed hurried breakfasts, life-streamed surfing of sites devoted to the life-streaming of others) it won't happen for another reason. Technology is a fertile source of laws. Moore's Law - computing power doubles every two years. Zawinksi's Law of Software Envelopment - every program attempts to expand until it can read email, and those program that cannot so expand are replaced by those that can. Hurst's Law - complexity can neither be created or destroyed, it can only be displaced (so software that claims to "simplify" a complex problem merely moves the complexity from one domain to another)
Here's another - the law of mundanity. The technological applications that have really conquered the world - text messaging, blogging, even social networking - are, well, dull. There is little new or exciting about them. One can't imagine future versions of paleofutures.com devoted to people writing diaries online. As for social networking, think of the banality of these sites, with their profiles either festooned with the planning and recollection of drunken nights, or full of arch cleverness, twee "status updates", and some quotes or other. The internet is littered with holiday snaps, and we all know how notoriously boring being subjected to the holiday snaps of others is.
The opening chapter of GK Chesterton's The Napoleon Of Notting Hill ('Introductory Remarks on the Art of Prophecy') is salutary reading for all futurists. Chesterton describes how, in the early years of the 20th century, the plethora of clever men and women predicting this and that made it difficult for the common people to play their favourite game – "'Keep To-Morrow Dark', and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) 'Cheat The Prophet'". They therefore circumvented the cavalcade of prediction by doing precisely nothing. Therefore, by the time the action of the novel starts (1984, by one of those odd literary co-incidences) life is pretty much the same as 1904, when the novel was written. Technology does not realise the brightest future proposed for it. It realises the most mundane one. It is one of life's saving graces that the most mundane destiny may be the least expected.