Coming at You – October 24, 2010

It’s a commonplace these days to say that the future is coming at us all faster and faster all the time. This is not just the observation of a man leaving middle age for the realm of “senior” or “twilight” years, when one can compare the lifestyle and artifacts of a generation ago with what we have today. The evolution of technology and the responses of modern society are indeed moving so fast that even teenagers notice the effect.

I learned that just this month, on October 13, the first human clinical trial of stem cell therapy has been launched—to treat damaged spinal cords by adding cultured stem cells to regenerate the myelin sheath that surrounds the neurons and protects them from scrambling their signals. (It already works in rats, where spine-damaged rats are walking again!) Ten years ago, when we had just decoded the first draft of the human genome, who had even heard of stem cells, much less known how to manipulate them?

To give an example of the acceleration, consider recorded music. Edison perfected the sound-transcribing cylindrical phonograph in the 1870s, but playing recorded music didn’t become part of the popular culture until about 1915, when the industry settled on flat Bakelite disks turning at 78 rpm, which could capture a whole song or an operatic aria. It took 35 years and the extended play requirements of the talking movie era to poplularize the “lp” or long-playing record, which turned at 33-1/3 rpm, in the 1950s. Vinyl records and two-channel stereo (based on the stylus moving in two dimensions) dominated popular music for another 30 years, until the mid-1980s, when digital music in the form of compact discs arose and cleaned out the record stores in about six months. Twenty years later, with the internet and the iPod, the MP3 format was driving CDs to the wall. I expect that in another ten years, or even five, something better—richer, higher sampling rate, more compact data format—will drive out MP3 files.

This is technological evolution at a rate that even a child can remember.

Technological advancement wasn’t always the way of the world. As a thought experiment, consider bringing a Roman citizen of the second century forward to the court of Louis XVI in the 1780s. What would be new to the Roman? Styles, certainly. Tight-fitting jackets and tight-fitting boots (although the concept of separating footwear into left and right didn’t appear until 1818), saddles with stirrups, leaf-springs in carriages with spoke wheels riding on graveled roads. These are, essentially, luxuries and frivolities that any Roman could understand and reproduce.

The two advances that would have goggled the Roman are printed books and gunpowder. But neither would, upon close examination and a short explanation, mystify him. You can teach a child about block printing. And anyone can understand the workings of a flintlock musket. The nature of gunpowder would be harder: mix charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter and get a black powder that goes bang. Once you wrap his head around the potential of that bang, your average Roman could become a marksman by sundown.1

Fifteen hundred years of progress, and you can catch up in a day.

That all began to change in the following century. First came the steam engine, which the Roman could still understand—tracing out the linkages between piston, connecting rod, crank shaft, and gear—although the speed of movement and the speed at which the network of railroads grew would have astonished him. After that came electricity and the telegraph, telephone, phonograph cylinders, the light bulb, radio, the fusion bomb. Now you’re working with forces that the Roman would have understood poorly—and only inadequately by the analogy with lightning and the properties of water—and would have tended to attribute to magic.2

The Roman wouldn’t have had the basic knowledge of modern science, the languages of physics and chemistry, to begin to understand. It was only by making these concepts widespread, through the introduction of public education along with the appearance of these technological toys, that the magic became the everyday property of the population. And although most people today can only vaguely describe the properties of radio waves, they understand that their cell phone generates some kind of signal and that its working doesn’t involve celestial spirits carrying messages back and forth.

In the 20th century we started another transformation, from mechanics to informatics. Consider that for 100,000 years of human history a tool was a physical object like a hammer or a axe blade. But in the last 40 years techniques like crossfoot accounting, computerized spreadsheets, scheduling programs, risk analysis, and datamining have spawned a generation that uses nonmaterial tools on a daily basis. For 20,000 years, animal husbandry meant taming and working with whole animals or crossbreeding whole crops of corn. In the last 20 years the manufacture and use of enzymes, proteins, plasmids, and antigens has created a biological industry that employs the barest parts of, rather than whole, organisms.

Guttenberg and the printing press reigned for almost 600 years. The internet and the distribution of digital information have almost displaced him in a mere two decades.

And as we spread the knowledge and invent new technologies, the pace of change is only going to come faster and faster. From the germ theory of disease in the 1850s to stem cell therapy in 2010. The technological change and social response is coming faster and faster.3

We’re all on an express escalator to the future. To paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane, the future is not only going to be stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.

1. The Roman wouldn’t have the language of chemistry—atomic structure, covalent bonding, oxidation—to understand the bang, or even the transformation of three common substances into this magical powder. But then neither did the Chinese who discovered it or the 18th century Frenchman who used it. But they all had experience of mysterious transformations. Heat certain green powders and they become liquid copper. Add tin and it becomes bronze. Crush grapes and they become sweet juice. Let the juice sit for a while, and it becomes a potent beverage. Use of chemistry long preceded any understanding of chemistry.

2. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

3. You want an example of change and response? Birth control pills first became available in the early 1960s, and by the end of that decade we were in the midst of a sexual revolution and resurgent feminism. The possibility of casual sex without pregnancy and without arduous preparation changed the role of both sex and women in society. Age-old concepts of morality and marriage have not been the same since.