I suspect most people know the name Rudolph Valentino, but most stars of the silent film era are unknown to current generations. Barbara Kent just died. She was an actress whom I had never heard of before, and the obituaries said that she was the last adult star from those early days of motion pictures. It got me thinking about how technology, for good or ill, dramatically changes our lives. Had “talkies” never arrived, the career of Kent would have continued and millions of fans would be mourning her as avidly as they mourned Michael Jackson.
Technology in the form of antibiotics is the reason I survived childhood, but, it also took me out of the lab and created my career as a writer. Wordprocessing saved me from retyping pages and encouraged me to polish my craft through rewriting. (The Internet makes it possible for me to participate in a Spanish blog that reaches the world.)
Of course, we have many amazing stories of medical technologies that substantially change people’s lives—think of new lenses for people with cataracts, pacemakers for people with heart disease, and life-saving/health-preserving medicines too numerous to mention. We have software that, it is claimed, has become the starting point for 14% of new marriages in the US. That, to me, is pretty life-changing. Viral videos on the web have allowed people to change their careers. The advent of MP3 has transformed the lives of those in the music industry. We even have changed the way we mourn and deal with grief through dedicated sites and social networks that allow us to share stories, impressions, pictures, and video of the deceased.
So, there are many examples of technologies that are pivotal to life, health, love, careers and how we deal with death. I see no reason why the avalanche of life-transforming technologies will end. The biggest impacts of technology have to do with health, abundance, opportunity, and access. Health and abundance are interrelated. If healthcare becomes more expensive, that is likely to eat into abundance and put a limit on how much impact technology will have on further improvements to longevity and wellness. Opportunity and access, from the vantage point of 2011, appear to be less dependent on abundance. Moore’s law is putting cell phones, for instance, into the hands of some the poorest people on the planet, creating opportunities for wealth, education and access to knowledge. It can also, at relatively little cost, allow people to have access to those who have similar viewpoints and concerns, allowing them to organize—as we have seen with the “Arab Spring.”
The limits to opportunity and access, driven by emerging technologies that are sometimes a step ahead of legal and technical controls, will determine how life-changing communications and information technologies will be. I will be optimistic and suggest that popular control of technologies such as these will continue, and that will help support some types of freedom, education, and opportunity. With this in mind, I suspect that more lives will be changed by education during the next few decades than by anything else. I see the networking and communications technologies as foundational going forward. But, I believe the most surprising changes will come from a deeper understanding of how different people learn and from the new technologies and social organizations that will leverage this understanding.
However, I have a caveat. Education may come to be unrecognizable as the lines blur between it and social interactions, jobs and play. What would you call all multiplayer online game that created value in the real world and where the play was educational? That depended upon the active participation of sensors, analytical software that adapted the game to the learning styles of users? Where the participation of mentors with deep expertise was fundamental? Imagining such a game provides one indication of just how life-transforming technology may be in the near future. I, for one, am looking forward to that future.