Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Real Life Pessimism

At the day job we get quite a few trade journals, one of them being ‘Technisch Weekblad’ (“Technical Weekly”), and the April 19 (week 16) issue had an interesting column by Frits Prakke called ‘De informatisering van alles’ (“The Informatisation of Everything”).

I’m sorely tempted to translate the whole piece ad verbatim, but I must respect the author’s (and the magazine’s) copyright, so a summarisation filled with paraphrases will have to suffice.

He starts his column with reminiscing how his forefather of a few generations ago moved from a small village to the big city, not only because the city offered more opportunities, but also because there was much less social control. ‘The big-scale industrialisation has done miracles for our privacy’ (paraphrase).

Cut to 1989, where he has become a technological advisor, and he is in a think tank meeting about the future of information technology. ‘Would the robot replace industrial labour? Would the rise of the fax machine change the wholesale business? Would the Dutch metal industry survive?’ And more. According to some engineers sensors and data storage were the bottlenecks. The economists meant that the mild recession instigated by the mismanangement of the Bush (senior) government would soon become a worldwide crisis.

All of a sudden a well-dressed Englishman, a technical guru flown in to participate, joined the discussion saying that everyone was too pessimistic and too short-sighted. He stated that the development of the computer would lead to ‘the informatisation of everything’ (sic): all human actions and its effects would be logged continuously, be searchable, and at ever decreasing costs. This would not only improve the productivity and quality of labour, but also increase safety and help the environment.

At that meeting, this was met with disdain: everybody bombarded the guru with questions about how this was technically feasible, and lamented his lack of concrete answers. The think tank concluded: ‘bullshit’.

That was 1989, before the internet, google, and ubiquitous cell phones with cameras. Nowadays, when one buys – say – a raincoat (always handy in Holland), one can check on the manufacturer’s website where it’s designed, where the fabric comes from, where it was stitched together, and where it was distributed, and the carbon footprint of the jacket. And I’m sure all of you – especially those in the UK – are aware of how much the government can monitor your movements.

The column ends with the columnist mentioning how his daughter calls him, while riding her bike in the centre of Amsterdam, probably in sight of police cameras. He’s thinking of moving back to the small village from where his family originated (obviously because there is *less* social control there).

My take on this?

  • First: do not – absolutely not – assume that something is, by definition, impossible. Science and technology progress, often at a faster pace than we presume feasible, sometimes making the seemingly impossible reality in a mere two decades. So don’t take the easy way out by saying something *can’t* happen (which is a step worse than saying something *won’t* happen), but instead imagine it to be possible, and then attempt to extrapolate the consequences, because:

  • Second: no technology is ethically neutral. Each new technology will have both positive and negative effects on the life we live. The ongoing information revolution has improved our lives in certain areas (I’ll gladly admit that having information at my fingertips through the internet is a fantastic improvement, a killer app if you will), with the side effect that it also greatly lessened our personal privacy (governments and huge corporations know more about you than ever before).

Which brings us back into the realms of science fiction and my optimism rant: I like to think that if there were people that would be willing to think ahead, and think positively, that these would be prominent among SF writers. Nevertheless, my general impression is that the majority of SF writers (thank dog there are exceptions) predominantly portray how the future goes down the drain. Roughly speaking, greatly generalising (bear with me: I’m making a point, and sometimes a blanket statement works better than an overtly carefully worded argument that tries to take in every nuance, incorporates every exception, exception to the exception ad nauseam) they look like those think tank specialists who ridiculed the visionary.

Moreover, it’s much braver to visualise a better tomorrow, as most people simply won’t believe you. You’ll be ridiculed, dismissed, laughed at, and ignored. The mob sympathises with those who confirm their prejudices: life is shit, and things will get worse. I’m calling out to those who wish to stand out from the pack, and dare to lead the way.

Again: I’m not looking for euphoric utopias or pie-in-the-sky polyannas. But try to emphasize the positive aspects of future developments above the negative ones by acknowledging the latter (and attempt to rectify or lessen them) while being driven by the former.