The 19th century culture was defined by the novel; the 20th century culture was defined by the cinema; and the culture of the 21st century will be defined by the interface.
In his fascinating TED talk (see previous post), Aaron Koblin opens with this tweet from a “wise media theorist.” The globalizing effect of digital technology is seen everywhere, but perhaps most forcefully in its collaboration with consumerism: Our gadgets. Our phones, our tablets, and everything in between (soon to be our watches, armbands, and glasses…). The cultural assimilation of technology has been so vast and so fast that even our concept of certain teaching roles has reversed: The young now instruct the old on how to operate within modern society’s technical structure. Such acceleration has spurred many to consider what exactly the future will hold, stretching from wild projections of catastrophic failure to AI takeovers and more (the media, of course, being the ever-present goad to such considerations).
Quite frankly, I don’t believe that we will fail as a species, or be overthrown, or spiral into some degraded state of inhumanity, should we continue to pursue machine idealism as we have done for the past hundred years. I think the human race is a hell of a lot more resilient than that. However, I do believe that there is both more potential and more interest in recognizing that computers offer not a series of solutions but rather a set of new questions.
Immersing into this field can be exhilarating, but also exhausting: Learning to swim by jumping into a lake is one thing, but learning to swim by jumping into a swiftly-moving river is entirely another. I am equally as excited as I am cautious – whichever one dominates is subject to change by the day, if not the hour. I am encouraged, however, by what seems to be a growing interest in recognizing our own humanity as an inherent player in this game. For too many years, the view of technological development as the search for AI (Artificial Intelligence – the “robot brain,” or, more correctly, the “robot mind”) has trumped the more appropriate, and, IMHO, more exciting, search for IA (Intelligence Augmentation). Bypassing any discussion of evolutionary leap versus debilitating crutch, there is one thing that this distinction recognizes that is key to future progress: Computers and humans don’t, and shouldn’t, compete for the same tasks.
And so, the interface changes. Having become suffused with technology, we turn our focus towards its minimization. Push it to the corner of our vision, free our hands, offload it from the forefront of our attention to the back burner, leaving us free to deal with larger (or maybe smaller) considerations. Allowing us more time to direct, or step back or forwards or sideways. Free to breathe, free of objectification and optimization. Free to play.
Innovation has always been fueled by tinkerers…The interesting thing about makers is that we create out of passion and curiosity, and we are not afraid to fail. We often tackle problems from unconventional angles, and in the process end up discovering alternatives or even better ways to do things.
There is a corollary to this, however. The world continues to adopt a bottom-up, DIY culture, spawned by the proliferation of YouTube tutorials and manifested in the likes of Kickstarter campaigns and White House petitions. Modern man has the ability to figure out HOW to do almost whatever he wants and is promised an almost unlimited ability to realize such goals through the magic of crowdsourcing – perhaps the most concrete realization of this dream is the advent of 3D printing. While these trends may be fleeting, I believe they reveal a larger cultural mindset. Soon, we say, we will be able to control and design every aspect of our environment. Masters of our worlds, we will be able to fine-tune them to our every whim. Our abilities are augmented farther than ever before, and I fear this swell will cause even more decentralization than it has already encouraged. Our faith in rigid structures is failing, and while there is some merit for specific aspects of this doubt, I hope we do not become overconfident in our individual abilities.
I am going to save the real content of this thought for another post, another time – one, it merits its own branch, and two, I fear it will pull me too far away from the writing and thinking I NEED to be doing in order to wrap up my undergraduate work. I will leave you instead with a quote from English poet Robert Browning, and allow you to consider your own position on the topic:
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?