Blindsided by the future – man’s tumbling

One sleepless German’s disconcerted existential rambling.

This post is written with 30 hours of user uptime, so please excuse rampaging grammar, spelling or logical mistakes.

Yesterday, Charles Stross, British science fiction-writing bloke, commented on an article published by The Economist concerning the growth and public acceptance of technology over time.

The conclusion of seeing something like a technological singularity in the article’s rather exponential graph might not be entirely without merit, but what bugged me even worse were quite different facts:

  1. The increasing complexity of the technology
  2. User’s inability to understand or even correctly use said technology


From the graph (which, if you shouldn’t have noticed yet, is show in Charles‘ post) we can see a rather simple trend: technology tends to get more complex. Whereas a train engine (disregarding high-tech additional thingamajig) is basically something that produces power strapped to something that moves on rails, a modern mobile phone (even an olden one) tends to be rather more complex than that principle; even when only regarding the microphone, transceiver and antenna bit of it.

What this inadvertently throws up: will new technology only be ever more complex? Do we always need previous technology to make or even understand new one? Will there still be the classic kind of intuitive discoveries, or will research have to be thoroughly planned to get anywhere? (And where will public sector academics end up?)


Another thing said graph implies – probably more noticable due ito its choice of representers – is that, in the future, we might not be able to properly understand or use our tech anymore.

„Why do you think that?“, you might say. Well, let’s take a look. A railroad, re. the rail system. Almost everybody knows how it works, and many people might even be able to explain you, in vague thoughts, about how a rail engine actually works (fuel goes in, thingie in front starts moving the whole train, train away). They also know how to use a train properly.

But people tend to have only a weak inkling of understanding for mobile phone technology, let alone use. Most of today’s mobile phones are not running on whatever power they are capable of, not even at close capacity (warning, assumptions are being made). How relevant Nokia’s slogan „connecting people“ is to modern life, few have understood.

The same can be said for the other recent technologies on that graph, like computers (the woes of tech support). There’s two possible explanations, for which data is lacking:

  1. People need lots of time to get fully used to new technology.
  2. People tend to adopt technology they do not understand more easily into their lives.

And both explanations‘ implications are rather scary. The first one can be a bit summarized by what Bre Pettis said at 24C3:

„Things are changing faster than we can die.“

There is just no time to get used to technology that by the time its successor arrives, we might not have even understood how to deal with the original.

Implication #2: people are stupid – news at 11. But: would we be able to recognize technology that is just going to screw us over big time soon enough to not make a total mess out of it?

There’s a lot of speculation on these grounds, mostly in singularity-themed novels; Simmons had the Great Accident in Hyperion, which made Earth go poof, and the Not-so-great-Accident in Ilium, which just made countries go poof a bit. Experiments with space-time and what can seriously go wrong are common topics, too. Stross just had the technological singularity itself as a threat in Accelerando, not exactly specific technologies; yet parallels exist.

So, if novelists are any cue to go about, we’re all doomed so bad that we can just stop trying. But there’s evidence that technology tends to get used before fully controlled or understood: nuclear fusion, for example. We know how to get power from nuclear fusion by doing the technological equivalent of juggling something hot from hand to hand so that we don’t get burned; one slip, and we’re buggered.

These might be only the ramblings of one sleepless German, but with any luck, we’ll survive our own stupidity long enough to see if we can profit from a technological singularity.

Autor: Tobias Wolter

Der Autor dieses Blogs fällt in die Kategorie jener seltsamen Menschen, die viel zu viel Zeit vor dem Computer verbringen, und ist somit auch in sozialer Hinsicht etwas anders gepolt als die meisten Menschen in dieser schönen neuen Welt, welche seine Heimat darstellt — daher auch der Titel des Blogs. Ganz dem Cliché folgend hat sich der Autor im Lauf seines Lebens schon einigen seltsamen Entscheidungen hingegeben, welche nicht ganz zeitgemäß scheinen, zum Beispiel den Verzicht auf eine gute Abiturnote zu Gunsten der eigenen Freizeit, die Ableistung des Wehrdienstes bei der Bundeswehr, im Gegensatz zur Annahme der Fluchtmöglichkeiten des Wehrersatzdienstes, und dem Studium der Mathematik an der Universität zu Köln. Zu finden ist er derzeit in Hürth bei Köln, wo er es immer noch nicht geschafft hat, durch exzessives Verlinken der Wikipedia sich sponsorn zu lassen.

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