Archaeology of the Future

The book that caught the possibilities of a future digital world for me was William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Here is Case, dermatrodes strapped to his forehead and waiting impatiently to get into Simstim:

Cyberspace slid into existence from the cardinal points. Smooth, he thought, but not smooth enough. Have to work on it. Then he keyed the new switch. The abrupt jolt into other flesh. Matrix gone, a wave of sound and color…. She was moving through a crowded street, past stalls vending discount software, prices felt penned on sheets of plastic, fragments of music from countless speakers. Smells of urine, free monomers, perfume, patties of frying krill.

I’ve re-read Neuromancer because I’ve been asked to provide a short segment for a course about our future digital world. What kind of devices will we be using ten years from now? What will advances in artificial intelligence and robotics bring? What will be good, and what will be bad? The answer is simple – we cannot know. The more interesting question is why it is that we cannot know.

When Neuromancer was first published in 1984, I was using an Apple II, with a big monochrome monitor, two floppy disc drives and a box with 28 kb of RAM. There was no wrap-around text and a word could be underlined by putting a six figure code before and after. Thirty years later, Apple’s top of the range phones each have the power of about 70 000 Apple IIs. This is what exponential change looks like. It’s the realization of Gordon Moore’s insight, in 1965, that digital processing power would double every two years or so. Ten years from now, the iPhone 6S will also be an antique; the Apple II is a collector’s item, fetching upwards of $1000.

Humans haven’t experienced the steeper slopes of exponential change before. There of course been disruptive innovations, but these have launched a new equilibrium that has shaped a new normality that has lasted for a reasonable length of time: railways, motorcars, air travel, the telephone, nuclear power. Earlier, technologies remained stable for hundreds of years, and before that for millennia.

As exponential change accelerates – which it must do by definition – it becomes more and more difficult to predict the future because the trends that we deduce from the past become irrelevant. Other than its brand and the use of digital code, the Apple II has nothing in common with the iPhone, and there’s nothing in its design that could have foretold what its linear successor would be like. Consequently, it seems sensible to assume that there’s nothing in today’s leading edge technologies that can tell us what the future of our own lifetimes can bring.

Given this, imagination seems a good bet. Archaeologists are imagineers of the past; we work with fragments and remnants, as much logic as we can muster, and a good deal of informed speculation to put together plausible scenarios. Looked at in this way, gifted science fiction writers like Gibson are the archaeologists of our futures.

For a few frightened seconds he fought helplessly to control her body. Then he willed himself into passivity, became the passenger behind her eyes. The glasses didn’t seem to cut down the sunlight at all. He wondered if the built-in amps compensated automatically. Blue alphanumerics winked the time, low in her left peripheral field. Showing off, he thought. Her body language was disorienting, her style foreign. She seemed continually on the verge of colliding with someone, but people melted out of her way, stepped sideways, made room. ….

Neuromancer does a pretty good job of anticipating Second Life, on-line gaming, the use of avatars and the darker side of the Web. The haptic dimensions of virtual reality – the taste, touch and smell of Simstim that Case experiences through his dermatrodes – are still novelties for us.

Our digital futures, then, cannot be predicted from the technologies of the present because the past becomes irrelevant so quickly. It is this speed of change that is truly new and revolutionary, and a phenomenon that is little understood.

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