Future Hype/Seidensticker reviewed

From: Damien Broderick (thespike@satx.rr.com)
Date: Sun Jun 18 2006 - 15:17:09 MDT

[ Here is a newspaper review, for a general audience, just published
in the Weekend Australian broadsheet ]

Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change
By Bob Seidensticker
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 254 pp

Reviewed by Damien Broderick

The future gets old fast. It seems to be dragging its feet. You can
get the feeling that the future's already come and gone. In the
1960s, it took less than a decade to put humans on the moon and get
them back safely. Forty years later, George Bush triumphantly
announces a return to the moon that will take twice as long to
accomplish. What's up with that?

Here's a startling example from fiction. The late Philip K. Dick is
Hollywood's favourite science-fiction writer. His stories, filled
with giddy invention, stress the hapless humans who find themselves
trapped in futures of massive insecurity. In 1960, Time Out of Joint
portrayed an Eisenhower-era man who suddenly realises that he's
living in 1997 when he stumbles into a roadside diner where two
schoolboys are eating. "Their hair had been wound up into
topknots.... metal bracelets on their arms... the boy's cheeks had
been tattooed." And teeth filed. This was a shockingly audacious
prediction in 1959, when Dick wrote it. It was simple sociological
observation 15 years later. But now, except in San Francisco, the
kids have gone back to dressing conservatively. Did someone let the
air out of the future's tires?

Even as the boosters tell you about tomorrow's cancer cures and
nanotechnology miracles, sceptics worry that our elegant mobile
phones are burning holes in our brains. You can't even trust
computers to keep pace. Five years ago, the price of desktop computer
components fell by one percent a week. Now the fall has slowed to one
percent a month. Shocking! What's worse, while today's computer has a
hundred times the grunt of the more expensive machine you bought a
few years ago, it surely doesn't make your life a hundred times
easier or more productive.

Bob Seidensticker wrote code for Microsoft for eight years, and has
spent a quarter century in the technology industry after learning
programming in high school around the time Philip Dick's predictions
were coming true prematurely. He is convinced that the popular
understanding of technology and its rate of change is a myth,
self-promotion mixed with misunderstanding. He intends to demystify
claims of accelerating change. It's not that he denies the reality of
change, or its impact, but he thinks it is steady as you go. He wants
to immunise us against the hype of a marketplace that reached its
crescendo in the dot-com era of glitz, and its collapse.

The book is chockablock with cautionary anecdotes, many of them
repeated several times in pretty much the same words. None of it, in
my view, proves the case he wants to make, but it's worth our
attention. The core of his evidence tracks the history of domestic
technologies whose appearance seemed miraculous, almost
instantaneous. Actually, each of these world-changing wonders took
decades to emerge from the chrysalis of invention and development.

Radio waited 23 years to penetrate a mere two percent of American
households.After seven more years, half of all households were
regular listeners. Television took 24 years to reach the two percent
mark, and six more years getting to 50 percent. We might suppose that
the personal computer burst upon the world much faster than those
mass media devices. Not so, Seidensticker insists. Actually it took
nearly 20 years just to climb to that 50 percent penetration point;
the Internet required 24 years to reach the two percent stage, then
another seven years until half the households were online.

Interesting, but so what? If someone announced a teleportation device
or a cure for baldness tomorrow, no doubt we would find that it'd
taken the same quarter of a century, or even longer, to develop the
supporting technology. Yes, Seidensticker provides a useful warning
to anyone expecting a technological apocalypse within the next five
years, but then how many people share that delusion? Some readers
might smile at this point, because I might seem to be just such a
flagrant booster of star-sprinkled futures with nano-icing on top (in
my 1997 book The Spike). I argued then and argue still that drastic,
accelerating advances in several converging technologies are very
likely to create a monstrous dislocation in human history sometime
this century, perhaps as soon as 2050 or even 2025.

There's a name for this generic forecast: the Singularity. Recently,
2500 techies gathered at an all-day colloquium at Stanford University
to explore such a future. Sometimes ridiculed as the Rapture of the
Nerds, the prospect has abruptly become visible to the mainstream, so
expect to see more sober denunciations by admonitory thinkers like
Seidensticker. But is he right? At Stanford, even the singularitarian
Dr. Nick Bostrom agreed that "I don't think the exponential trends
are quite as fast, robust, and reliable" as some argue.

On the other hand, the key to how fast future shock might develop,
shifting change into the ever faster lane, is the increasing
potential of those computers. True, software can bloat out to gobble
up all available memory space and computing speed. But I'm dictating
this review into a computer that cost about a week's work, and
despite a scattering of errors I had to fix by hand, it's done a
pretty good job. Twenty years ago, that prospect really would have
been science-fiction. Watch the skies, Mr Seidensticker!

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