Earlier in my career, with the help of the brilliant minds of my co-workers, we in the Navy CIO office hyped the idea that “the future is so bright we gotta wear shades,” a phrase we borrowed from the 1986 song, “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades” by Timbuk3. In the mid nineties, the future of information technology was truly bright and the world was radically changing with the exponential growth of networks connecting we humans to our growing client-server applications, our emerging personal smart phones and our new laptop computers. Since then we have witnessed the demise of the dot com boom and the bursting of the housing bubble that ushered in the 2008 depression we are starting to crawl out from under.
What hasn’t changed is the impact and importance of technology upon our future. In Niall Ferguson’s new book Civilizations / The West and the Rest, Ferguson points out that starting from the Scientific Revolution, about 1500 AD, the West rose to a position of global prominence because of the synergy of six “killer apps” that “allowed a minority of mankind originating on the western edge of Eurasia to dominate the world for the better part of 500 years.” Niall describes the confluence of events that drove the West forward as killer apps to equate that reality to our current computer-centric view of things that matter. His killer apps are:
- Property Rights
- The Consumer Society
- The Work Ethic
In considering these killer apps, one can surmise that the growth of knowledge through the institutionalized adaptation of science was a key to the West’s success. One could argue that killer apps 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are but enablers to help the growth of science and the technologies it has enabled. Just as technologies have been the largest determinant of global power, new technologies have also defined the beginning and growth of the world’s largest and most wealthy companies; witness Pennsylvania Railroad and Southern Pacific Railroad that emerged in the mid 1800’s, Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil in the late 1800s, DOW Chemical and Monsanto in the early 1900’s, Microsoft and Apple in the 1990’s, and most recently Google and Amazon in the early 2000’s. In each case, these companies were born of newer technologies that extracted value from the emerging science of the times.
While it is always tempting to be pulled down into the negative spiral of measuring humankinds future based upon what we know and understand today, it is instructive to remind ourselves that past luddite nay sawyers have been undermined by future technology that wasn’t visible at the time. In the March issue of the magazine NewScientist, the entire issue is dedicated to “The Deep Future” a guide to humanities next 100,000 years. In a short article by Richard Webb, he points out that basing future human failure upon the potential shortage of copper to conduct electricity, fails to allow for new inventions such as carbon fibers or other new technologies capable of addressing our human need for moving electrons as a source of heat, information, and transportation. In fact, moving electrons may also prove to be a legacy technology better addressed in the history museum than in predictions about our human future.
This same NewScience magazine issue also introduces an even newer magazine named Arc 1.1/The Future Always Wins. It promises to be an interesting publication. The last paragraph in the introduction of this new magazine provides a fitting summary to where the future is going to lead us:
“We don’t know where we’re going, and we don’t know how we’ll get there. There are no maps, the brakes don’t work, the driver’s blind and the doors have no handles. Enjoy the ride.”