The integrated circuit continues to drastically decrease in size every year. At the same time, new breakthroughs are shrinking the physical size of data memory at an astonishing rate (Lew Rockwell’s article concerning this phenomenon). The incredible capacity for computing power and data storage in such small objects will certainly produce technologies that have resided solely in the realm of science fiction up until now. But how have these advances affected our lives? And how will they shape the world around us as we continue to slide into the future?
As I was considering the implications of these recent advancements, my mind flashed back to a film that was shown on the first day of a sociology course in college (that I did not actually take). It was Fritz Lang's Metropolis, in which the thinkers and planners of the titular city-state live above ground in luxury, whilst the majority of the populace are laborers who toil below monitoring and maintaining the machines that run the great metropolis. The film itself is a technological marvel when one considers how long ago it was created, and yet how rich and complex it still is. Most importantly, though, it provides us with a good reference point so that we can look at how some forward-thinkers of the past considered how technology would influence the future of humanity.
Instead of machines getting bigger, as they did in Metropolis, electronic computers came into being and forced our scientists to think smaller. As computers and computer chips were reduced in size, they became much cheaper and more readily available to the public for entertainment and work. With smaller, cheaper parts, technologists were able to fit more features into our devices. As our technology became more efficient, humans were able follow suit and increase their productivity. The typewriter, television, telephone, newspapers, maps, phone books, and even our friends can now be all crammed into one nifty device like the iPhone.
Some of our brightest minds have been relegated to improving processing power, increasing efficiency, and fitting ever more features into smaller devices. True innovation, however, has begun to stagnate in our current technology industries. This is because innovation is not always profitable and can usurp the established power structure. It seems the philosophy of today is "why think outside of the box when you can just put another box inside?" Heron of Alexandria invented the steam engine, wind wheel, and even programming 2,000 years ago, but because slave labor was so readily available, these innovations had little practical purpose besides amusement and exploiting the masses with "magic." Similarly, when the United States finally abandoned slave labor in the 19th century, continued profits required the inventions that we saw come into fruition in the 20th century.
So where are the workers of our world today? Were they saved from the grim future that Fritz Lang had envisioned? No, not exactly. They are still resigned to the depths, but in a more metaphorical sense than what Fritz had imagined. Instead of being literal slaves to literal massive machines, workers now serve much more complex machines and masters.
People around the world (like me) file into office buildings where they are confined to cubicles and are deprived of the natural world. All of their work is done on the computer, their one portal to the outside. This digital world replaces the outside "real" world, even in simple interactions with colleagues, who would rather instant message than take off their headphones and walk a few feet to communicate face-to-face. Even at home, people feel drawn to their computers to answer emails, finish up work, and continue monitoring a globalized world that does not sleep.
But shouldn't this increased productivity be increasing wages? Is it not helping to improve the quality of our lives? The answer is complicated and multi-faceted, but in general I believe it to be a resounding "no". Sure, many people have more "things" these days, but material wealth is never the whole story. Since the microchip came into being, more and more money has been allocated to fewer and fewer people. Those in the 80s with some computing power and a good understanding of algorithms had a good shot at making a killing on Wall Street due to the inefficiencies of the stock market.
Today, companies hire software engineers who can automate out many positions that were once held by humans. The more efficient that a company becomes, the less human workers that are needed, which results in higher profits. Along with all of the recent advances made in technology, wages have still continued to decline among American workers, especially as jobs continued to be outsourced to countries with cheaper labour. The "bread-winner" is becoming a thing of the past as multiple family members are forced to get jobs to support our high-tech lifestyles.
Another side-effect of the increased reliance on technology is the poor health of the American populace. Workers sit in chairs staring at computer screens for hours upon hours a day, getting up only occasionally for coffee or bathroom breaks. This increasingly indoors and sedentary lifestyle is reflected in the dramatic increase in obesity, depression, and the overall malaise that can be seen across our society. Because many of these workers reside in cities and do not arrive home until dark, they are forced back into more buildings if they choose to improve their health. Just like in their cubicles, people line up side by side on machines to get their daily dose of exercise and artificial sun. Sadly, I have come across many people who seem so accustomed to this lifestyle that they appear to enjoy it. Many seem indifferent and uninterested in the natural world from which they arose, as it is foreign to them.
It is worrisome that our government is spending taxpayers' dollars to develop our worst performing students in public schools, while neglecting our smartest. They need people who are able enough to build, maintain and monitor their machines, but not understand the resulting consequences in the world above their heads. They require people who can be resigned to an existence lacking in passion, spirit, and creativity as long as their most basic needs are met. Conversely, the "elites" in liberal arts colleges are discouraged from learning anything too technical or practical. It is within this system that the inventions of today are being realized.
So what are some of these new technologies that might come about by this push toward the infinitesimal? It is hard to say for certain, but it is apparent that it will result in a further merging between our physical world and the digital world. One of the best places to look for information concerning our future is, of course, within the minds of the best science fiction writers. William Gibson's novel Idoru (1996) is becoming increasingly relevant, as our technology is finally catching up with and being influenced by this man's mind (yet again). In the novel, Gibson envisions a user interface far removed from the clumsy mouse, keyboard, monitor combo that has plagued us since the 80s. Cyberspace (a term coined by Gibson in 1982) will become far more like the space of the real world in the ways in which we interact with and view it. Artificial intelligence will continue to advance to the point where it is difficult to define what exactly "emotion" and "humanity" truly are. The extremely small will be used to construct the very large, as nanotechnology is used to construct objects in our real world. At the conclusion of the novel, all of these innovations coalesce as the idoru (an AI female pop-star) is about to literally move from the digital world into the physical world through the use of the nanotechnology and AI.
None of this seems very far-fetched. Already, the line between our real world and the world of 1s and 0s is quickly becoming blurred. As our technology gets smaller, its applications become ever more expansive. Just imagine the ways in which it could affect our physical bodies. Instead of having an invasive surgery to clear a blocked artery, one can instead use tiny robots to travel through the blood stream and fix the problem. Much like the way our newer cars can be plugged into a computer to run a complete diagnostic check, so will we be able to use our nanotechnology to identify and troubleshoot our problems. Robotics limbs, artificial organs and tissue will come into greater prominence, as well. For anyone able to afford it, which might be a select few considering rising healthcare costs, nanotechnology could very well be the "fountain of youth".
As business becomes decentralized, the office in which I sit will be a thing of the past. People will be able to conduct business from the comfort of their homes. They will have meetings in any sort of virtual reality landscape they choose; perhaps even a virtual boardroom for the dull minded. Information can be shared and discussed in a way never imagined by those accustomed to the ultra-lame videoconference of today. One may never even meet coworkers in real life and only “know” their avatars. Many who have worked in an office building might agree that this would be preferable!
However fantastic some of these innovations might end up being, it seems inevitable that a counterculture that rejects this integration of technology into our lives will arise. It will occur when more people realize that if they simply require and desire less, they will not have to spend nearly as much of their lives working. They will stop consuming frivolously and becoming indentured servants to debt. This shift in thinking will cause people to move away from the high-paying jobs and expensive lives of the cities. They will go back to the simple life of the country, close to nature, which is undoubtedly the most efficient producer and consumer there is. These pioneers will show others that "success" does not mean making money, but rather finding happiness.