Special Report

Technology Will Take on a Life of Its Own

Technology Will Take on a Life of Its Own

It was the double date we had looked forward to more than any other. Just before sunset on a hot August day in Los Angeles, we sat in a nearly empty hotel restaurant awaiting the arrival of one of the most influential husband-and-wife intellectual teams in history: Alvin and Heidi Toffler.

They may be octogenarians now, but pick up a copy of the Tofflers’ most famous books — Future Shock (1970) and The Third Wave (1980) — and you will quickly wonder why anyone bothers to write the redundant meta social and political commentaries that drown us today. These books, written when we were children, contain such stunning and prescient insights, encapsulated in elegant yet racing prose, that they ought to be essential reading four decades onward. Indeed, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking they had just been published this year.

Terms and concepts that are on the tip of everyone’s tongue today leap off the pages: the crisis of industrialism, the promise of renewable energy, ad-hocracy in business, the rise of the non-nuclear family, technology-enabled telecommuting, the power of the pro-sumer, sensors embedded in household appliances, a gene industry that pre-designs the human body, corporate social responsibility, “information overload” — and yes, right there on p. 292 of The Third Wave, the phrase Wired magazine can’t get enough of today: “DIY Revolution.” No wonder the book has been dubbed the “classic study of tomorrow.” (Of the very few things they seem to have gotten wrong, or at least not yet right, is widespread polygamist communes.)

In person, the Tofflers were just as insightful, making connections between America’s congressional deadlock, Asians’ obsession with high technology, and the inertia of Mideast politics. But what’s so extraordinary about the Tofflers is not what they told us in that restaurant, but their long-ago insights about today’s society that seem so relevant now, especially considering that many were not at all obvious at the time. Where conventional wisdom of the era saw mass industrialization turning common citizens into straitjacketed “mass man,” the Tofflers saw stratification and functional differentiation generating a superindustrial society with a “quilt-like” diversity. And where the public was either ignorant or complacent about the far-reaching effects of advanced communications technology, the Tofflers foresaw telephony and virtual worlds that would force us to devise ever more creative ways to avoid overstimulation and preserve our privacy. From the vantage point of a present in which overexposure to the Internet is labeled an addiction, it seems quite an observation on their part to recognize that even diseases would be technologically generated. The Tofflers’ “future shock” is at once a sickness and a way of life.

Clearly, the Tofflers — now writing one last book, their memoirs — still have cutting-edge ideas to offer. Just as importantly, they are their own best argument for the profession they invented: futurism. But how did they do it?

While the field may have gotten its name from the fascist Italian poet Filippo Marinetti, who authored a brief and obscure “Futurist Manifesto in 1909, the Tofflers made futurism a true calling — something that one does. And they did it the hard way. Growing up in post-Depression America, they abandoned New York City and moved to the heartland, working for years as welders and union stewards at aluminum foundries and mills, experiencing all the hardship of industrialism at its peak. Only that way could they truly break it down and imagine what would come next.

Predicting the future is not about locking yourself in a room, staring into a crystal ball. It is, in a sense, reporting — getting to the people and ideas on the bleeding edge. Through persistent travel, site visits, interviews, and embedding themselves like journalists, the Tofflers used their imagination to piece together an elusive future. The Tofflers didn’t make any scientific discoveries, invent a new technology, or launch a brand-name business, but they pioneered a new vocabulary to capture how such activities intersect. How many mainstream books from the 1970s spoke of the multiplication of media channels enabling individuals to construct their own reality, or of the separatist region of Abkhazia in the then-Soviet republic of Georgia?

IN THE THIRD WAVE, the Tofflers foresaw that advanced societies would no longer be content to see humankind as the pinnacle of evolution. Instead, they wrote, we are moving into a brave new world where knowledge will become an inexhaustible commodity and transform not just our economies but more deeply our sense of who we are — and “not just for a generation, but forever,” as they put it.

A generation later, it is time to revive the Tofflers’ methodology as we try to understand an incipient future in which technology has insinuated itself into every sphere and nook of human activity — from the manipulation and replication of DNA to space exploration — and in which humans continuously seek ways to speed up their biological evolution to match the breakneck pace of technological evolution. The only way to do that is to incrementally integrate with technology, launching an era of change and innovation that we call the Hybrid Age. If the first wave was agrarian and tribal, the second industrial and national, and the third informational and transnational, then the Hybrid Age is what the Tofflers might call the “Fourth Wave.” In this new era, human evolution has become human-technology co-evolution: We’re becoming part of the machine, and it is becoming part of us.

There is no adequate word in English to capture this complex entanglement of humans and technology. The German word Technik comes closest: It means not just technology, but the mastery of the methods and processes that shape and steer it. In today’s emerging world, Technik can be something of a broad index of preparedness for the future Hybrid Age. It rejoins the scientific and mechanical dimensions of technology with a necessary concern for its effect on humans and society. So while today we talk about promoting democracy, tomorrow we will realize we should be promoting good Technik.

Five characteristics differentiate this Hybrid Age from those that came before it: the ubiquitous presence of technology, its growing intelligence, its increasingly social dimensions, its ability to integrate and combine in new forms, and its growing power to disrupt, faster and on a larger scale than ever before in human history.

First, computers have become exponentially more powerful and cheaper at the same time. This trend is likely to continue for at least another decade, after which DNA computing — literally using enzymes and molecules instead of silicon chips — could bring us even cheaper nanoscale computers. Soon, extremely small computing machines and sensors will move from our smartphones and laptops into every single object we encounter in our daily lives, including our bodies. IBM estimates that by 2015, there will be 1 trillion devices connected to the Internet, constantly recording and sharing information. We will literally live in technology.

Second, technologies will no longer be just dumb repositories of information that require humans to understand and process them. They will be intelligent, able to understand the data they collect and work both autonomously and in concert with each other. When IBM computer Watson trounced two human competitors on the game show Jeopardy this February, it was a great breakthrough in artificial intelligence: By answering questions that required contextual understanding, Watson exhibited language comprehension, the highest marker of human intelligence — and few Americans batted an eyelash. Someday, we will look back at those three nights as the moment the Hybrid Age became real.

Third, both the form and function of technologies will become anthropomorphic. Voice- and gesture-based commands will make interaction with machines more natural, and they will respond and react to us almost like humans. Even though their intelligence will be inferior to ours, we will find ourselves forming emotional ties to them. The love you have for your iPhone is just the beginning. In Japan, a young man recently married a video-game character. The more we immerse in online and virtual environments, the more our online behavior shapes our “real” behavior rather than simply mirroring it.

Fourth, technology will combine in new and powerful ways. Forget about the Internet: As scientific fields ranging from neuroscience and biology to mathematics and physics mingle and mate, they’ll produce new technological offspring capable of unimagined prowess. Already, the Hybrid Age is moving us well beyond information technology into entire new sectors like biotechnology, nanotechnology, clean technology, artificial intelligence, and robotics, as well as invigorating traditional ones like industrial manufacturing and energy production. The falling cost of computing has unleashed collaboration across scientific fields and given rise to whole new arenas of invention. Biomechatronics, for example, brings together biology, electrical engineering, and physics to create lifelike prosthetics that are almost as good as our natural human limbs.

Lastly, the Hybrid Age is not only one of increasing technological presence, but also technological disruption. Brian Arthur, a professor at the Santa Fe Institute, writes in The Nature of Technology that unlike humans, technology can mature, diversify, and scale at an accelerating pace. The more technologies that exist, the greater the number of combinatorial possibilities, resulting in ever newer and more complex products that revolutionize industries. This has already happened with jet engines and semiconductors and is now under way with software and carbon nanotubes, whose combination of strength, elasticity, and thermal-conduction properties could revolutionize everything from bone repair to batteries. This means we will constantly witness technologies blowing apart old business models as they come to market faster than ever.

And it’s not just business models that will be affected. Take the coming advent of do-it-yourself manufacturing. At first blush, the United States’ first-mover advantage in developing these affordable designer devices will empower its mom-and-pop shops to tailor-make niche products at cut-rate costs, threatening China’s manufacturing base while reviving the U.S. economy. But if China suddenly loses revenue to America’s heartland, how will it continue to recycle its vast foreign exchange reserves into U.S. Treasury bonds? In the end, one technological innovation in the United States could lead to its interest rates skyrocketing and economy tanking (again). Be careful what you wish for: The Hybrid Age is also an age of disruption.

IN THE HYBRID AGE, what distinguishes societies from one another is not just their geography, their culture, their income level, or other traditional factors, but their capacity to adapt to exponentially changing technological circumstances. We don’t live in different places so much as we live in different stages of Technik.

In the 1970s, the Tofflers estimated that several million people were living “in the future” due to their degree of technological connectedness and faster pace of life. Today several million people in Tokyo alone live “in the future.” Japanese society has robots teaching classrooms of teenagers, robo-pets monitoring and providing companionship to the elderly, and a cutting edge of young people with virtual avatars as lovers. The conventional analysis of Japan is that the country is “dying” because of its sharp demographic decline, but it is every bit as much evolving. Even a country still as overwhelmed by poverty as India is finding that it can elevate its Technik through high mobile-phone penetration, a biometric national identity card scheme, digital kiosks in dusty villages, and a sophisticated Right to Information Act that requires publishing all laws on the Internet.

As we move into the Hybrid Age, whoever has the capacity to manage the intersection of technology, capital, and identity can become a pole of power. Politics will be recentered on not just the state, but four diverse, overlapping Cs: countries, cities, companies, and communities. Already we see the narrative shifting away from 19th-century dogmas such as “governments provide security and prosperity” toward a recognition that most governments are at best regulatory. Instead we hear that the private sector generates growth and prosperity, which in turn create stability. Governments range from those that have the resources to remain active shapers of political and economic identity (Singapore, China) to those where public and private are struggling to find a workable division of labor (Europe, the United States) to those that seem to do little at all (much of the post-colonial world). Employees of Facebook or Google can spend their days on campuses that are effectively full-service communes; the same is happening in companies in Russia, India, and China. One day a corporate passport might afford them greater freedom of mobility than their national citizenship.

In the Hybrid Age, we may all be suffering from a new kind of identity crisis. Instead of a world of West vs. East and democracies vs. dictatorships, we will be in a more complex reality where actors ranging from cities to diasporas to corporations to cloud communities struggle and compete to boost their Technik. Some governments will provide Technik for their citizens; others will fail. Megacorporations may gain loyalty and constituents by offering affordable Technik. And those that fail to do so will fall behind.

What truly differentiates the Hybrid Age from previous revolutionary periods is that it will become global very quickly. Billions of the world’s poor from Africa to India are already participating in technological experimentation and have themselves become innovators of paradigm-shifting services. In India, about 10 million new mobile connections are activated every month. In Kenya, local engineers developed the mobile-phone banking system Safaricom that made many traditional banks in the country immediately redundant. Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conferences, calls such disruption “crowd-accelerated innovation.” Thus the poor will play an unexpected role in the Hybrid Age, using technology to create opportunities for themselves and disruptions for the developed world.

And yet we have not even begun to grasp the implications of human-technology co-evolution. Are you sure that studying insane hours for years on end in medical school is such a good idea when already 75 percent of prostate-cancer surgeries in the United States are robot-assisted? How about the impact of life-extension treatments when governments have yet to adjust their retirement and pension policies to a world in which life expectancy in wealthy societies crosses 75 years, let alone 100 years? Is it only Chinese and Iranian cyberhackers we have to fear, or perhaps also artificially intelligent software programs hijacking markets without any prior warning?

The age in which international relations experts could claim to understand the world is fast waning. Welcome to the Hybrid Age, where such restrictive labels are a thing of the past and paradigm-shifting change happens in multiple arenas and at multiple speeds all at once. As Alvin Toffler astutely noted, “The future arrives too soon and in the wrong order.”

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