Human progress is more than technological progress

Futurists, people who try to imagine what the future will be like, often think in terms of technology. Judging the progress of humanity by technology alone is similar to judging the progress of history by wars alone. We have come a tremendous way in providing agriculture and domesticated animals so that we no longer have to hunt and gather to survive, nor create our own clothing or build our own personal shelters, and we have managed to create tremendous interdependent societies of commerce. Technology has afforded us this.

However, as technology empowers us more and more, the overarching problem facing us becomes less and less one of technical ability, and more and more one of imagination. This is where artificial intelligence research fails; it is not a problem of technology. We are awash in a world of computers and software, in which it is far more important to have imagination than to have better technology. What we really need progress in is culture.

I am a musician, and I find the current state of music culture very deficient. Thank God the music “industry” is faltering, and the internet is affording a new freedom and economy of distribution to emerge. I am eagerly awaiting the effects of the long tail effect (The Long Tail). I have always thought that we have plenty of Bachs and Mozarts and Stravinskys still walking around, but the supposed “market” is now uninterested in their genius; meaning, it won’t sell in Wal-Mart. Academic “legitimate” music has evolved into a backwater of hyper-intellectualized bilge that no one, even the composers, wants to really listen to. On the other hand, pop music has evolved into a vapid wasteland of largely repetitive 2 dimensional tripe. What happened?

We have sunk almost all of our societal genius and effort and education into technology and capitalistic entrepreneurialism. (Notice how music is really viewed largely as being a part of “Youth Culture”, and intelligent grown men and women are left with dead white-guy music if they want music that is listenable and intelligent.) It is coming time when the champion to emerge in the marketplace will not be the technologist or the venture capitalist, but the one with imagination. The iPhone, for example, is not a triumph of technology, it is a triumph of DESIGN – imagination. Note that the iPhone is an assemblage of a lot of existing technologies, but the assemblage alone would be no triumph at all. It is the tasteful and artful design of the whole which makes it a success.

I am a database designer. People often misunderstand what I do; they think I am a “programmer”. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the careful and insightful analysis of the complex work patterns of people, and the artful production of spare and functional and beautiful interfaces which are at the heart of my work. Thus it is very much true that it is not the technology which drives what I do, but imagination. I believe that more and more, as technology progresses, it will succeed in that it enables us to be more human, more imaginative, more collaborative. More than approaching a singularity in which humanity loses its control and personality, we are approaching an explosion of far greater individual empowerment and creative potential than the world has ever seen. This is a fantastic time to live!

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  1. I knew Mozart. He was playing "Green Acres" at a piano bar in Dallas to keep his lights on. The emphasis here appears to be about designing functionality & utility. It's true the iPhone is an amalgam of previous technologies. So is the automobile. But like the automobile, the iPhone and iPod have redefined lifestyle. This transcends efficiency and funcionality. These are technologies which enable people to live in new ways. Such transcendence was not planned or even foreseen, but it was capitalized on. Humans are quite innovative in creating technology. Humans are less capable of inventing new ways of living together and treating one another. The primitive parts of our brains only seem to be given new technological expressions.

  2. For good or ill, the future of the human race appears inexorably linked to technological advancement. This point raises three thoughts. 1. SciFi is replete with examples that we sow the seeds of our own destruction. Technology gets out of hand, advances beyond our collective maturity level, or has unforseen blowback down the line. 2. There is ever greater specialization. In the 19th Century, one might know everything there was to know within a discipline. There were conceptual overlaps between disciplines. Nowdays, one physicist can't make head or tail from what the other physicist is doing right down the hall. And it's getting worse. 3. The final point concerns publicc policy. Since experts can't understand the work of other experts within their own field, how much more in the dark are the lawyers, ideologues and other characters which comprise legislative bodies these days. Legislators are responsible for creating public policy, for resourcing projects, for protecting future generations. But ordinary folks can't know the technology. Only very narrow experts know the technology. Technology is created without conscience (i.e. the atomic bomb0. It is up to the policy makers to provide the conscience. How can they provide direction and make decisions if they don't undertand what their choices are? How can they say we'll fund this and not fund that when either field could yield disaster or salvation? A people depending on technological salvation must wrestle with the above issues.

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