Winter 2007

Predictive text

Steve Hare
Technology special [EXTRACT]

A short history of the future can only start with a look at yesterday’s latest thing

Where do you start with the future? I guess the recent past is as good as anywhere: nothing is quite so dated as yesterday’s latest thing.

‘We’ve all smiled at predictions from the past that look silly today,’ Bill Gates reminded us twelve years ago in The Road Ahead, ‘such as the family helicopter and nuclear power “too cheap to meter”. History is full of now ironic examples – the Oxford professor who in 1878 dismissed the electric light as a gimmick; the commissioner of US patents who in 1899 asked that his office be abolished because “everything that can be invented has been invented”.’

When I started (long before the age of Gates) I typed out scripts on a manual typewriter, and made carbon copies for my files. If I had a question about the text I’d phone the client or write. The script would be posted and a week or so later would return with amendments. I’d retype the whole thing with changes. After a while I acquired a green-screen Amstrad word processor (with no hard drive) and a fax machine, and the whole editing and writing process speeded up.

Designers with equally long memories have parallel tales of Letraset, tracing paper and overlays. Today’s technology doesn’t necessarily help us write or design any better, but it certainly makes things faster, and affords clients easy access into many of the processes involved (and, by extension, the occasional urge to tinker). You cannot expect to democratise technology and not have ‘ordinary’ people getting involved – and (occasionally) becoming expert at it.

These days I’m no longer impressed by the fact that I could easily email the entire hard drive of my last-but-two computer; that my telephone is probably the best camera I’ve ever owned; that a record collection I needed a car to shift now resides in a thing the size of ten Woodbines. More worrying is the invisible trail you leave online throughout the working day – and the entirely visible piles of recently outmoded technology we scatter in our wake. John Maeda, associate director of research at MIT’s Media Lab, summed it up perfectly for me: ‘Change is inevitable in the context of progress. The garbage we leave for our future generations is a reminder that we were right to progress forward, and wrong as well.’

Carsten Beck, of the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, believes this will change, but not necessarily because we finally address our enormous waste of finite resources: ‘Individualisation will be the strongest driver in relation to it. In the past we had “tech wizards” presenting us with the latest gadget or feature. In the future it will be the other way round: I will present some individual needs that technology might help me solve. And if the standard solutions are not good enough, I will search my networks to find people with similar problems / interests. People will want to be co-creators of solutions.’ [...]