Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Future: is already here - it's just not very evenly distributed

"The future is already here - it's just not very evenly distributed" ~  William Gibson

William Gibson's quote is usually taken to mean that the new technologies and ideas of the future are present in some form today - usually found in small numbers among leading edge innovators. It can be associated with Everett Rogers Diffusion of innovations theory about how innovations spread through society from a small leading edge of innovators who try out new stuff and then a slightly larger group of early adopters or "opinion leaders" and "trend setters" who are followed by the majority. Innovations diffuse through society - they become mainstream and normalised an the cycle repeats for each next new thing. We can see this cycle repeating in throughout history ... just think about how the automobile or the mobile phone have spread through societies in modern history.

 Everett Rogers Diffusion of innovations 

If we look around today we should be able to see the future among us in small numbers among the innovators - small experiments, pilots or examples of what might be. Today is one of the most exciting times I can think of in terms of nascent new technology among us - AI, VR, AR, robotics, 3D printing, wearable tech, IoT. Not all new things have a future ... in fact most will fail .. at least in the present ... and may stay as seeds that grow better at a later time when conditions  are more compatible - we see this today with AI and VR whose seeds were sowed decades ago but only now is the technology infrastructure available for these technologies to develop and diffuse.

Today AI is bubbling over with potential - every large tech company is investing time, money and effort to get on the AI bandwagon - there seems to be too much money at stake now for it to fail to take root and all the early adopter demonstrations and pilots indicate that it will take root and grow.

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology." ~ E. O. Wilson

There is another interpretation of Gibson's quote - its about human nature and repeats through history.

Resources have always been unevenly distributed and concentrated among a lucky few - today the richest 1% now has as much wealth as the rest of the world combined and the richest 62 people as wealthy as half of world's population.

The other interpretation of Gibson's quote about the future is that human nature will play out into the future as it plays out today and in the past and that resources will continue to be unevenly distributed and concentrated among a small number of rich and powerful.

Technology amplifies human capabilities ... it also amplifies human nature - both good and bad but in terms of wealth and power I fear technology will simply amplify inequality in the future ... as we enter an information revolution of exponential technology development could we also be entering an age of exponential inequality - the exponential amplification of inequality.

I am reminded of the film Elysium where the majority of people live in poverty and enslavement to a small rich and powerful "elite" who live in a luxury hi tech off-world space habitat. Technologies could be shared and diffused to everyone but they choose to keep the magic of new the technology to themselves and protecting their have and have-not need for identify and entitlement.

Technology combined with human nature can create a chasm - not in the sense that Geoffrey Moore meant but in the sense that a powerful "elite" will always seek to exploit the innovations at the leading edge using technology to amplify their advantage and as an unintended or even intended consequence amplifying inequality. The chasm is a barrier protecting the exclusivity of rich and powerful ... a sort of semi-permeable membrane - impermeable to the large majority to ever cross but through which small innovations osmotically diffuse to the majority as long as the rewards and power flow back to the elite.

In the drive to technologise everything do we risk amplifying inequality - amplifying the power of a "technology" elite ... we need to ask this question now every time we are offered a technology "solution" ... in education for example .... where will what I call "hard" Ed Tech lead us - the type of edtech that will spin out AI backed automated teaching systems. 

Science fiction is great at asking "what if" ... and in Walkaway Cory Doctorow asks "what if" the diffusion of innovation was reversed ... what if innovation happened with the majority first? 

"The mega-wealthy have fixed things for themselves by moving into fortified homes on high ground (and hiring private security armies to keep everyone else out). The masses are left to hustle for the dregs of what's left in the ultimate dystopian version of the "gig" economy. Yet technology—created under the aegis of the United Nations to help the displaced—has made "printing" all of life's basic necessities possible. Scrambling for the scraps left by the wealthy is increasingly unattractive.

The open source hardware and software capable of converting the wreckage and waste of the old world into the essentials for a new one has been hacked and enhanced to go far beyond that. Those enhancements have inspired an increasing number of people to walk away from "the default." They become post-scarcity pioneers who are creating a new world where intellectual and physical property rights have no hold."

If a radical new technology that could change everything happened with the majority first ... abundance ... anyone and everyone could have anything ... in such a reversal it would be the elite across the chasm who would be the disadvantaged - living with the scarcity they have defended for so long ... the fairy tale castle the elites live in across the chasm becomes more a dark castle prison of their own making.

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