Creative Disruption is a continuing series examining the impact of constantly accelerating technology on the world around us. These changes normally happen under our personal radar until we find that the world as we knew it is no more.
We Are All “Endless Newbies”
By John F. McMullen
On Sunday, May First, I had a great two hour interview (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/johmac13/2016/05/01/weekly-johnmac-radio-show) on my radio show (“The johnmac Radio Show”) with Kevin Kelly, futurist, photographer, world traveler, editor of the famed “Whole Earth Review,” co-founding editor of Wired Magazine, author of numerous books, including photography albums, anthologies, graphic novels, and non-fiction works relating to the impact of technology on our present and future worlds.
Kelly’s new, about-to-be-released, book, is impressive in its breadth and depth. “The Inevitable: Understanding The 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future” deals with where the world may go in the next 30 years from today.
In a previous column, I made mention of Steve Case’s “Third Wave,” a new book by the founder of AOL. In Case’s book, he writes of the progress from the early days of telecommunications to the almost totally wired world in which we now live and then uses that as a jumping off point to outline what he calls the Third Wave, “The Internet of Everything,” the period from 2016 forward where “Ubiquitous connectivity allows entrepreneurs to transform major real-world sectors” (ex. healthcare, education, government, etc.).
A good part of Case’s book is actually a memoir, taking us through his first exposure to Alvin Toffler’s 1980 book of the same name and the impact that it had on his life as it focused him on his desire to be part of this third wave – to quote Case “Toffler’s ‘Third Wave’ was the information age: an electronic global village, where people could access an endless array of services and information, participate in an interactive world, and build a community based not on geography but on common interests. He predicted the world as we know it today. His vision captivated me. I knew that I wanted to be part of that Third Wave. Indeed, I wanted to be part of making it happen.”
Kelly’s book, on the other hand, is not a memoir; rather it deals will the forces that will shape the world in this period. The key word here is “forces”; Kelly does not deal with specific inventions but exposes the reader to the forces or paths that will get us to specific inventions, programs, Apps, and /or ways of doing things.
Before going into the present book, it is well to briefly overview Kelly’s previous work, the 2010 “What Technology Wants.” A personal note – when I mentioned the book at that time to at least two separate friends, they each dismissed the title off-hand, saying something to the effect of “Technology is non-organic. It cannot want anymore than a rock can want.” Kelly answered this criticism in the book (as well as on the radio show) by writing “I needed even greater clarity on what kind of force flowed through technology. Was it really mere ghostly information? Or did technology need physical stuff? Was it a natural force or an unnatural one? It was clear (at least to me) that technology was an extension of natural life, but in what ways was it different from nature? (Computers and DNA share something essential but a MacBook is not the same as a sunflower.) It is also clear that technology springs from human minds, but in what categorical ways are the products of our minds (even cognitive like artificial intelligence) different from our minds themselves? Is technology human or nonhuman?”
Kelly spends some time wrestling with these questions and then decides that he must reluctantly create a term to “designate the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us. I call it the technium. The technium extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology innovation, and more self-enhancing connections.”
In short, this book is what Kelly later called “an offering of a theory of technology” and it is one that makes sense to me. If we look at this technium as a growing organism in which the development of electricity taken with the understanding of the wave spectrum gave birth to radio and, then the ingenuity of humans, educated in the underlying science of radio and electricity gave birth first to computers and then connected computers and that our cultural interest in music, art, and photography would result in our desire to digitize and share the works of those forms … and on and on into the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries as we more along with artificial intelligence, robotics, space travel, etc.
Every new technology break-through can be seen, in retrospect, as a result of the confluence of the scientific, cultural, environmental, and other forces of the period, all fed on by human intelligence. We can “connect the dots” as we look back but cannot connect them as we look forward. We will have to experience the growing pains as we move along.
The new book is a logical extension of the previous. Kelly want to acquaint us with the forces that that will guide us through the next thirty years, to really show how new things will develop rather that to pinpoint exactly what those new things are.
As a way of preparing the reader for the fact that we cannot predict the individual things, Kelly introduces us to the idea of “Endless Newbies.” He writes, “Technological life in the future will be a series of endless upgrades. And the rate of graduation is accelerating. Features shift, defaults disappear, menus morph. I’ll open a software package I don’t use every day, expecting certain choices, and whole menus will have disappeared.
“No matter how long you have been using a tool, endless upgrades make you into a newbie – the new user often seen as clueless. In this era of “becoming,” everyone becomes a newbie. Worse, we will be newbies forever. That should keep us humble.
“That bears repeating. All of us – everyone of us – will be endless newbies in the future simply trying to keep up. Here’s why: First, most of the important technologies that will dominate life 30 years from now have not been invented yet, so naturally you’ll be a newbie to them. Second, because the new technology requires endless upgrades, you will remain in the newbie state. Third, because the cycle of obsolescence is accelerating (the average lifespan of a phone app is a mere 30 days), you won’t have time to master anything before it is displaced. So you will remain in the newbie mode forever. Endless Newbie is the new default for everyone, no matter your age or experience.”
Some might find this depressing – I do not (neither does Kelly). I find it exciting.
Kelly’s approach to this makes sense as he explains the forces rather than try to pinpoint specifics. As he mentioned on the radio show, once we had computer communications over telephone lines, it was a foregone conclusion that there would be an Internet – but a profit or a non-profit one? Controlled by the government or private industry or almost no one? A national network or an international one? – And all this was before Wi-Fi, cable, etc.
I’m out-of-time and space – pre-order the book on Amazon or Barnes and Noble for early June delivery and while you wait, read the previous one. They are both engaging and make a lot of sense.
Back in 2 weeks!
I welcome comments on this piece to firstname.lastname@example.org.
John F. McMullen is a writer, poet, college professor and radio host. Links to other writings, Podcasts, & Radio Broadcasts at www.johnmac13.com, and his books are available on Amazon.
© 2016 John F. McMullen