Technology vs. Prediction

July 12, 2017

I recently read a Pew report on the future of the Internet of Things, full of opinions on how people may choose to adopt or reject IoT products and services based on security, convenience and richness of experience, among others. 

Invariably, all these predictions are going to be a little wrong — some of them a lot wrong. It's a complicated business.

It’s complicated in part because no technology exists all by itself. There are things that haven’t been invented yet that will make new scenarios possible and others irrelevant. Even the development and adoption of relatively “simple” technologies sometimes don't make a lot of sense at first glance.

It seems weird that the bicycle was invented around 1819 but didn't catch on with the masses until almost the turn of the 20th century. It took 70 years partly because there weren't a lot of paved roads and inflatable tires hadn't been invented yet, making for a bumpy and potentially dangerous ride. Also, roads tended to be covered with four inches of manure (did I mention cars hadn’t been invented yet?). Imagine bicycling to your friend's house, enduring the bumps and jostles and horse poop and probably sweating through your clothes and accoutrements just to listen to someone play the hammered dulcimer for four hours — or whatever it is people did back then for fun on a Saturday evening. And that's if you didn't fall off your five-foot tall penny-farthing and break your collarbone. 

Anyway, many New Things that sail under the bright, billowing flag of The Internet of Things tend to be remote controls and sensors that can reach across the Earthly Planet of Actual Physical Things. Now, I can be sure my garage door is closed and turn off the light in the bathroom even if I’m not home and I can compulsively check them throughout the day. So, in the future, will I simply flee my home each morning without feeding the cats or locking the door, instead choosing to do those things as I drive... er, I mean, as my car drives me to work?

Speaking of which, autonomous cars might arrive just in time to save us from ourselves. If my daily commute is any indication, I think I’d rather take my chances with a bunch of robots than the current crop of humans who are paying close attention to their smartphones and only partial attention to their Automotive Realities. Of course, there will probably be a couple of high-profile incidents we’ve never dreamed of: how can we know how large numbers of autonomous vehicles will behave together? Perhaps there will be a day when every driverless car pulls over to the shoulder and stops because of a peculiar obstacle or erratic pedestrian in the roadway. It could be that, lacking the highly evolved human capacities for both distraction and panic, autonomous cars will all make similar rational decisions that somehow make the situation worse: call it "computational irony."

We are both the monkey wrench and the magic in the machinery of our lives.

But maybe autonomous vehicles won't actually have much of an impact. I have a feeling that many people will only use the auto-pilot feature when it's convenient. We're poor planners and when we're running late it's not likely we'll be able to tell the car to override the legal/safety parameters so we can get to work on time. (“Hey, Siri: step on it! There's an extra $20 for you if you can get across town in 10 minutes.”) We'll simply have to take the wheel and put the pedal to the metal ourselves. 

A long time ago, it was believed that once transportation improved and became affordable enough for the average family, they would move close to wherever there were job opportunities. Gradually roads and cars became really good, with the surprising result that driving both further and faster also miraculously became safer and more economical (whereas moving to a different house or apartment remained a giant pain in the ass). So now we continue to live in the same place, but we travel a lot further to work each day than we used to.

On the other hand, I think augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) hold real promise. Currently, VR is a great technology for gaming. You might be tempted to think that it would also be an incredible tool for product development: creating and viewing compelling virtual prototypes and conducting design reviews of incredibly complex mechanical and architectural designs. Perhaps it could even be used for constructing rich data displays that allow us to effectively view and thoughtfully consider "big data," which could open the door to understanding phenomena we haven't yet dreamed of. 

Sure, those things might happen, but I think mostly people will use it for 3D shopping: looking at clothing and other products from every angle in hyper-realistic detail — almost able to touch them. Buying stuff is literally where the money is.

Edward Tufte remarked lately that, "Analyzing human behavior isn't rocket science. It's harder than rocket science." That's the heart of the matter, isn't it? It isn't, "What will new technologies enable us to do?" Rather, it's "What will we actually do with new technologies?"

So many all of my above scenarios will soon be completely wrong, because I certainly don’t know what new habits people will form with internet-connected devices or any other technology. The real needs, the real costs, the real ways in which large number of real users — with all our eccentricities, contradictions and poor taste — will engage with these new technologies will gradually become clearer. And it will happen gradually because there will always be people who can afford the latest gadget and those who must wait a few years to either afford it or figure out why they need it, since the old thing it's supposed to replace still works just fine. (I still don't own a Blu-ray player and I don't even feel bad about it anymore because, y'know, streaming.) 

We're clever, resourceful and imaginative — and lazy, easily manipulated and uncooperative. We are both the monkey wrench and the magic in the machinery of our lives. Technology is the simple part — it's humans that are a complicated business.