The Future's Not What It Used To Be


Charles Johnson—the Rad Geek People's Daily guy, not the Little Green Footballs guy—looks back at the predictions Ray Kurzweil made in 1999 about the lives we'd be living by the end of 2009. As you'd expect, Kurzweil got a lot wrong, but Johnson is making a point more interesting than the familiar mock-the-futurist game:

I think what's interesting [about] this is not so much what Kurzweil predicts which hasn't come to pass, but rather the number of things he failed to predict which have come to pass—and why the things he predicts coming to pass haven't come to pass. Sometimes it's because Kurzweil is too optimistic about technologies that never materialized, or which are still in their incipient stages at best. But a lot of the time, it's just that people found they have better things to do with their limited time and resources. So it turns out that a lot of people book travel reservations online now, but nobody books it by talking with some animated virtual customer service agent. Not because it would be impossible for clever folks to program that sort of thing, if they'd spent the last 10 years doing it. But rather, even if they did, who would want to waste time on that kind of goofy shit, when you just get the tickets through Kayak? Similarly, I'm sure that if folks had spent the last 10 years working on virtual reality games, or on establishing fancy new paperless Information Superhighway channels for great big established media companies to push their DRMed-up chosen publications, you probably would have seen something like what Kurzweil predicts. But instead of that, we have people who put their time into developing IndyMedia, Craigslist, blogging software, and Flickr, MySpace, and so on—tools which, technically speaking, are mostly dead-simple HTML over HTTP. The real awesomeness of the future—so far, at least—turns out to have not nearly so much to do with technical fireworks and the kinds of techno-conveniences that brute-force computational power can achieve, but rather with the new lifestyles, new patterns of autonomy, and the new forms of social relationships that relatively simple but increasingly pervasive technologies, have helped facilitate.

(Title stolen from a great song.)