Speculation is About the Present

A truism of science fiction is that it is always about the present, not the future.

Similarly, our predictions about new technologies are inescapably and frustratingly mired in the present.  People take current trends and just amplify them.  Make them run to their logical extremes.  None of the twists and turns of the history are made evident in people’s future history.

Take computers and the internet.  From way back at the dawn of computing, it was obvious to people that computers were a big deal.  These were machines that seemed almost to think!  So people started making predictions.  Their future computers were more powerful.  They went from “seeming almost to think” to “thinking.”

And for the most part, they were as big as houses.  If anything, they were actually bigger than the room-sized computers of the time, because of course as computers got more powerful, they would get bigger!

(Robots, at this time, were strangely separate from computers.  Read Asimov’s early Robots books and marvel at how despite pervasive artificial intelligence existing, there are no actual computers around).

At this point in speculation, there was also no sense that computers would exist in networks.

Then, fairly closely in time, the personal computer was invented, and the first computer networks also sprang into the world.  And, again, this was clearly a big deal!  You had this whole genre of fiction, cyberpunk, in which what happened on computer networks was literally a matter of life and death.

But at the time, people who used computers were professionals or enthusiasts.  Despite the central role that computer networks play in cyberpunk of this era, there is no sense of people just, like shopping on the internet.  Or normal folks writing a webpage or a blog.  Indeed, there’s very little sense that people who aren’t hackers ever interact with the networks.

The 90’s came around, and all of a sudden, we realized that the internet would be profoundly democratized.  That practically everyone would have a computer that was connected to the internet, and that this consumer interest would create an incredible spectrum of products and services online.

So now, that’s our mindset.  That’s what we imagine everything will be like.  Ubiquity and democratization.  Start Up Blog, thus, says things like:

But the really significant element is that by the time she is 13 years of age [ed: 10 years from now], yourself and every person we know will have a 3D printer.

It’s not true.  You won’t.  That’s not because 3D printing and other micro-manufacturing technologies aren’t profoundly important.  They are.

But not every profoundly important technology is the personal computer, and democratization isn’t the answer for 3D printing.  You don’t need all that many manufactured goods, and there’s not much reason to have hundreds of millions of low-grade 3D printers sitting idle in everyone’s home.  The economies of scale work differently than that.

I don’t know what crazy things people will figure out to do with these kind of general-purpose manufacturing tools.  But ten years from now, or twenty, we will, I’m sure, be talking about how the next great technology will obviously follow the same obvious-in-retrospect path of the 3D printer.

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