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Sensing the impact of technology 30 years before it happens

Sensing the impact of technology 30 years before it happens

Welcome to my bookshelf. Take a look one shelf down and one to the right of the Terry Pratchett Discworld collection. Down there, amongst the John le Carre and Poppy Z Brite novels, there are a couple of paperbacks that look so well thumbed they might have been through several second hand bookshops before finding a permanent home on my shelf. That’s my Neal Stephenson collection: ‘Snow Crash’ and ‘The Diamond Age’. Cool, huh?

They weren’t battered and thumbed when I bought them. I got them smelling of fresh ink in one of the hipper non-franchise bookshops on a big city holiday. I had them on my shopping list well before the trip was even an idea on the horizon. I had read them both before, and those copies disappeared; perhaps a result of wanting to share the magic between the pages with friends.

How did these to get so thumbed and worn? I didn’t lend these two out. I achieved the effect with repeat readings, sometimes up to twice a year.

Neal Stephenson first published ‘Snow Crash’ in 1992 and ‘The Diamond Age’ in 1995. His métier is cyberpunk; raw, gritty, fast and hip. I got hooked sometime in 1995. Every page was a cool new idea.

The world of ‘Snow Crash’ is populated with grid-locked pizza delivery guys bound by a desperate forty-five minute promise, interaction in three-dimensional virtual realities and avatars, psychotropic computer viruses, hordes of desperate refugees, storage containers as a long term housing solution, computing power worn on the body, programming of deep brain structures and branded communities all contracted to similar beliefs and lifestyles.

Although cyberpunk is a stepchild of the science fiction genre, and although Neal Stephenson is firmly rooted in fiction, I recommend the works to everyone who wonders what is to come. Nobody seems to be more accurate that Neal Stephenson.

Take a look at the elements that I mentioned two paragraphs back and spot the one that is still science fiction. Communicating with deep brain structures? That’s not science fiction anymore. That’s the new science of memetics. Actually the far fetched one is psychotropic computer viruses. But now that the computer display is being beamed onto the lens of a glass, that one is probably not too outrageous, yet. Actually computer viruses do mess with my mind though: they make me angry.

In ‘The Diamond Age’, set in a farther future, Neal Stephenson talks about the cultural impact of nanotechnology and electronic paper. Both of these are reasonable picks for today’s technological investor.

There you have it. The pace of technological innovation is so rapid that science fiction writers are being dated in the span of decades.

I come from a distant past in which push button phones were modern and 50 megabytes was unimaginably excessive. Cutting edge involved a couple of very two dimensional bats passing a square puck backwards and forwards on a screen.

Technology is empowering, but like all empowerment it can cut both ways. We can share issues and developments across the globe, communicate and grow in our understanding and empathy. We can also scratch out a do-it-yourself guide to construction of a nuclear weapon on the Internet, with handy hints on when to substitute a coffee filter for something more hi-tech, expensive and difficult to obtain.

Amongst all of this, humanity has to find its way. Once upon a time, the impact of technology and knowledge was debated. Change was remarked upon. Today, change is ignored and new technology is blasé. Whatever it is, if it works, it will be adopted.

I hardly feel justified in my nostalgia for the telephone with the circular dial and the very retro clicks it used to make as the dial spun back into place. Will future generations be able to recognize what nostalgia is at all?

The importance of nostalgia lies in recognizing the value of what you once had. Today nostalgia is being replaced with a contempt of what has become obsolete. At least cars still have wheels, but how long will that last?


 

About The Author

Pierre Maré

Pierre Maré is a multi-awarded Namibian advertising strategist and copy writer. From 2004 to 2016 he wrote a weekly tongue-in-cheek column for the paper Economist, eventually amassing an impressive 590 articles over the almost 12-year period. This series of Offbeat is a digital rerun of his pieces that received the highest reader acclaim. - Ed.