technology was going to change everything

Illustration of a pocket watch

The computer was going to change everything. The smartphone was going to change everything. The internet was going to change everything. VR was going to change everything. AI was going to change everything. Blockchain was going to change everything. The self-driving car was going to change everything. And so on and so forth.

But computers did not change everything. Smartphones haven’t made us any smarter. VR did not create a better world. AI has not solved any of our complex global problems. Blockchain did not make the world fairer. Not for the lack of trying, of course.

The revolutionary potential of most technologies has always been vastly overhyped. The hype can be so pervasive that any amount of skepticism is seen as failing to recognize why the hype is deserved. It’s no longer about real transformational power, or change, or potential, but mostly about a kind of superficial pop culture, as Alan Kay so aptly said. And Joseph Weizenbaum, one of the founding fathers and leading critics of modern artificial intelligence, said:

The arrival of the Computer Revolution and the founding of the Computer Age have been announced many times. But if the triumph of a revolution is to be measured in terms of the profundity of the social revisions it entrained, then there has been no computer revolution.

One of the most essential elements of the human condition might be humility — knowing that you don’t know everything. We haven’t learned how to build humility into our technology or the culture that surrounds it. Computers don’t realize the limitations of the answers they give us, while many technologists don’t know what they don’t know, and aren’t willing to accept this reality.

These days, technological innovation is more of a fuss than an honest intention. It seems like everyone wants to have some macarons, but no one really knows what a macaron is, or how to make one. How can anyone want something so much without knowing what it is? Hype. Hype doesn't prepare someone to make macarons. Hype only baits with the idea of a macaron: by what the shape or smell of a macaron might be.

At moments when social progress seems stuck, technology can provide an appealing alternative. After all, real progress on serious social issues can be slow and filled with setbacks. At least that new smartphone model is so much better than the old model!

To a large extent, we are stuck in a rushing standstill. We think we’re innovating through technology — fixated by shiny new gadgets — or that technology will always be the solution. Instead, technology keeps us waiting: for the next device, the next app, the next update, or the technology that will finally fix that big problem. We experience technology moving through its iterations, and we feel like we are moving as well. And all the while, we’re stuck in the same world with the same problems that have always existed.

Of course, there have been many moments in our history when technology caused big, significant changes. But few of those changes were immediate; they were usually intertwined with a number of social, economic, or political changes as many historians have emphasized.

And we’re still waiting for the next big technological leap, which is surely just around the corner. This hopeful confidence keeps us sitting patiently while things remain mostly the same — or slowly get worse.

Faced with complex, global problems, we wait for the technological solution which eventually will save us all. A pandemic? Just use a tracing app. Global warming? Just buy an electric car. Racial injustice? Just post about it.

Most importantly, waiting for the next big thing just means that we don’t actually have to do much. We don’t need to act. We don’t need to change. We just need to wait, and technology will do it all for us.

I have a different suggestion: How about realizing that the future — our future — is a choice? We can choose which visions to pursue. We can choose what to fund and research. We can choose how we spend our time and careers.

Sustainable change does not simply happen. It doesn’t emerge spontaneously, pulling us helplessly in the right direction. Sustainable and effective change comes from long, hard thinking, expanding our understanding of the world, and long-term collaboration. Most importantly, it comes from inspired people who are able to spark meaningful change in thinking, collaborating, or problem-solving.

It isn’t enough to just extrapolate yesterday’s technology and then cram people into it. We need to be inspired by the untapped potential of augmenting our most human capabilities.

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