In other words, how fast can technology advance? Attempting to predict where technology may take us in future decades, and how quickly, is a fun and challenging undertaking. A lot of the science fiction-y sounding ideas I and others have come up with are exciting, but I doubt we can expect to see progress much more rapid than was seen with the advent of radio, for example. Much as we’d like to think that technological progress is increasing exponentially and new inventions will appear more and more quickly, hoping they will save our ecological “bacon”, and Ray Kurzweil’s ideas notwithstanding (link), I believe it is unlikely to happen like that. While scientific progress will continue, the human limitations around how quickly we can learn, and how quickly we are willing to adopt new ideas and tools, will ensure that our advancement will not be truly exponential, or won’t be for long, and the rate of innovation will inevitably decrease.
The normal rates of absorption and adoption, and general information overload, will steady or slow the implementation of new technology. In the face of overpopulation and resulting problems, technology is very unlikely to “ride in on a white horse” and save the day. The very rate at which new technologies can achieve market penetration will be limited by, if nothing else, the rate at which we can learn about them, and adoption of new ideas doesn’t happen overnight even when the information is readily available. In fact, one of our biggest problems is that we are already deluged with too much information, the information is often contradictory and of highly varying quality, and deciding what to believe is often difficult. Critical thinking skills, needed to assess the information and decide what to take in and what to discard, are essential, but not taught (in American schools, at least). Literacy is a big concern, too, as you can’t absorb information you can’t understand, and about an eighth of the world’s adult population is illiterate.
I believe that what seems like exponential growth to us now is actually a variable rate of change that will decline again until some new technology comes along to increase the rate at which we can disseminate and obtain information. The gating factor will be how much information we can handle as humans, however, and I don’t expect basic human limitations to change radically or rapidly, at least, changes are unlikely to be noticeable within a human lifetime.
Current electronic media can broadcast new information very quickly, but that’s not the issue. Our current rapid rate of change and technological development is probably in part due to electronic mass media, which can bring a majority of humans information about a new product or idea in a matter of days. Does that mean that the communications implant would have to appear and bring us to a state of equivalent to telepathy to achieve further increases in rate of innovation? Or would such a device bring with it such an overwhelming deluge of information that people wouldn’t be able to use it? Will a communications implant bring risks of instant propaganda, mind control by political and economic powers, computer virus equivalents that work in the human brain, or even a condition where the humans equipped with the device become a community mind? That sounds like a science fiction scenario if ever there was one, and certainly represents an extreme. I expect that a community mind might not support the differences necessary for people to be truly creative, and think it unlikely to occur under any circumstances, simply because people would not be able to tolerate it. The truth is probably in the middle somewhere, as usual.
The communications implant is practically here now. We already have many people walking around carrying the precursor to a communications implant – their cellphones, some even equipped with wireless earphones. I see people walking around frequently with shiny, colored, sometimes-blinking “bugs” in their ears, seemingly talking to themselves (and who would know if they were or not?). Note that these devices are still usually not in use. When you combine the bluetooth earpiece with the web-browsing, video-capable cellphone you are taking a step towards the complete communication implant, but only a step. Glasses are available that show a computer display to your eyes, and experiments have even been done in the use of stereo imagery to give a three dimensional virtual reality experience. The technology has not been widely adopted, however.
The ultimate personal communication device can be envisioned to provide not just web access and video programming, but a complete multimedia experience. When the communications implant is linked directly to your nervous system, virtual reality could take on a whole new meaning, with a whole host of challenges for the mental health industry as people become truly overwhelmed and begin to confuse reality with what they experience virtually. Interfacing electronics with the human nervous system has been pursued for decades, however, and will doubtlessly need decades more research before we’ll see an interface between machine and man that approaches the ideal.
While such a device could speed the dissemination of information, could it simultaneously stifle the creation of new information? If people are all hearing the same news and information every day, decreasing diversity of viewpoints, could it decrease our creativity as a species? Of course, available information (and modern electronic media have made that far more accessible) comes from many sources and viewpoints, and this can be expected to continue. It is no coincidence that eccentricity and sometimes isolation have frequently accompanied invention in human history, and I maintain that we need more eccentrics, not less. Vive la difference!
The limitations to technological advancement are purely human. In the end technological advancement will not be limited by the capacity to make scientific progress, but by the ability of the average person to keep up, and I think most people are already overwhelmed with the seemingly ever-increasing flood of information. Advanced personal communication technology will only make that worse, as more people will become overwhelmed. It is likely that people will either give up on being part of the global info-media-stream and seek a simpler life without the high-technology tools, or will find ways to control the flood and filter the information more effectively. In the end, more than ever we need our schools to be teaching critical thinking, research methodologies, and information handling techniques and tools, as we will need them, perhaps more than anything else, on our journey to a sustainable existence.
The ability of the average person to understand and filter incoming information could also directly impact the public will to fund scientific research. If too many people become overwhelmed or fail to understand the value of new developments, they will not want to support further research, especially in the face of worsening economic conditions. That could also slow the pace of technological advancement. That’s not a negative prophecy, but rather a challenge to us: As a species, we must achieve higher levels of education and the information skills that will be needed in the future if we are to achieve a sustainable existence on the planet.
The National Institute for Literacy, literacy statistics and study results
International Education Statistics, analysis by Freidrich Huebler
Population Growth and Illiteracy, Sil International
Global Literacy Statistics, August 6, 2003, Faye Mallett, The Galt Global Review
Rupturing the Nanotech Rapture, June 2008, Richard A. L. Jones, IEEE Spectrum