I find that science fiction can be an excellent source of technical inspiration, and recently re-read one of my favorites: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, from 1992. Even 25 years later, the book is still a swirling, breathless journey through a world of parallel virtual reality universes, voice/computer interfaces, avatars, dynamic electronic maps, viruses, and a host of other concepts that are either here with us now or soon will be.
But there’s something that really stands out. As ground-breakingly imaginitive as Stephenson was for 1992 (when we were still using fax machines and dot-matrix printers and most of us hadn’t even experienced email yet), he missed two overarching paradigms: the Internet and smartphones. As crazy as it sounds, the characters in Snow Crash don’t have access to a central, searchable repository of the world’s information. In fact, a large part of the plot is driven by the characters’ lack of easy access to public information. Instead, they exchange specific information stored electronically on plastic cards like credit cards This enables “the bad guys” to get quite far as no one is able to detect a pattern in their actions without going to an archive and physically collecting data about them. An obvious reminder of how truly magical the Internet is: this thing that gives us awesome and immediate access to so much information and services around the world.
The other thing Stephenson didn’t see coming was the smartphone. Although his characters do have mobile phones strapped ingeniously to various parts of their bodies, they’re only for voice. They’re lacking portable computing power, plus messaging and apps and cameras and games and flashlights and all of the other things that come in today’s mobile device.
When invention meets a blind spot
This strange pairing of invention and blind spots made me think about technology and paradigms and usability and formats, both past and present. It’s one thing to imagine that you could have the ability to talk to people while you’re travelling in the car, or to dream up a map that can show you the current traffic situation, or to envision asking a computer what tomorrow’s weather will be. But it’s quite another to imagine a device that would allow you to do all of these things – it’s just too much of a leap. Both the Internet and the smartphone are the unifying archetypes that provided an implementation and usability path to many other technologies and services, many of which were certainly possible to imagine but weren’t in the real world yet because the enabling framework was missing. In other words, Snow Crash reminds us that imagining specific technology actions is relatively easy, but coming up with the overarching platform that enables a wide swath of new technologies is hard.
Now let’s fast forward to 2018. We’re talking and working with Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Blockchain – all of these really cool concepts, each of which has enormous promise. What we’re missing is the Next Great New Paradigm, or the enablement framework that will dramatically improve how we access these technologies and once again change our world in the process. Will it be some kind of an Augmented Reality headset? Will it be something that grows out of the Internet of Things? Impossible to say now. But I promise you, in 25 years we’ll be looking back at this era, with all of its nascent technological developments, and say, “Wow, we could imagine Virtual Reality, but we were still missing X, that thing that made Virtual Reality a part of our everyday lives.”
Will 2018 be the Year of X? The only way we’ll find out is by actively trying to make incredible new things happen – which sounds like an excellent New Year’s Resolution.
Best wishes for a happy, productive, and inventive 2018 to you all!
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