FUTUREHYPE: The Myths of Technology Change, by Bob Seidensticker, is to Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near as antimatter is to matter. Put them next to each other on your bookshelf, and your house might be leveled as they combine with a gigantic release of energy. Sedensticker’s key thesis is that technology changes rarely impact our existence as rapidly or profoundly as we expect. While Kurzweil goes to great lengths to show that exponential changes in specific areas of technology will not only continue but produce dramatic changes in humanity itself, Seidensticker argues that exponential rates of change are, of necessity, a temporary phenomenon.
FutureHype could have turned into a Luddite manifesto, but fortunately it didn’t. Seidensticker is actually a techie himself – he’s an MIT CompSci grad, a former IBM developer, and Microsoft project leader. He certainly doesn’t dismiss the impact of technology on our lives; rather, he’s trying to combat what he thinks are overblown claims for the rate of change in technology and the extent to which technology has changed in the current generation compared to past generations.
He spends a chapter on “The Perils of Prediction” – it’s chock full of predictions (most by very smart people) that proved to be way off the mark. Thomas Edison predicted that the “radio craze” would pass, Marie Curie expected radium to prolong life (it caused her premature death), Ken Olsen saw no need for home computers, etc. I’m not sure what this proves, other than that even smart people aren’t right all the time. One could certainly fill a book with predictions that did prove to be fairly accurate.
Several chapters are devoted to debunking what the author considers to be “high tech myths,” the first of which is that “change is exponential.” With this one, Seidensticker is on fairly solid ground. Very few systems can support exponential growth, improvement, shrinkage, etc. The numbers tend to catch up with one sooner or later. Skyscraper heights haven’t changed much after a period of rapid growth, nor has the speed of passenger aircraft, to cite a couple of examples where exponential change was short-lived. Moore’s Law (that predicts exponential increases in circuit density on semiconductors) has worked for 40 years, and has even overcome technical barriers thought to be insurmountable by changing technologies, but may run into difficulty in the future.
The last part of FutureHype meanders through a history of technology and change. If this book provides a useful service to its readers, it’s to add historical perspective to understanding our current technologies. Seidensticker points out that we are always most impressed by those developments that occur during our lifetime; the innovations that occurred earlier are just part of the environment and are never as exciting as those that change the world before our eyes. The book can also serve as a reality check for those responsible for forecasting the impact of new technologies. It’s natural to understimate the time needed for a truly novel technology to achieve a reasonable saturation level. I recall seeing HDTV demos at the Consumer Electronics Show back in the 1980s; the technology is now finally going mainstream. And an area of technology that I was directly involved in, home automation (smart house technology) was also expected to be just around the corner in the late 1980s, and a couple of decades later in 2006 has still achieved a minimal rate of adoption. (To see other reviews and read excerpts, visit the Future Hype website.)
If you know someone who is a wild-eyed optimist about technology changes in the next few years and needs to be brought into a lower Earth orbit, give him a copy of FutureHype – if nothing else, it may cause him to re-examine some assumptions and conclusions. (Or, give him a copy of The Singularity is Near, and he might just reach escape velocity. )