I recently read that the CEO of Uber is confident that we will have flying cars within the next 10 years. As predictions about the future go, this one is likely no more daffy than so many other previous guesses about future technologies that never actually came to fruition. However, it points to themes common to so many of these wild prognostications: an overconfidence in both technology and our ability to control it to our advantage—combined with a belief that new inventions will inevitably usher in a brighter and happier future
When it comes to technological advancements, the law of unintended consequences is typically in full force. Small changes often have surprisingly large effects, and groundbreaking innovations—brilliantly yet myopically devised—create turmoil that alters the very fabric of our lives for both good and ill.
In our lifetimes, the most obvious disruptor has been inexpensive, pervasive, powerful, and convenient computerization. Now our personal and professional lives are both enhanced and circumscribed by omnipresent technology that simultaneously puts the world at our fingertips, destroys semi-skilled employment opportunities, improves our daily productivity, erases boundaries between our work and personal lives, provides opportunities for innovation that were previously impossible, and spies on every aspect of our existences—a decidedly mixed bag of blessings and curses.
The specific impacts upon a variety of economic sectors has likewise been profoundly confounding. To look at but a single example, the advent of technologically-driven medical practice has completely changed both our expectations and our outcomes regarding our healthcare.
Illnesses and diseases that were once invariably fatal are now manageable chronic conditions— or in some instances a total cure can be attained. Joint and organ replacements are now routine surgeries, and even the worst injuries can now many times be treated with some degree of success. Computer modeling now allows drug therapies to be developed with lightning speed, and non-invasive imaging technology allows doctors to see problems that once would have required risky exploratory surgeries or blind guesswork to treat. However, we have also learned that miracles can be incredibly—if not prohibitively—expensive, advances in treatment can cause a cascade of other medical problems to occur, and endlessly extending the human lifespan may, in fact, be somewhat inhumane in actual practice.
Looking at a hypothetical situation that mirrors the reality for many today, we are now compelled to ask whether it is better to allow a patient to die simply and comfortably at the age of 89 or use powerful drugs and multiple difficult surgeries to extend that person’s lifespan to a painful and disoriented 90 years that is characterized by depression, dysfunction, and disillusionment. Looking just a bit further down the road, rapid improvements in gene therapy—soon to result in the actual modification of our genetic material—is going to open many doors through which we are not even vaguely prepared to walk, and the many moral and ethical questions that lie ahead are likely going to challenge our very notions of what it means to be human.
Taking everything into consideration, is it unreasonable to worry about these flying cars? Setting aside the obvious possibility that the necessary technology will simply never materialize (I still remember my 7th grade Science teacher cheerfully explaining that my generation would be spending our golden years playing shuffleboard on a moon base), one has to wonder whether unleashing these airborne vehicles upon our world would be nothing but an invitation to crash into trees and power lines, land abruptly right on top of homes and pedestrians, and discover new and terrifying consequences of operator or mechanical failure.
I am by no means a Luddite, but an airborne pizza delivery fills me with dread more than wonderment. Presuming that our well-documented inability to use technology wisely and well will remain constant, I can easily imagine a time when we will begin ask whether our energies should be expended elsewhere. Repairing our roads might be more helpful than scheming to fly right over them, and I would rather that poorly managed states and cities—desperate to attract investment and jobs—not be suckered into handing out massive tax breaks and incentives for the honor of creating a future few will want. The “next big thing” might, in fact, be something as quotidian as learning your neighbors’ names, reading a good book, planting a garden, riding a bicycle, or filling the spiritual void so many feel today. I strongly suspect that the awe long inspired by sheer gadgetry has just about run its course in our modern world, so we will increasingly focus on the less technological—yet highly significant joys—that give form and meaning to life. Spending time with a loved one is, for example, far more interesting and meaningful than endlessly updating a Facebook page.
Whatever our collective technological future may be, what is wrought or fabricated will be either a tool or a toy—nothing more and nothing less. Our ability to fly will always be limited by the law of gravity, so we must eventually make our peace with the time we spend walking upon the earth. The eternal promise of a wonderful, shiny future always will land somewhere short of utopia because it overlooks the basic fact that the daily duties we owe to ourselves and others will always occupy the vast majority of our time and energy—which is just as it should be.
Silicon chips can help to manufacture many clever and helpful products, but it is the quality of the time we spend among our fellow carbon-based life forms that provides the purpose and pleasure in all of our lives. This will never, ever change.