it’s not all bad news

Since I have some visitors, let me note that, despite my default position of skepticism, I don’t think technology’s done reshaping our world — not by any means.

True, across a range of disciplines, there is cause for gloom. Some technologies — batteries, getting into orbit — sure look like they’re bumping up against immutable physical limits (fingers crossed that we invent flying saucers; get on it, physicists!). Others, like the speed of your home broadband connection, are hitting commercial or regulatory problems sufficiently imposing that the benefits to overcoming them don’t seem worth the cost. In other cases it’s a mix: growing (and arguably justified!) bureaucracy and depletion of low-hanging fruit combine to slow progress to a crawl.  Future societal changes related to information technology seem likely to be more about growing adoption (“even poor people have smartphones”; “wow, they’ve applied the carsharing model to that?”) than the deployment of new innovations (“he probably misses his old glasses“) — though note that this isn’t actually much of a problem for human welfare if you exclude tech journalists from your analysis.

Certainly some of these points of stagnation will be overcome with unanticipated developments.  And obviously I’m just as in the dark as anyone about what those innovations will be.

But I can guess at a couple of things — there are a few obvious bright spots. Supplementing education, for instance: I don’t know if something like Khan Academy can serve as a kind of pedagogical prosthesis, allowing a mediocre teacher to borrow some of the skills of a great one. But it at least seems plausible, and is something that’s being actively figured out.

Maybe more whiz-bang-ishly, I’m very excited about self-driving cars. Again, this is something that’s actively being worked on: not just by Google but by a number of automakers. And, somewhat shockingly, the early word on the regulatory state’s ability to adapt is not completely depressing (though I expect it to get more so). I realize that this might seem like a somewhat trivial technology — certainly when I first pondered the idea I didn’t understand it to be much more than a better cruise control.  But if you haven’t, let me strongly encourage you to read Tim Lee’s three part series on what this all could mean. It’s not just about playing George Jetson and watching a movie during your next road trip. Self-driving cars would free a huge amount of human capital and dramatically reduce the number of cars and supporting infrastructure that we would collectively require.  This has implications for our cities, our environment — even the experience of being a child or parent (a relationship that, Matt is fond of pointing out, involves a hell of a lot of chauffeur service).

I genuinely think this will arrive in my lifetime (pre-dotage, even! though I think this remains an excitingly uncertain bet), and that it’ll be a very big deal.  It’s worth noting that it’ll also be yet one more thing fueling inequality: no more truckers, no more cabbies, fewer construction and auto workers.  This is why I think learning how to make peace with our new robot overlords is so important.

 

 

One Response to “it’s not all bad news”

  1. Freddie

    Supplementing education, for instance: I don’t know if something like Khan Academy can serve as a kind of pedagogical prosthesis, allowing a mediocre teacher to borrow some of the skills of a great one. But it at least seems plausible, and is something that’s being actively figured out.

    This claim has been made about literally thousands of pedagogical and bureaucratic programs, for literally hundreds of years. Nothing sticks.

    Education is a field where people are willing to chase their ideas into absolutely any direction, save one: the possibility of failure. Taking a broad view, the natural response to centuries of educational data and pedagogical experience is to say that education is strikingly less important than the condition of individual students. You can argue about the mix, just how dependent on student outputs are on student inputs versus educator inputs. You can argue about what aspects of that individual student’s condition are determinative and to what degree– his or her natural talent or innate intelligence, socioeconomic status, quality of parenting. And, indeed, I spend a good portion of every day trying to figure those things out, so I obviously don’t think those questions are But my informed conjecture is that our ceiling here is far lower than we think.

    But this opinion is one of those rare ones that appears to be unpalatable to literally everyone involved, across spectrums political, educational, occupational, etc. So there will be a new Khan Academy five years from now, and ten, and fifteen….

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