Monday, March 10, 2008

Technology Is Disappearing

When I was a kid I knew what the future would be. It had the clinical austerity of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the cold silver cities of Logan's Run and the dark, bleak dirtiness of Blade Runner and Alien. That future was inevitable. More optimistically the colorful, gaudy, in-your-face future of Back to the Future II came along with a number of films of the late 80's. Everything in the future was going to be complex. Every surface would have a thousand buttons.

The 90's began a different trend in science-fiction. In one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Picard returned to a modest country home in France that could have come from the 1950's - or the 1850's. Gattaca and Minority Report contrasted simply and starkly adorned futures with warm, familiar early 20th century fashion and interior decor.

The later examples are a truer glimpse of the future. Nobody wants to live in a world that's metallic, austere, cold, dirty or gaudy. Developers of technology in our world strive for naturalness, unobtrusiveness and basic elegance in design. The less visible, the better.

Consider the ubiquitous computer. It's so pervasive that even talking about 'computers' seems anachronistic. In the 80's people would say about an IT professional, "he works with computers." Now they say, "he's a game developer," "he's a graphics programmer," "he's a web designer," or "he works in information technology." And everyone knows what those things mean. Back in the 60's and 70's, computers were novelties, understood by few. A computer was a sure sign of the future. Today, we spend lives sitting in front of them. We know them for what they are - tools of immense and perpetually untapped power that also happen to be phenomenal pains in the ass. What is the future we hope for now? It's a future where we can reap the benefits of machines and be free of the frustrations they cause us. So a computer doesn't look like the future anymore, it looks like the frustrating present. And, if you draw too much attention to it, it starts to look like the past.

What does this mean? Technology must disappear. No, it will not go away, but it will become invisible. Take the beautiful iPhone. All those complicated little buttons you find on a smart phone? They just went away. It could only be better if it wasn't there at all, while still doing all the iPhone allows. Research proceeds rapidly in flexible electronics, stretchable electronics, wearable computers, transparent electronics, nanotechnology and most significantly, brain-machine interface, so this may come sooner than we think.

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