In the 1960s and 1970s, the Star Trek TV series - and later, movies - portrayed a future where humans traveled faster than the speed of light, were transported from one place to another almost instantaneously, and carried handheld devices that allowed instant communication with anyone on a planet. The crew members of the Enterprise also were treated in a medical facility where the entire body could be imaged, and handheld devices read vital signs to the doctors.
Twenty-five years later, we still cannot travel faster than the speed of light (of course, we have almost totally abandoned space travel research) and we cannot transport ourselves from one place to another, although physicists have demonstrated the science behind this possibility in the laboratory.
We do, however, have something like the “tricorder” from the Star Trek series. In fact, our version of it, the iPhone, is far more capable and smaller than the one in the old TV show. We also have body imaging and medical diagnostic technology far more advanced than that envisioned twenty-five years ago.
I know: cool, but what’s the point? There are two points to be made.
One, we take all of these new capabilities and gadgets for granted, and act like it has always been this way. The Current Status Quo is, “like, normal,” man. Well, it isn’t normal. It is far different than it was ten or twenty years ago: just ask someone over sixty! These great changes in technological capability are happening so rapidly now that we have several generations of user expertise levels coexisting in our society at the same time.
Example: I know people who still prefer to have just a phone: yes, a cell phone, but without features. They say smart phones are just too confusing. They were really happy when cell phones came along and changed their lives, but they’re not ready for all the “bells and whistles.” Right next to them in the theater trying to watch a movie, while everyone else is buzzing or beeping, are Blackberry users who swear the ultimate in connectivity is email and phone service as represented by the 1995 technology in their pockets. And of course, everyone else is using an iPhone or Android with the ability to watch TV or another movie while sitting with you in the theater. There are also surely people out there who are only comfortable with a landline-touch-tone phone, but we don’t care as much about them, because there is no way they are reading this blog!
The second point is that we really should be thinking, and thinking really hard, about what will come next. Surely it will be cooler and better than what we have now. But it will also change our lives, society, the way we do business, etc. Preparing for the next great technological advancement will require first a bit of vision to postulate what it will be, and them some thought as to what it will mean for us. This type of science and technology forecasting is not in our nature, nor often practiced. I would claim it is something worth considering.
The nation was greatly surprised in 1959 when the Soviets (remember them – before the Russians…or weren’t they Russian too?) put something in space before we could. Scared us half to death, and spurred the ONLY commitment this country has ever had to space research and investment.
If we don’t take the time to think about what might come next and who might get there first, we are likely to be just as surprised again.