Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Where's my jet pack?

Again I have the good fortune of a piece that lays the groundwork for me. I came across it the other day, and the title ("Where's my jetpack?" -- at least that was the name of the link from the homepage) immediately gave me hope that it might be relevant.

Why? Well, here in Silicon Valley, the Twitters and Zazzles and Floobles (I made that last one up... I think) are a dime a dozen. You can almost drown in the tech Kool-Aid here, so overpowering is the reek of desperation for shiny gadgets to fix all of our problems.

The other day, I came across the abstract of a talk purporting that Thorium reactors were the answer to all of our energy problems. I don't know much about Thorium reactors, but if human history is any indication of its future -- and it is -- then it's probably not a solution in the sense one might hope. Yes, it might help us rid ourselves of fossil fuel dependency and the environmental pillaging that goes with it, but you can be sure we're going to find new and clever ways of depleting it as fast as we can.

So anyway, back to the article. I quickly scanned and pulled out two key quotes. First:
"Scientists are OK at predicting what technology is going to happen in the future," Wilson says. "They're really bad at predicting how it's going to affect us."
It's a relatively recent finding that humans are incredibly inept at estimating how well they'll feel after a particular event or in some circumstance. This topic ("affective forecasting") is much more than another intellectual curiosity. Its relevance should be immediately obvious: how are we supposed to decide what to do with our lives if we can't even predict how the outcomes will feel to us?

As it is, it's hard enough to predict both how long you'll feel happy and how happy you'll be after experiencing something as simple and common as your favorite football team winning a game. How much sense, then, does it make to believe you know how much you'll improve the life of someone across the world when your website that (pick something... anything) launches? Hint: none.

The second quote basically summarizes the point of the article and this post:
"At some point, you can't expect a miracle to come in the form of technology to save us," Verheiden says. "At some point, the miracle has to come from a change in attitude and a new outlook."
It seems like a much more viable solution to start from the ground up. First find out what it is that makes people's lives subjectively better. There's already plenty of research out there (which we'll explore), and the amount of data is constantly growing. Don't assume you already know the answer, because our intuition for these things is incredibly faulty.

Then, if technology turns out to be the right answer, go for it! But I suspect it'll be some time before an improvement in Internet bandwidth is actually the lowest hanging fruit for improving lives.

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