Essays & Articles
Looking Forward to the 21st Century
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR MIT PRESS
The 20th century has been a tumultuous ride through changes in politics, worldwide interaction, war, famine, communication, and travel. I like to think of it as “getting ready” — the enabling century. In this period, we established the enabling technologies and frameworks. Now there is world communication, travel, and ready access to the technologies of interaction, communication, information, education, and entertainment. We have these technologies, now what? That is for the 21st century.
The technology of the 20th century has been mind numbing. It has been a rough ride. Technology was at the forefront, rapidly advancing, rapidly changing, and for us who were supposed to benefit, a continual pain. For the average citizen, most of the century seems to have been one long painful learning experience. All those changes, all those things to learn how to do. Major changes in life, society, culture, family, government, and work. All that stuff to learn: stability was out, change was in. Technology has dominated our lives, requiring hours of study, training, caretaking, and special pleadings — and this is even without mentioning the huge changes in the way we lived, our political and social systems, and how we were governed. This has been a century of mass destruction, of the pursuit of war.
It is time for technology to be quieter, calmer, and less visible. Let us make the 21st century be the time to hide the technology, to let it all become invisible. Just as the sewers and water pipes of the homes are invisible, yet still essential; or just as the electric wiring and electric motors throughout the home or office are ever present but beneath conscious awareness, let the computer technology become an enabling infrastructure: invisible, out of sight, out of mind, but ever more powerful.
With today’s technologies as infrastructure, all sorts of novel activities can occur. The omnipresent communication networks will have dramatic impact upon everyday life. Society and governments will have to change, as will legal and tax systems. Geographical location will be less important, although paradoxically, geographical proximity may become even more essential. Families and friends can remain together, even if separated by large distances. Workers can live across the world. The workplace can transform from a place to an activity, where location no longer matters (but time zone does). Education can be always present, just-in-time, when and where needed, throughout life. So too with entertainment, health, news and information, sports, and games. But while work and play can take place across distances, the more we work apart, the more we will wish to come together, if only for brief periods of work and socialization.
Horrific deeds are also enabled, whether it be malicious prying into personal affairs and identities, the ability for malcontents to gather from across the world and form a group powerful enough to do real harm and damage. The potential for damage will be enhanced, once again causing great changes in law and government. The technologies will enhance freedom, destroy privacy, and make our lives richer and more effective, while also more dangerous.
Above all, I expect the unexpected. Who in the early 1900s would have foreseen the major changes in war, politics, communication, and travel? Who would have understood the major changes in science and medicine? In similar ways, there will be major events in the 21st century that defy our predictive powers today. Will it come from the major changes in biology, in space travel, in nanotechnology, or in attention to and understanding of the social and cognitive world? Probably, but it is also likely to involve forces that cannot be so readily predicted.
I see as one of the greatest positive changes over the century the emphasis on individuals as people rather than on institutions of society and government or upon the so-called great leaders. I’d like to see this trend continued, as individuals use the new communication structures to band together for their rights and voice. Perhaps the United Nations will become the United People. Alas, democratic forms of government will face real challenges; pure democracy, where ever individual has a say, every individual a vote, does not scale well: the same democratic voices that work well with groups of 5 or 10 individuals fail miserably with groups of 5 or 10 million, let alone billion. But if traditional government will no longer suffice and if traditional democracy cannot scale, what will take their places? Will it be the large multinational corporations that already have more wealth, authority, and just plain political clout than many nations?
I look forward to writing the successor to this essay in 2099. I’ll probably start by stating that the 21st century has indeed been a period of change, greater than all that has gone before, that the 21st century has been a tumultuous ride through changes in politics, world-wide interaction, war, famine, communication, and travel.”