It’s easy to be disenchanted with the current state of technology. Some people bemoan the broken promises of the Jetsons and ask where the flying cars are. Others point out that we haven’t cured cancer yet, and that there is no easy and efficient meal-in-a-pill. Many more ask where the magical mega-cities with high speed trains and tubes are.
But the problem with these people is that they’re looking at the wrong world. Behind our screens, in an ethereal dimension that’s not quite invisible, we’ve been busy building entire new worlds over the past 15 years. Every single moment of the day there are hundreds of millions of people milling around in a digital cocktail party with hundreds of their friends. Others are building castles, caverns, and entire new civilizations in Minecraft, while more still are wandering through massive bookstores and magazine stands to read the news of the day.
Hundreds of millions of man-hours have gone towards these construction projects of unimaginable proportion. Each time you see someone’s face perched over a phone or screen, you’re seeing someone in the process of inter-dimensional travel. While their bodies may be present, their minds are somewhere else — enjoying the spectacle and excitement of these new worlds we’ve conceived. And, in an instant, they can travel from New York to Boston to chat with a friend from college, or all the way to Europe to exchange pictures with a long lost friend currently residing along the canals of Copenhagen. It’s truly remarkable.
But it’s hard to appreciate the grandeur of what’s we’ve built. This is because these new worlds are abstract and nebulous – existing in the minds of users and in ever-changing liquid crystal displays. It’s easy to look at a 500 story building, constructed with hundreds of tons of steel, and feel a sense of awe. It’s much harder to look at a search bar on a 4.87 by 2.31 inch screen and feel the same astonishment.
The move toward a greater digital existence can be seen as depressing — and I think there are many many negatives caused by new technologies (here, here, here, here and here). Every new creation has undesirable second order effects. However, we have built libraries the size of which the world has never seen, department stores that would have been impossible in the physical world, and forums of a size and scope that are impossible on the earth we inhabit. While we once had to deforest land and take precious physical resources to build all of this, today we can create these wonders with electricity, silicon, and wires. With more and more digitization, it looks like we just might do a better job of conserving the beauties of our environment, and building a world with more and more things but much less clutter.
Consumption without the chaos. Travel without the hassle. It’s easy to be pessimistic about what we’ve accomplished in the past three decades — we don’t have all the flashy gadgets of science fiction. But who would have predicted that we would have created a whole new dimension, one that we can jump into, and enjoy, any time of day? I call that an accomplishment.