The future is already here, and it’s reasonably evenly distributed

This video from 1981 (hat tip: Jerry Brito) shows the remarkable progress of information technology in recent years.

That which which seemed amazing yesterday is taken for granted today. Hyperland (1990) from Douglas Adams is even more remarkable in how exciting it made hypertext seem.

If we think back even further, someone 300 years ago would find the way we live today – or even the way we did in 1981 – absolutely unimaginable. Talking to someone on the other side of the world through some strange contraption? Witchcraft! This is why we shouldn’t discount future technological innovations – indefinite lifespans, bioengineered superintelligence, desktop nanotech – based on their pure strangeness and unfamiliarity. We are in the midst of self-reinforcing and accelerating economic growth. Decent institutional arrangements have allowed markets and other means of technological innovation to produce new knowledge at an unprecedented rate. Knowledge begets more knowledge, as we use past innovations to more effectively produce new ones.

This sort of growth is not the norm if we consider human history as a whole, and it’s possible that an exogenous shock could force us out of our positive feedback loop. I wouldn’t bet on that happening, and think those in the near future will have levels of wealth and capabilities only the most imaginative of us can dream of today. We tend not to notice change as it’s happening, but its cumulative effect is enormous. The Singularity will come, but nobody will notice it.

Technology and Freedom

Reason has a review of David Friedman‘s recent book Future Imperfect: Technology and Freedom in an Uncertain World.

In Future Imperfect David Friedman presents a wide variety of possible futures, “some attractive, some frightening, few dull.” Looking through a lens of science fiction and fact, Friedman explores how libertarian ideas can help us adjust our lives and institutions to technological change ranging from computer crime to nanotechnology, from contracts in cyberspace to aging research.

I started reading the online draft of the book a while ago, but somehow never finished it. I’ll have to remedy that at the nearest opportunity. Friedman discusses privacy and surveillance, digital money, encryption, and biotech.

The question of whether new technologies will enhance freedom or reduce it, either through calls for regulation or by giving the state more effective means of control, strikes me as one of the most important questions we can ask. I don’t think it’s at all possible to stop accelerating technological advancement, but we need to think carefully about the political institutions best able to deal the changing nature of the world (and if technology is going to centralize power, I’ll be much more likely to follow David’s son into the ocean).  I’m generally optimistic, and damn well want my immortality, abundance, and superpowers. We can’t, though, just assume that new technologies will always and everywhere lead to more freedom and welfare. That’s why David’s book is so important.

Kurzweil Documentary Trailer

Hat tip: Sentient Developments

The Singularity is Slightly Nearer