Why do we get the future so wrong? From The Jetsons to Future Shock, from Asimov to H.G. Wells, our species appears to roundly suck at predicting the future. Science fiction tells you a lot about the biases of any given writer’s era, but precious little about the future we’re heading to. (Hence all those wonderful articles from this magazine’s 1930s forebears, like Modern Mechanix, about the coming world of metal men who will wait on us hand and foot.)
Today, futurists talk about whether our next society will be more global, more automated, more religious, more democratic. They point to the signs in the same way the Mesopotamian extispicists did, claiming to see the future in animal organs.
I think they all get the same thing wrong: they presume that technological change will create a progressive series of epochs, like the scenes in Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress, in which we are taken through four robotic dramas tracing life from the dawn of the electric age to the Marconi era to the Fabulous Forties, and into the “present day” (an embarrassingly awesome vision of the American living room circa 1993 or so).
For this to happen, technology will have to produce more than change — it will also have to produce stability. And that’s the most unlikely prediction of all.
From a security perspective, technology usually gives an inherent advantage to attackers. Take earthwork fortifications: defenders needed to put up a perfect bulwark to keep the barbarians out. Barbarians needed to find one weak spot and crash through. Defenders need to be perfect, attackers need to find a single flaw.
That’s why it’s been so easy to kick the living crap out of the entertainment industry in the cat-and-mouse game of file sharing. Here we are, nearly ten years after the invention of Napster, and there’s more file sharing than ever. At the time of this writing, the internet is still chortling up its collective sleeve about the efforts of the Advanced Access Contact System Licensing Administrator (AACS LA) to suppress a 128-bit number that can be used to decrypt some HD DVDs. There are presently more than 2 million web pages that contain this number (there were about 100 when the AACS LA sent out its legal threats).
This attack/defend disparity is why it was so easy to get the AACS keys out of a DVD player in the first place. To keep anti-copying keys secret, they have to be perfectly protected in every single device manufactured and distributed. To extract the keys, one need only discover a single vendor that made a single mistake in its production.
What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Technology lets the Recording Industry Association of America automate its lawsuit process and attack 700-plus Americans every month. Technology lets al-Qaeda form a loose, undefined network that can wreak terrible havoc. Technology lets hackers hijack computers and turn them into “botnets” of spam-sending, denial-of-service-launching zombies.
The attack-defend disparity is great news if you don’t like the status quo, but it means that any victory is bound to be short-lived. No sooner do you dismantle your enemy’s fortress and put up your own than someone comes along and does to you what you just got through doing to him.
And that’s what’s wrong with today’s futurism. The industrial revolution wasn’t just a revolution: it was a transition. The world moved from agrarianism to industrialism. But the information revolution isn’t a transition; it’s a continuous, permanent revolution.
The one thing the future won’t have is enough of a status quo to matter. Constant change will be the hallmark of human history.
Not that I’m complaining, mind you. When your attention span is as short as mine, constant change is totally addictive. But the next time some wag talks about a 50-year biotech plan, or the next 100 years of nanotech, ask yourself: if these technologies are so darned disruptive, won’t they disrupt themselves?