Monday, 19 November 2012

The Problem with the Future

So, I was going to do some posts with NaNo tips, but given how hard I'm finding it to remember that NaNo is still going on (I finished in seven days, it does strange things to your perception of time - I promise I'm not just gloating ;D), I don't actually trust myself to say anything coherent on that point (and, besides 'make your characters angry with each other and then let them argue', I don't have a whole lot to add).

Instead, here's a post on an almost entirely unrelated theme: speed. Specifically, the speed of progress versus the speed of our ability to keep up with it socially, philosophically and morally.

Let me start with an example outlined in a lecture I was in a couple of weeks ago, given by a professor of education. Imagine there's a new drug which enhances intellectual performance. People taking it think faster and more clearly, and there are minimal side effects. It costs about as much as a decent smartphone data package - enough that not everyone even in rich nations like ours can afford a supply.

We'll start by considering it in the educational context the professor (whose name I can't remember, I'm afraid) brought up; there's clear evidence that this drug improves children's performance in exams. Since not everyone can afford the stuff, we obviously can't allow its use in exams, because the playing field has got to be level. Now let's imagine that the only way to detect if someone has taken the drug is something hugely invasive like an on-the-spot urine sample test.

What do we do? There's no way we can afford to test every child in the school system before every exam, even if we can overcome the ethical minefield of demanding urine samples from that many minors. Random checks won't catch nearly enough cheaters, not to mention the likelihood of discrimination creeping in as far as who gets 'randomly' selected for testing.

It gets worse when we move to the workplace, where performance is assessed in a more continuous way and there aren't even specific points at which a test could be administered. Assuming that intelligence has some sort of effect on performance and thus who gets promoted (and, however much you hate or doubt the intelligence of your boss, some form of intelligence probably put him where he is), the promotions are going to go to the people who can afford these drugs.

Basically, what I'm getting at is that a technology of this nature is going to systematically entrench privilege with a speed and efficiency that capitalism has perhaps never before achieved. After all, what self-respecting and diligent parent could be expected to turn down the opportunity to better themselves or their children?

Perhaps a drug like this is fanciful (sidebar: it almost certainly isn't, though I don't know of any drug yet that has demonstrated these effects without debilitating side-effects), but the part that really blew my mind was when the professor giving the lecture related this example to the rise of smartphones.

He talked about how teachers are increasingly facing classes full of students with smartphones, and the students who answer fact-based questions are now the ones who are fastest with their calculators or web searches. Now, obviously, you can (theoretically) ban smartphones, and phones in general, in exams, but the students who can compete technologically are going to find it easier and more rewarding to engage with their lessons and thus are going to learn better, whether or not they have a technological advantage in assessment.

This argument goes more generally for technology in education, too (remote schooling in virtual classrooms, for example). And just to bring it home to those of us caught up in the ebook revolution, just about the only good argument I've heard against ebooks is the problem that as the developed world increasingly switches to digital media, the developing world will be left further and further behind; quite simply, fewer books will make it into hardcopy forms which nations without widespread, reliable power and internet infrastructure can access.

It's going to take us some time to figure out what to do about this technological issue. The truly insoluble problem, though, is that by the time we've figured this one out, technology may be two or even three full generations ahead.

Don't believe me? Let me put it like this; when I was in primary school, no-one in my class had their own mobile phone. I moved up to secondary school in 1998, to a private school where I was mainly rubbing shoulders with the affluent section of society, and over the next five years, mobiles became ubiquitous among my generation (I can remember one of the last holdouts caving shortly before I left for a state-sector sixth form college in 2003; there, phone penetration was at most a year or two behind). Things seemed to settle down for a little bit at that point, though in reality I think it was just that the generations either side of mine began to go mobile in a big way - the revolution moved on, if you like.

The first iPhone came out in 2007, and now I'm one of the few people I know not to have a smartphone (I can't quite afford it at the moment D:). I'm seeing more and more tablets among my student friends, and 4G connectivity is arriving steadily. The Google glasses are due out somewhere between 12 and 18 months from now. The first artificial eye implants and direct neural connections have already been put into operation, though they're a little further off as a consumer product.

What's the difference between a pill that makes you smarter and a direct neural connection to the internet (which presumably can't be easily removed or deactivated)? Not much, if anything at all.

I don't have an answer to any of this, by the way. I can't even begin to see how these questions might be answered, short of some miracle eliminating the malicious component of human nature/society. But it's something to think about, even as we celebrate the wonderful world we have the chance to build right at the moment (and I'll do a more optimistic blog post on that theme next week, promise).

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