One of the great difficulties with understanding possible futures is that the emergence of new concepts and discontinuous change can overwhelm established ways of thinking. Trends and relationships that have worked for years break down and turbulence can rein or appear to do so.
We live in a world where more and more things are becoming digital. Consumer appliances, cars, books and TVs have all become ‘digital’ artefacts. When we think about the future of computing we tend to start forecasting as if this trend to digitisation is ‘unstoppable’. It assumes the status of a physical law like gravity.
If history teaches us anything then surely nothing is forever. So, when and how will digitisation break down? What will usurp this trend?
In a lot of my work over the last 20 years I have compared the era in which we live to that of the European Renaissance period of the 15th and 16th centuries, rather than the industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The invention of the Gutenberg printing press allowed for the dissemination of new ideas and the transmission of information that challenged the power structures of the time. The Renaissance saw not just an explosion in information within society, but the proliferation of new concepts that we still live with. Music notation, perspective in art, double entry book-keeping, humanism freedom, republicanism and many other aspects of modern social and economic life emerged in the Renaissance. It laid the basis for the Enlightenment. Above all, it challenged the power structures within society and led to a flourishing of human creativity.
Scotland played a central role in the development of the Enlightenment and there are many Scots thinkers who wish to see the 21st century as a ‘New Enlightenment’. The recent plenary of the International Futures Forum discussed this issue.
Today we are living in a world of explosive information growth and challenges to the world order.
Concepts of the ‘old world’ are breaking down. Let me illustrate with an economic example. It has been a given for many decades that economic growth is a good thing and leads to greater human happiness and so on. The evidence for this not being so has been growing for years; politicians around the world and across the spectrum no longer see GNP/GDP growth as the central measure of their aspirations. The impacts of climate change, global competition from the BRIC countries, just to mention two factors leave planners and forecasters with greater sense of uncertainty than at any time since the late 40s.
It is hard to see across a conceptual chasm. Imagine trying to forecast the future of physics in the late 1890s just before relativity and quantum theory. Imagine trying to predict the future of art, 5 years before the discovery of perspective. These are problems we all live with.
Edward De Bono invented the concept of ‘Po’, to help people think about areas where new concepts might be needed or might emerge. It is one of few tools that help in this area.
Let me add one oddity, which is our notion of progress. If you look at the beautifully illustrated manuscripts in the British Library for instance from the 14th century you notice something odd. It is only in the later part of the 20th century that we could create a book of the same quality by the printing process. Some will argue we still haven’t.
What might have been the life’s work of a monk could be replaced by a printing press that enabled great productive increase but lost much by way of art and craft.
Whereas the industrial revolutions were about analysis, simplification, the division of labour etc., the Renaissance is embodied in the notion of the Renaissance man.
So, now we find highly creative people with design skills, technical skills, music, video working on computer games, augmented reality and other digital media.
What caused me to reflect on this was looking at a whole raft of material about the next generation of technologies under the umbrella of ‘the internet of things’ and sensor nets.
What interested me was that many of the ideas are essentially analogue not digital. Even on location-based technologies the world seems analogue. For instance, ‘Find me a French restaurant nearby’ is not a digital problem. Sure, it can be modelled on a digital computer. There are ‘digital smell’ technologies but smell is again, for me, an analogue property. Other examples are around pattern recognition ‘looks like,’ ‘feels like spring’ and ‘sounds like’.
I am on the side of those who argue that the human brain is not (merely) an information processing system, in the way that a digital computer is.
Today, many would argue that digital won over analogue, and that battle is over. Perhaps not!
As with the book, advance in one area was accompanied by loss elsewhere, the end of the digitisation trend for me will see a renewal of interest in analogue concepts.
My watch is hybrid and has both digital and analogue components. Sometimes I want to know that it is 10.29, other times nearly 12 is OK.
I had a friend, a great technophile, who had perfect pitch. He refused to buy CDs and stayed with vinyl. Even on very high quality digital music systems he found digital music grating. It took me a long time to realise that this was not an affectation. Even my untrained ear can tell the difference between a digital recording and being in a room with a grand piano being played.
So, my guess is that the future will turn out a hybrid of digital and analogue. It will be Renaissance men and women who will open up the new concepts that lead us to 21st century enlightenment.
About the author
Chris Yapp is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.