Here I am, living in the future!

The ability to keep 100 or so academic books in my hand bag is kind of amazing – whenever I pull [my Kindle] out I have a little “Here I am, living in the future!” moment.

Thesis Whisperer, talking about her Kindle

Radiator grille of an old steam engine, with the words "The Imperial" on it.

The Imperial, by Jonathan O'Donnell, on Flickr

For me, the Internet provides my “Here I am, living in the future!” moment. When I first started using email and the Net, it was just like the science-fiction books that I’d read as a kid. Talking to friends overseas with full-screen video still amazes me, especially when you consider that it is – for all intents and purposes – free (if you ignore the investment in a computer, telecommunications infrastructure, etc).

Traveling to my Mum’s house in Swan Hill gives me regular doses of being ‘off the grid’, which helps me to understand how much I depend on it. Don’t get me wrong – you can get Internet access in Swan Hill, you just can’t get it at my Mum’s place (well, not easily and it is very slow).

I’m in Swan Hill now for my Mum’s 90th birthday (as a result, this is being drafted off-line). For her, living in the future has a whole different meaning. She was born in September 1921. When she was a teenager, commercial radio was just coming to Swan Hill. She celebrated her 21st birthday during World War 2. In her 30s, Russia launched the first satellite and broadcast television first came to Australia. We wouldn’t get a TV in our home until the late 1960s – early 1970s, much to the chagrin of my older sisters. About that time, my Mum would been able to make long-distance phone calls without going through an operator, a development that eventually led to her putting a lock on the phone (which also outraged my sisters, but it was their own fault).

She would have been in her 50s when Australia started broadcasting FM radio. In her 60s, the first mobile phones, still attached to their enormous batteries, would have been introduced. She was in her 70s when the Web was invented. All of these things are covered by that interesting phrase, “within living memory”.

Of course, ‘living memory’ ain’t what it used to be. A few years ago, my Mum had a pacemaker put in. Because of her age, she had to go into hospital to have it done. If she had been a bit younger and a bit fitter, it would have been a day procedure, like going to the dentist for a complicated tooth extraction. Some pacemaker models are adjusted by the surgeon using a remote-control. I love that! These sorts of technologies, and the medical research that underpins them, have meant that average life expectancy for many in Australia is now 82 years. When my Mum was born in 1921, it was 61 years.

Within her living memory, scientific research has created other amazing new technologies. I don’t really think of television as a ‘new technology’, but it is for her. Electronic TV, like the implantable pacemaker, was first developed when she was a teenager in the 1930s. Since then, it has become so successful that it has achieved nearly 100% penetration around the world. Satellite networks now provide TV content to the most remote TV watchers. Those same networks can provide mobile phone and Internet access, although it turns out that the Internet is nowhere near as compelling as TV.

Not all the uses of research have been as beneficial as mobile phones and TV. Satellite technology can also be used to drop a missile on any of those people, watching their TVs, anywhere in the world. My Mum was in her 20’s when atomic science was first used as a weapon. She, and everybody since, has lived with nuclear weapons as a terrible fact of life.

Nuclear weapons are terrifying because they are a completely disruptive system of technology. Their unchecked use could destroy whole societies. We don’t have many examples of that, but the examples we do have are terrifying. Think of the Black Plague in Europe and the destruction of indigenous nations by colonizing powers. These events change whole societies and one of the consequences is that an enormous amount of knowledge is lost.

As a general rule, though, research rarely moves backwards – it is very hard to forget how to create something, once it is made. One of the problems that South Africa had when it gave up its atomic weapons programme was what to do with their atomic weapon scientists. Should they spend the rest of their life under effective house arrest because they know state secrets but don’t have a job anymore?

Another general rule is that production and distribution becomes cheaper over time. This is only partly a result of advances in technology. It is also the result of advances in business processes: online payment systems, international trade by individuals and small businesses, distribution systems that can get a small package from Swan Hill to Belgium in less than a week!

Social research and the humanities spend a fair degree of their effort on understanding what this means. As we move forward, we have to understand what we become in this self-generating world. We need to create structures and policies that can cope with the consequences of these developments and changes. Sometimes there are problems that can be solved. More often, though, we need to nudge some part of the system in a different direction, knowing that the system itself is inherently unstable, and will always need to be nudged. Not so much “global problem solving” as global system maintenance.

What will the world be like when you turn 90? More importantly, what contribution will you have made?

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt.

8 Responses to Here I am, living in the future!

  1. ingermewburn says:

    Thanks for this post – and what a wonderful question… that gets right to the heart of ‘impact’ doesn’t it? I’ll have to think about it for awhile.

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Don’t think about it for too long. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” – Allen Saunders.

  2. Kylie Budge says:

    Just loved this post! I often think about this question (what contribution will my work/life have made by the time I get to/if I get to 90) and hope it’s considered something worthwhile.

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thank, Kylie. For me, it isn’t about whether other people consider it worthwhile in the future (although that would be nice), but that I consider it worthwhile now for the future.

  3. pravinjeya says:

    Whilst it is good to ask about the intended contribution of individual pieces of research at the time of doing it, I think it is really dangerous to ask about contribution of research in 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 years time. None of us can see the future and we only see the contribution of events to our own life with hindsight. I may have misunderstood the question but I think trying to think about contribution in long term is like a prison.

  4. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    You are right, of course, Pravinjeya. The important thing is the ‘intended contribution of individual pieces of research at the time of doing it’. We can’t predict far into the future, and even our hindsight will change over time.

    But I still think that the question is worth asking, if only to focus our thoughts on those intended consequences right now.

  5. Steve Hayes says:

    I remember asking Amanda’s grandfather what was most remarkable to him in hindsight. He said it was being able to flick a switch and have a light on the other side of the room come on. He didn’t have electricity at all when he was a kid.

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      It is amazing, isn’t it.

      On the flip side, Hugh McVicker asks, “What will be the technology that baffles us, like computers have baffled some of our parents?”

      And what will someone like your son be talking about on this topic, when he is our age?

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