There is a common sentiment expressed by many people about today’s vector of technological growth. It can be characterized by the following quotes. The first one is from an astronaut and engineer Buzz Aldrin:
You Promised Me Mars Colonies. Instead, I Got Facebook.
Another one is from Peter Thiel, a famous technologist and investor:
We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.
Both quotes are pessimistic versions of our reality. They argue that the lack of established colonies on other planets and our failure to create certain technologies mean that all other technological achievements are reduced to trivialities.
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Credit: NASA
I strongly disagree with this grim view of the world. I believe that cell phones, Twitter, and many other developments, labeled as shallow and mediocre, are stepping stones towards bolder accomplishments. Just think back to when you were a child and all new things seemed difficult and scary. It’s easy to shrug it off now as a more experienced adult who elevated herself enough intellectually to think of childhood accomplishments as trivialities. But this growth—from a little child to a fully functioning adult—is a fundamental way of operating for most complex systems that are capable of changing and developing new capabilities. I suggest that our society is similar to an individual in this sense and “trivial” accomplishments should be treated as foundational building blocks for more complex feats.
One of my most distinct memories as a child is from the winter of 1997 when I was in second grade. My friend and his mom stopped by at my apartment in the evening to check if the homework that we were given earlier that day was correct. After some investigation it turned out that I was the one who had the wrong homework written down. In fact, I only captured about half of what we were supposed to do, which got me in trouble that night. It’s probably the only reason why I remember this episode so well.
Twenty years later this story seems unreal. The reason why my friend and his mom had to walk to my place is because they didn’t have a landline phone in their apartment. My friend and I grew up in Russia and back in the 90s many families had to deal with this problem. It wasn’t until several years later that they were able to buy and use cell phones and let landline monopolies die a slow death.
Today, I can video chat with my friend, who currently lives on the other side of the globe, while hiking in the mountains or hanging out on a ferry to an island. Kids who are in second grade can email, text, or call teachers directly. Everyone also has access to all kinds of homework—be it elementary school, high school, or college—for any subject in all major languages. Not only do we have access to homework but we can also download or stream video lectures, textbooks, and historical archives of texts and images. All of this is either free or close to free.
You don’t need a fancy computer to access this wealth of knowledge. All you need is a freaking smartphone that can be purchased in most stores for less than $100.
These days we take this magic for granted. Just let it sink in: 20 years ago most of it felt like science fiction. Sure, there were prototypes but they didn’t really work nor were they deployed at scale. Today the proliferation of the Internet and cheap hardware devices is helping accelerate many industries including space exploration, medical research, and, yes, flying cars.
I am a huge fan of science fiction. The kind with interstellar travel, colonies on Mars, and advanced medicine. If you pay attention to what kind of technologies people use in those books and movies you’ll notice that inside of every interstellar spaceship or orbital station there are smartphones, the Internet, social networks (or close analogs), operational dashboards for vast computational resources, and many other things that thousands of tech companies work on today.
I agree: Facebook and Twitter can seem superfluous and at times dangerous. The rise of Trump, fake news, cyber bullying, surveillance state, and social media narcissism are not positive per se. But there is also a lot of good that comes out of those technologies: better ways to keep in contact, public forums, disaster response platforms, and information sharing. More importantly, companies behind those products have to develop sophisticated technologies for working with distributed systems and big data, dealing with outages, and making sure that teams of thousands can keep being productive despite external factors. Advanced technologies and scalable organizations are the basic building blocks that we’ll need to start colonizing planets and travelling to other stars. Overlooking those will cost us dearly.