A couple of weeks ago, I compiled a short list of films attempting to predict what the future would look like. Immediately, it was clear that many of these predictions were devastatingly, hilariously wrong.
Ignoring entirely the complete lack of atomic fertilisers or three-wheeled cars (Reliant Robins notwithstanding), predictions of that sort often fail to take into account the way society itself can change due to technological advancement.
So, for instance, although futurists accurately predicted that automating labour in the home would mean that housewives would have to do less work, they did not predict that doing so would free up women to join the labour market. As an article in Nautilus Magazine explains:
One futurist noted that a 1960s film of the “office of the future” made on-par technological predictions (fax machines and the like), but had a glaring omission: The office had no women.
However, we shouldn’t be at all shocked by these oversights. After all, using technology in surprising ways is kind of what human beings do. Consider, for example, the humble flathead screwdriver: although designed to tighten screws, it can also be used to open tins of paint, or as a means of defence against an attacker, or as an improvised drum stick.
There is something richly open-ended about technology, in that it facilitates certain kinds of acts that would have previously been impossible. For example, Minitel/Teletel (see photograph above), a precursor of the internet, was originally planned as a source of publicly-available information for subscribers, but it became far more notorious as a repository for dodgy online businesses.
More recently, the series of democratic uprisings in the Arab world known as the Arab Spring would have been impossible without the aid of an unlikely tool: Twitter. Although often regarded with a sense of disdain, Twitter became an important means by which democracy activists could coordinate their activity. This activity, of course, led to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and the collapse of the Mubarak regime.
It is true that technological advancements often have unexpected applications, both good and bad. However, simply because technology has unintended consequences does not mean that we should be afraid of it. To the contrary, we should try to be prepared for what comes next.
This means that we should do our best to find out all that we can about current scientific and technological innovation – and maybe even be a part of that innovation by becoming engineers and scientists ourselves.
After all, the future is ours to make.