The Future, So Far
Behind all the great material inventions of the last century and a half was not merely a long internal development of technics: There was also a change of mind.
There is a point of view—generally called “technological determinism”—that essentially says that each technological breakthrough inexorably leads to the next. Once we have light bulbs, we will inevitably stumble upon vacuum tubes. When we see what they can do, we will rapidly be led to transistors, and integrated circuits and microprocessors will not be far behind. This process—goes the argument—is essentially automatic, with each domino inevitably knocking down the next, as we careen toward some unknown but predetermined future.
We are not sure we would go that far, but it is certainly the case that each technological era sets the stage for the next. The future may or may not be determined, but a discerning observer can do a credible job of paring down the alternatives. All but the shallowest of technological decisions are necessarily made far in advance of their appearance in the market, and by the time we read about an advance on the cover of Time magazine, the die has long since been cast. Indeed, although designers of all stripes take justifiable pride in their role of “inventing the future,” a large part of their day-to-day jobs involves reading the currents and eddies of the flowing river of science and technology in order to help their clients navigate.
Although we are ...