Friday, 10 February 2017

Mega Tech - Ed. Daniel Franklin ***

It's almost impossible to review a book like this without quoting Niels Bohr, who (amongst others) said 'Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future,' so I'm not going to try. 

In principle, futurology is the most hilarious part of science writing, as it is so entertaining when unworldly academics get their predictions wonderfully wrong. (Dresses made from paper will be the norm by 2000, Dr Toffler? Really?) Yet strangely, in practice, futurology tends not to be very amusing because the books are almost always unbelievably dull to read.

To an extent, Mega Tech gets over this by having lots of short pieces by different authors. I am often critical of the 'piecemeal appraisal' approach to a topic, because the essays rarely integrate well, but at least here it means there are nuggets of gold amongst the mediocre - notably, for example, Ann Winblad's ideas on computing based on her early experience with Bill Gates and Ryan Avent's take on the socioeconomic impact of technological development and innovation. I was also fascinated by the essay on military technology, which captured me at the start with the remarkable statistic that the current record for a sniper using a rifle is a British soldier who, in Afghanistan in 2009, shot two Taliban machine-gunners from a distance of 2,475 metres. That's further than my walk to the post office.

Even so, some of the suggestions here already seem wide of the mark. A couple of frontrunners mentioned are virtual reality and voice interaction with technology. Both are promising, yet the authors fail to recognise that it's almost always the case that such technologies end up in a very different form to the early versions. They really need to learn the lesson I got from attending the Windows 95 launch over 20 years ago. Microsoft confidently told us in 1995 that the internet would remain a university and military domain, while the commercial future was with the commercial networks of the likes of AOL, Compuserve and Microsoft's newly launched MSN. That went well.

Looking at the two examples I mention, virtual reality will definitely catch on, but I suspect that it will come in two forms. The book simply carries forward current headsets, but those may well only ever have a significant presence in gaming and the short-term use spaces like cinemas, not, as Mega Tech suggests, replacing our general screen use. Look at 3D TV. As I write, manufacturer after manufacturer is pulling out of 3D television production. Very few people wanted it. We're happy to wear 3D glasses to watch a 2 hour movie in the cinema, but not for our mainstream screen use. Apart from anything else, when watching the TV, we talk to others, interact with phones, eat and drink... we don't want something clamped on our face while doing this. Virtual reality in this environment is only likely to become the norm when we can do it without strapping something on.

As for voice interaction, it's brilliant, but Mega Tech doesn't do enough to reflect its limitations. I wouldn't be without my Amazon Echo - but the book claims voice input will soon replace old-fashioned keyboards and mice/trackpads. This is only true for a subset of uses. Firstly, voice struggles outside the commonplace. I spent a hilarious ten minutes trying to get the Echo to play Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. I failed. Voice won't cope with this for a long time. And secondly, while many of us might be happy to dictate a tweet, have you ever tried to edit text by voice? Imagine it: 'The word "the", hang on... erm... sixteen, no, seventeen lines down on the current page, the second occurrence on the line, should actually be "thee" with a second "e" at the end of the word' is never going to seem convenient when compared with a click on the mouse and a single keypress.

Overall, this was one of the better futurology books I've read. There were large chunks that needed skim reading to avoid them becoming tedious, but there were some really captivating points too. Indubitably most of it was wrong - but, as the introduction points out, that doesn't stop it being worthwhile speculating... as long as no one takes this as a true picture of the future.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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