Written in 2010 when asked by Forbes about what 2020 might be like …
The future of “ubiquitous computing” has been heralded for decades. It sounds grandiose–computing, everywhere!–but ironically, a future of ubiquitous computing is one where computers actually go unnoticed. That’s 2020. It is when Nicholas Negroponte’s assertion in 1995 of “being digital” switches to “been digital” because we will have been there and done that. Kids who have grown up stealing free views of recent movie releases online or regularly chatting with a friend in Bangalore or Atlanta will be working adults in a world where the notion of “work” has changed because of digital technology. But it’s no longer “technology” in 2020 anymore–it’s just how we get things done.
Consider attempts by schools to quell mobile phone usage in the classroom. In many parts of Asia, where the mobile phone took hold sooner than in the U.S., schools have given up. To a student in Hong Kong, their mobile phone is as vital as the beating of their heart. The word “mobile” means your world can all “go” with you, and by 2020 it will be too hard to imagine going without. We won’t carry today’s angst of feeling tied to our mobile devices in an apologetic sort of way. Instead, it will be the accepted norm, an innate part of daily life, and will vanish within our collective consciousness.
But if technology and the ability to be connected disappear further into the background, what will occupy our foreground? A bit of the humanity we’ve always valued in the “real world.” Legislators who are currently fixated on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education as the key to innovation will realize that STEM needs some STEAM — some art in the equation. We’ll witness a return to the integrity of craft, the humanity of authorship, and the rebalancing of our virtual and physical spaces. We’ll see a 21st-century renaissance in arts- and design-centered approaches to making things, where you–the individual–will take center stage in culture and commerce.
The software industry is poised to embrace its craft heritage. By 2020 software will return to a cottage industry, with bespoke applications made by many, rather than today’s industrialized, Microsoft-esque mass-production and distribution model. It will be part of a larger world movement to make things by hand, infused with emotion and integrity. This phenomenon is already becoming visible in the rise of the “apps” market for mobile phones. With few dominant players and close-to-zero distribution costs, practically anyone can “ship” an app on the iPhone, Android or BlackBerry. These apps are often built with care and attention to the design that big companies’ offerings lack. Look at the exquisite quality made by game companies like Iconfactory; or the many iPhone apps like ToonPaint that focus on letting users make “hand-crafted” creative content on their phones.
Rather than be content to accept corporate anonymity, we will rediscover the value of authorship. In 2020 technology will continue to enable individual makers to operate in the same way that once only large corporations could do. Witness the growth of individuals as “brands-of-one” in the social media space, broadcasting their news in the same fashion as major media outlets, or in software apps marketplaces, where “Bob Schula” can hawk his wares right next to “Adobe Systems,” and it’s just as easy to buy hand-stenciled napkins from a seller on Etsy as it is to buy them from Crate & Barrel. You might say it is a return to learning to trust individuals again, instead of relying on an indirect connection to a product through trust in its brand. Certainly our trust in those brands is already being tested right now.
Digital metaphors will reconnect to their original physical sources as a way to recapture what has been lost in translation. A creative director friend of mine recently commented how he noticed that younger designers were absolutely captivated when he used tracing paper in layers to develop a concept over an existing printed photograph. They commented to him, “Wow! That’s so fast. I could never make those layers in Photoshop so quickly.” Today we fill folders on our computer desktop to the brim with absolutely no sense of scale, no notion of what is a “full” or “less full” folder. They may be more easily searched, but there’s a reason why paper-based systems comfort us so well with their tacit communication of what is more vs. what is less. Unable to let this go, we will see many new designs that best leverage what is good in virtual with what is good in the physical world. The subtleties and grayness that we can so easily grasp off the screen will make their way on to it.
In 2019, I appear to be saying the same thing. Phew.
The last 20 years have been so full of technological change that technology and the digital world has become the dominant narrative in our consumer culture. Educators, legislators, futurists and social scientists can’t help but fixate on it. As we become more accustomed to it, happily, some breathing room will open up for a different conversation about what we want back in our lives.
So, what will take technology’s place? It begins with art, design and you: Products and culture that are made by many individuals, made by hand, made well, made by people we trust, and made to capture some of the nuances and imperfections that we treasure in the physical world. It may just feel like we’ve regained some of what we’ve lost in 2010.