Magazine article The Spectator

The Shape of Things to Come

Magazine article The Spectator

The Shape of Things to Come

Article excerpt

TODAY isn't quite as the past foresaw it. Few, if any, of us seem to live on the moon with robot butlers. Britain's most pressing social problem is not how to manage the vast amount of leisure time that computerisation was supposed to grant us. Other than a brief shell-suited period in the late Eighties and early Nineties, we haven't taken to wearing homogenous one-piece body-suits. One noticeable difference, though, between the present and the recent past is that we no longer make such extravagant predictions about the future. For all the hoo-hah about the Internet, its evangelists never really sing. Predictions made by scientists of `marginally better telephones' or `slightly more intelligent toasters' hardly seem to augur social revolution. The real difference between futurology today and yesterday is that a generation ago it was fatally dependent upon technological pipe-dreams. Today, the technology's here.

For this we don't have state corporations, so beloved of Sixties futurists, to thank. Or ministries of technology, or even university labs. No, we've got business to thank. What separates our technology-- based visions of the future from those in the Sixties is that we're dealing with realisable techno-dreams. This emphasis on the practical stems from the fact that business only ever exploits a technology when there's a genuine `value-add'.

No matter how good an idea someone might be working on in a bedsit in Hackney or a science park in Cambridge, the only thing that will drive it forward is not its intrinsic conceptual beauty, but its utility as a money-spinner. That's why peeking at the future is best done by looking at those corporate dinosaurs, likely despite visions of a marketplace dominated by a multitude of small-scale `sunrise companies' - to survive in this brave new world. Adastral Park, BT's research and development centre in Martlesham Heath, Suffolk, is an obvious example. Here, most of the 4,500 employees are engaged in short-to-medium-term product development. But a small pool of anywhere between 200 and 600 conduct `blue skies' research. In the words of their `Advanced Concepts Manager', Graham Whitehead, this means `doing the work BT doesn't yet know it wants done'.

The object in the corner of the room is going to be among the biggest beneficiaries of this bold thinking. For television sets, or certainly their kissing cousins, are about to become a whole lot smarter, transformed from mere receivers of pictures to `information portals'. Every item of electronic hardware, such as computers or mobile phones, will be controlled by this single point of reference. For instance, you will be able to use your information portal (i.e. your television) to watch EastEnders, while elsewhere in the house the same box of brains is being simultaneously used to access the Internet, or as a phone, or for videoconferencing, or shopping. Information portals need not be televisions. The device used to control all your previously discrete electronic toys could even be, in Mr Whitehead's words, 'a wristwatch on steroids'. This portal will compose documents, buy shares, send e-- mails, control our house lights while we're hillwalking in the Highlands.

The Now revolution will ensure that we'll be better served by technology, our majordomo in this instance being artificial intelligence units. In the case of television, this means a monitor will accompany you into the wonderful world of 3,000 channels. …

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