Technology moves so quickly these days that each generation is defined by the gizmos it cannot use. The home espresso machine collects dust. Smartphones go uncustomized. Appliance digital clocks eternally blink 12:00. Technological sophistication as a youth does not inoculate you. The retired heart surgeon is defeated by his voice mail. An engineer who helped land men on the moon in the 1960s will stare blank-eyed at a TiVo menu. Even a veteran of punch-card Fortran programming back in the day might find himself quizzing his children as to where exactly on his PC the Internet resides.
Those of us who are technologically adept and still young watch this and ask ourselves: will that someday be me? At some point a few decades from now will some ubiquitous piece of technology utterly confound us? The inevitability of physical decay is something we’re reconciled to. That one day the music popular among teenagers will strike us as inane seems fitting and right. But consumer electronics? Doesn’t today’s sophisticated user possess the kind of meta-knowledge that will allow them to avoid tomorrow’s pitfalls? Sure there will be new user interfaces to navigate, but they will be just other metaphors, no more challenging than conceiving of a TV monitor as a “desktop”. There will be new feats of manual dexterity, but so what: we learned to text, right?
Don’t be so sure. Complacency is how they get you. All the smartphone sophistication you possess today merely ensures that the next big thing to come down the pike will be not at all smartphone-like. So what will it be? What is the thing thirty years hence that will be like an iPod to a steam engine? It’s a fool’s game to try and answer, but I’ll give it a shot anyway: transcranial controllers.
The future will see vast improvements in the ability to process electronic signals originating in the brain. What today can be crudely sensed by an array of electrodes glued to the skull will tomorrow be subtly discerned a sensor from across the living room. Actual mind-reading will remain impossible, but machines will be able to detect certain broad, intentional thoughts loud and clear. Basically your head will become a remote control. Instead of mashing a button on a plastic box in order to play music, unlock a car, or open a garage door (there will still be garage doors), you will simply think “Turn on”, “Open”, or “Louder” and, as long as you’re within fifteen feet or so of a TC receptor, an attached machine will do your bidding.
However, you must make the electronic profile of the triggering thought clear and unambiguous. How do you do that? Well, you just sort of–do it. Sometimes you’ll be sitting there in front of the TV thinking “Louder…Louder!” and nothing will happen because you’re failing to mentally sculpt a command the receptor recognizes. The skill is akin to certain aspects of athletics or music–the ability to try without really trying. But that makes it sound more mystical than it is. The real trick is to be fifteen years old and have been using TC devices since you were a toddler so that they are completely second nature. The effortless ability of kids who weren’t even born in the simpler days of iPhones and email will infuriate you, and their inability to explain how they do it will infuriate you even more.
–You’re getting upset. It doesn’t work when you’re upset.
–I’m upset because it doesn’t work!
Eventually you’ll be stuck with an older generation of consumer goods because the newer ones won’t even have goddam buttons on them. You’ll grudgingly master TCing open your front door and turning on the house lights, but never quite master the stove. And as for the literally mind-boggling array of multimedia entertainment options–forget about it. There’s nothing but a bunch of junk on anyway. You’ll take up gardening. There’s no escaping. Age will get you too.