A Future Worth Loving

If the Internet is an ocean, I am a fish. This is where much of my life has been lived, and so I have grown to love it, warts and all. It has enabled, for me, that which I love most in the world: endless knowledge and learning. I never went to university — my education has been largely digital, from beginning to end. Some of my earliest memories are of exploring Encyclopedia Britannica, watching animations about windmills and levies. I remember the first day I found Wikipedia — I immediately went on a 2-hour dive through black holes on through retinas and cow-tipping. I just couldn’t believe that such an expansive resource existed. Everything I know about design and programming has been learned online. I’ve devoted thousands of hours to lectures and documentaries. For me, computers and the Internet really are a bottomless spring of knowledge and ideas.

This isn’t how many people see or use the Internet. For a time, this irked me, similar to the way a dancer might feel about someone who’s never danced — something of intrinsic value, perhaps not actually essential to modern life. Today, however, there is no question that the Internet is a central component of so many of our daily routines and exchanges. Watching this growth, that irksome feeling has steadily grown into a deep concern for the ways computers are failing to unite us, or even creating divisions where before none existed. While the Internet opens up rich new channels of exploration and connection, others seem to be closing.

One beauty of the Internet is that you can, at this very moment, go to YouTube and find all manner of skills demonstrated by people around the world. Your Facebook feed is likely sprinkled with photos of various hobbies, projects, and achievements. And it’s all inferior to experiencing things in real life. The online conversations we share about these activities — particularly with friends and family — are often unsatisfying, lifeless and primitive imitations of real world communication.

For some people, their purest and most powerful form of expression is with a paintbrush. For others, it’s a guitar. A basketball. A pen. A sewing needle. A steering wheel. A deck of cards. Pick whatever you want — there’s someone, somewhere who could stun you with their mastery over these inert objects, that could expose you to new thoughts and ideas through the creative expression realized in their demonstration. It’s passions and talents like these that weave the fabric of culture and enrich the human experience. But on the Internet, these skills are worth only their weight in views and likes.

Imagine if you were to meet an elite pianist. She tells you about her favorite piece, and how much she loves to perform it for others. Gesturing to a piano, she offers to give you a demonstration. She sits down at the bench, pulls out her phone, and shows you a YouTube recording of her performance. The feeling this bait-and-switch gives you? That’s the emotional gap between watching a video and having a genuine experience. It’s what we accept for much of our intimate interactions in the year 2015.

Perhaps a glib metaphor — but I genuinely believe computers, tablets, and phones are failing to engage us as human beings. Our methods of interaction with modern technology are simple and rigid, especially when compared with the limitless dexterity of the human hand. Most of our communication starts with clicking, scrolling, swiping, and typing. These basic actions are the gateway to everything that everyone does online. All that we do, all that we are, is being entirely channeled through a keyboard, and what we get back is imprisoned behind a flat piece of glass.

The reason this matters is that behind the glass plate, connections to the rest of the world await. Vast sums of knowledge are there for the taking. But many people will never venture far past that glass, because they want to be in the real world. They want to use their hands — not just their index finger. They want to be with people, face-to-face, in the flesh. They want to experience the world in context. These should not be qualities that separate anyone from the acquisition of knowledge.

Few people genuinely say “I never want to learn about science” or “I wish I knew less about what was going on in the world”. What we’re resistant to is the time and effort required, especially when life is already so relentless and exhausting. Maybe cynicism pushes us to a point of apathy or despair, where we lack the inclination to even feign intrigue, but this is a separate issue. Humans are generally curious and love to learn. Where we differ is in how this curiosity is exposed and in what methods of learning are most effective. Given the right environment with meaningful engagement, you can get most people excited about complex, even esoteric subjects.

I don’t just mean fancy iPad apps or intuitive interfaces for complex mathematics. These are important and necessary, but they’re just the next step.

I’m talking chalkboards that understand shapes and objects. We can empower people to communicate bigger, more complicated ideas with greater ease and clarity.

Combine this with interactive holographs, pneumatic interfaces, and dynamic shape displays. We can leave the plate of glass behind entirely, bringing abstract phenomenon directly into the real world, allowing us not just to visualize, but to interact and play with complex models. Calculus, cell biology, and organic chemistry could cease to be locked behind variables and formulas, but could transform into the beautiful and dynamic processes they really are, in ways that everyone can understand.

Throw in some programmable soft-bodied robots with 3D printed parts. 3D printing alone represents enormous possibility, especially if mixed with advancements in interface design. Robots — even simple ones — advance this in unimaginable ways. Everyone, young and old, could share an equivalent ability to enact change on their environment. I really think that’s possible.

Last but not least, virtual and augmented reality are just around the corner. Implemented correctly, augmented reality could mean the whole world can be explained and enhanced. For a long time I used a little plugin for Trillian that would automatically link any words in a conversation to a Wikipedia article, viewable on hover. I found it to be very empowering, especially in conversing with people much older than myself, where they would frequently use terms and references I didn’t know. We can do that in three dimensions. We can identify objects in our environment, and give people the tools to analyze and understand these objects. Whatever HUD we’ve seen in movies pales in comparison to what is actually possible with these technologies.

We could move beyond sharing recordings of experiences, to sharing experiences in real-time. We could completely abandon phones and keyboards for interfaces that adapt to us, wherever we are, whatever we need. Our technology could help us make decisions, rather than giving us more decisions to make. The basis of our relationship with computers could no longer be one of frustration and struggle, but fundamentally empowering throughout our lives.

This is a lot of idealistic hyperbole, I admit. Maybe none of these things will catch on, perhaps for very realistic and practical reasons. But it all lends hope to the idea that one day, we can make technology that works well for everyone, that gives people more ways to interact than just words, pictures, and videos that we numbly jab our fingers at.

In 2015, these are not challenges that our devices are equipped to tackle. It would truly be a miserable condition to stay where we are now, and we won’t replace them if we begin to believe that they are at all sufficient. These phones and tablets are, in the grand scheme, meager inventions that should insult our dignity as the most advanced sentient species on the planet. Impressive as these devices are, we are capable of far better.

I would love to try and prognosticate further what precisely this looks like, but I have read enough magazines from the 1950’s to know better. The possibilities really are infinite. If the human race can master these tools, if we can spread universal understanding of the world’s basic machinations, if we can identify and encourage the natural talents of individuals, and if we can foster meaningful sharing and serious collaboration on mass scales — god, just imagine that world. It is a place worth pursuing whole-heartedly.

This post is heavily inspired by Bret Victor’s beautiful talk, The Humane Representation of Thought