A short piece in AdAge caught my eye, about the founder of FourSquare, talking about the idea of "frictionless check-ins" (ie. apps that track your location wherever you are, so it can be matched up with key locations, who you are with etc. so that advertisers can then pick people to send 'offers' to). His reply to a question about the privacy implications of this was;
"Whenever you're kind of inventing the future this happens," Mr. Crowley said. "I can think of the number of people who were like, 'I will never get a cellphone because I don't want people calling me all the time. And I will never get on Facebook because I don't want to share that stuff with people. And Twitter, that's not for me.' And this is just the natural progression of things."
It took me a while to figure out why this innocuous quote rubbed me up the wrong way, but I think I've got to the bottom of it.
Firstly, there is nothing "natural" about this kind of progression. This is about services designed by people, technology designed by people, and business models designed around collecting data from people and selling it as a commercial product. To describe this as 'natural progression' (especially as a deflection of a question about the privacy implications of a business tracking your every move) seems incredibly disingenuous – the idea presumably being that you (as a concerned user) are going to have your every move tracked anyway, so why not just go along with it instead of fighting it?
Well, there is clearly a payoff to be made here - what you lose in terms of privacy and control when what used to be personal data moves into the digital (and commercial) space. It seems to me that the real benefit of this kind of service is going to be more along the lines of what Google are doing with Google Now; in exchange for that personal information, you get useful information back – what Eric Schmidt has talked about as the idea that "[…]most people don't want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next."
But it isn't just the implications for privacy that bother me about the quote. The idea of 'inventing the future' had already been on my mind when I saw the interview though. Because I had been mulling over a particular quote for a little while;
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it"
I saw this inspirational quote written on the wall of an office meeting room. It is credited to Abraham Lincoln.
Now, I just don't think that this is something that Abraham Lincoln ever said. Just a hunch, but it seems unlikely to me that Lincoln was really thinking along those lines while trying to preserve the United States. Of course, it could be that the quote is really an inside joke – a nod to Abraham Lincoln's Internet Wisdom, and the running joke about "The trouble with quotes on the internet is that you can never know if they are genuine" ('attributed' to Abraham Lincoln.)
Or it might be that someone forgot that if you Google for something, you tend to find what you are looking for. I don't know who put it up on the wall, and I don't really want to ask in case it isn't a reference to a meme, and its just a misquote.
The thing is, the actual source of the quote is a man called Alan Kay, and if you're interested in the history and development of technology and the people who 'invented the future' that we live in, you might be familiar with him as the inventor of the "Dynabook" – an early concept of what the "personal computer" might look like from the 1970s.
In a paper from 1972 outlining the Dynabook idea, he includes a quote;
"To know the world one must construct it" – Pavese
Although Kay is often credited with the "inventing the future" quote (and certainly deserves to be strongly associated with it), it seems pretty clear that the inspiration came from elsewhere. (And probably not Abraham Lincoln…)
But if you want to see the real meaning of "inventing the future", then you could do far worse than looking at Kay and the work that was going on at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Centre, where he worked in the 1970s). Because PARC was basically where most of the ideas behind what we think of as 'computers' were put together into a coherent product.
At a point in time when the science fiction future of computers involved banks of switches, blinking lights and beeping computers, the guys at PARC were putting together computers with graphical interfaces (ie. WIMP - the idea of a user interface using Windows, Icons, Mouse and Pointer), the Paper Paradigm (the idea that the computer interface would be made up of analogues to the traditional desktop – so, the "desktop", files and folders, the trash can), WYSIWYG ("What You See Is What You Get" – beforehand, what you would type in a word processor wouldn't really give you any clear idea of what it would look like when you printed it out on paper.)
I've written before about how part of the role of fiction (especially science fiction) is to help us to prepare for the future; the idea that Art is a form of cultural defence, which gives us frameworks to think about the kind of ideas that are soon to become a reality. In that context, its worth noting that the way the Dynabook concept document above was written was, literally, as a piece of science fiction.
These basic concepts of what a "computer" is and how it works aren't (and weren't), inevitable, or set in stone. They weren't a "natural progression of things." They were people's ideas and designs, dream up, executed on, iterated and refined. What bugs me about the (misattributed) quote is how much of its meaning is taken away by pulling it out of its context.
Because right now, 40 years on, some of these ideas are being challenged by the current generation of touchscreen phones and tablets. Some of them will survive, some of them will be replaced. Some of them will fade away, because something better will (or has) come along. Some of them will stick around, despite something better coming along. (Consider the QWERTY keyboard layout — designed to stop typewriter keys from sticking, surviving the transition to electronic keyboards, handheld keyboards, and now touchscreens — despite arguably better designs being introduced.)
The thing that is so impressive about the work that was going on back then at PARC isn't just how many of their ideas have lasted so long, but how much of what they were creating is now considered 'normal.' I don't think many people really think about how everything in how a computer works wasn't 'natural' or 'obvious' or 'inevitable', but was the product of human imagination and the hard work to execute the ideas that they came up with. There is nothing fundamental to the workings of a microchip that means a computer should have a 'desktop' and 'windows', that files should be saved in folders, or that the documents on a screen should be laid out following the conventions of desktops and paper-based design.
So the story behind the quote, the man, the place and the work is a fascinating one. The culture of what was happening on the west coast of America — PARC, Stanford, ARPA, Douglas Engelbart, Vintage Cerf etc. were fundamental in shaping the tech scene of Silicon Valley today. This was the birthplace of modern computers, networks, and the Internet. The designs that influenced the original Apple Macintosh, and Microsoft Windows.
Because the point is that the future is ours — it is up to us to decide what we want to do, what problems we want to solve, what challenges are worth taking on, what ideas and dreams we want to turn into a reality – and what we don't.
That is what "inventing the future" means. "We" are inventing the future – people/companies like FourSquare are a part of that, but so are the users who choose to sign up for them, to opt in to particular services and to share particular data. The idea that "inventing the future" is the preserve of a Silicon Valley elite, while the billion+ users of these services are just somehow passively along for the ride is what grates to me.