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How Little the Future is Focused on the Future August 30, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, change, technology, transformation.
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“This new generation does not waste time speculating about the future.  Its attitude seems to be: Who needs the future? The present is plenty interesting on its own.”

The most striking thing about the best technology writing of 2009 is how little of it focuses on the future.

So opens the introduction of The Best Technology Writing 2009, as in the past made up of short articles from periodicals, blogs, newspapers. And how refreshing to discover a technology reader that continually returns us – neither to the foreseeable future nor the recent past – but to the eternal now. Readers and writers both were invited by the Yale University Press to nominate pieces, and even self-nominations are encouraged, with a preference for “profiles, policy, and Big Think pieces including blog posts, features, and investigative reporting; human interest, humor, business and gadgetry.”

In other words, the usual geeky fair with the ideal submissions being engagingly written for a mass audience, no longer than 5,000 words and published in 2008 (explaining how the 2009 collection – though with an official publishing date in October, can be had in August.)

Guest edited (given their quality it would be more accurate to say curated collection of essays) by Steven Johnson author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, it turns out that the criteria for inclusion in the collection is as creative and open-sourced as the content within.

Some of Johnson’s favorite passages in this collection “have this introspective quality: the mind examining its own strange adaption to a world that has been transformed by information technology.”

With our preoccupation with all things online we may have inadvertently missed a remarkable streak of emotive writing when learning of the previous collections: last year’s The Best of Technology Writing 2008, Sherry Turkle, Director, MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and author of my current favorite read Simulation and Its Discontents (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life), wrote “reading this collection, one suspects he is right—it sparkles with beautifully written narratives not only about what technology can do for us but what it does to us as people, to our ways of thinking about ourselves, our relationships, and how we envisage our world.” The human element in this collection looms large.

There has been much written in the past about “High Tech, High Touch,” the balancing and rebalancing of the cool innovations of technology with the all-too-human interface. The essays selected for The Best Technology Writing 2009 take “touch” to another plane altogether when you consider how in touch they are with our feelings about our current – and human – condition.

The Best of Technology Writing 2007 also touched on the human element (social networking, “crowdsourcing” and the online habits of urban moms, amongst others) and the changes that connected computers have brought to this aspect of human behavior.

The current collection contains essays by Nicholas Carr [worrying that Google is making us stupid,] Dana Goodyear [heartbreakingly chronicling the renaissance of the cell phone novel,] Andrew Sullivan [on why he blogs,] Dalton Conley [on how the wealthy overwork in the information age,] and a particularly incisive essay by Clay Shirky marveling at the “cognitive surplus” unleashed by the decline of the TV sitcom, resulting in Wikipedia and perhaps the saving of the earth, amongst many others.

So why should architects of all stripes bother with this annual collection of well-wrought wisdom? For many reasons – not the least of which being that architects – whether building or software – can get pretty wrapped-up in the latest technology and software only to be reminded that it is people that count. People – who use the buildings or programs, people who we are designing for. A simple message perhaps – but one we need reminding of each day as we sit before the monitor and design.

Something that says a great deal about technology today is that I discovered the book at my local bookstore and shamelessly ordered it from Amazon at 7:30PM that weekday evening only for it to arrive – free of charge – at 3PM the next afternoon. That’s technology for you – but also excellent customer service. The “get it in two-day” delivery option under-promised and over-performed – what any self-respecting service provider (including architect) would strive to do. Needless to say, with an official release date still months away, let it be acknowledged that this is the book’s first review.

As Johnson concludes in his introduction, “sometimes, when the future finally arrives, the most surprising thing you discover is that things aren’t that different after all.” Bless this realization.

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Comments»

1. Alison MacKeen - September 11, 2009

Dear Randy,

Many thanks for this great review–I worked on the book at Yale UP and so was thrilled to see this first wonderful response. Best, Alison


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