Russell Davies: Tech developments that no-one foresaw are most intriguing

By Russell Davies, russell@russelldavies.com, campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 01 March 2012 08:00AM

The most joyous aspects of emerging technologies are those that no-one predicts - or those that live at the margins of the emerging networks.

Russell Davies: Tech developments that no-one foresaw are most intriguing

That's probably obvious, but I'm always surprised and delighted when I find a new example and feel like I need to remind myself that this is where the really interesting stuff happens - the stuff that's culturally dense, the place where you find real insight.

For example, there are now trucks that turn up at New York schools so children can deposit their phones for the day. How did this come about? Schools in New York prohibit mobile phones, so some enterprising individuals have customised ice-cream-van-style trucks that park outside schools in the morning, collect phones off kids, charge them a small fee and hand out cards so they can retrieve them at the end of the day.

No-one looked at the first Motorola DynaTAC and predicted this would happen 30 years later. And yet, what a fascinating little subculture of rules and conventions must surround those trucks, what a brilliant place to do ethnography. And, if asked, would you predict these things will last, or will they disappear? Will they expand from phones into all sorts of other services, adding all sorts of peripatetic services for teens? Or will they quickly disappear, killed off by a change in regulation or technology? I have no idea, but it's a good thing to think about.

Another one: there are books written by robots on Amazon - expensive books - and other robots are pretending to have copies of those books for sale and are having bidding wars with further robots about them.

There's an utterly fascinating post about this concept at http://carlos.bueno.org/2012/02/bots-seized-control.html. This tells the tale of a robot-written book (it scrapes the text from Wikipedia entries and, if anyone ever orders a copy, prints it on demand) about the Turing Test, which is a test to determine if you're human or software. It contains the following, awesome passage: "So with 'Turing Test' we have a delightful futuristic absurdity: a computer program, pretending to be human, hawking a book about computers pretending to be human, while other computer programs pretend to have used copies of it. A book that was never actually written, much less printed and read."

No-one looked at Amazon for the first time and imagined that would happen. That's why prediction is such a mug's game. The only safe bet is to assume all sorts of odd little consequences will spring from any big technological change. Imagining the unintended consequences when robots are trading all our media always has me chuckling. When they're writing the ads, it'll be even better.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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