The Imagination Age

This month’s Tech Review has an editorial that begins “Inventing the future…” and end with these two paragraphs:

“Traditionally, Technology Review hasn’t written that much about society. Our subject matter is emerging technologies, and they have historically been purchased by corporations, universities, and governments. That’s because emerging technologies used to require an extraordinary capital investment, one well beyond the means of most people in their private capacities. Nor did most people see the need to experiment with really novel technologies. Thus the personal computer, the local-area network, the Internet itself were all first used in commercial, government, or academic settings.

”But this is changing. The spread of cheap laptops, handheld devices, affordable Internet access, Wi-Fi, and a dozen other consumer technologies has led to a wonderful explosion of new social applications for them. But here’s the really interesting thing: most of these social technologies have simple editing and programming tools that let ordinary folks do innovative things that risk-averse corporations and government agencies would be hesitant to try. We suspect that Technology Review will be writing about the impact of new technologies on society much more frequently. Besides, social technologies are more fun.”

Here’s the letter to the editors that I just sent:

Your “Society Readme” (June 2005) was quite right to recognize the significance of designing modern media to let ordinary folks do innovative things, and not merely be the recipients of institutionally created information. I believe we are on the cusp of the biggest technology-driven societal change in the 100 year history of Technology Review. This transition needs a name.

As the industrial was passing to the information age, Marshall McLuhan taught us to pay attention to the effect that the dominant medium has on the people that use it. Alan Kay has since observed that the computer is the first meta medium, able to be many other communications and artistic media within a single context. Wow! What effect does that have on the society it dominates? What happens when such a meta-medium transparently supports interactive collaboration?

So far, the networked computer’s speed and global reach has emphasized and perpetuated the importance of information. This is Vannevar Bush’s institutionally-driven 1945 dream of a “machine that could track and retrieve vast volumes of information.” (The Dream of a Lifetime, June 2005.) As the networked computer matures, it will be as unnoticeable during use as today’s industrial tools and aids. When this happens, we will enter a new age – the Imagination Age – in which ordinary individuals can translate their ideas into reality even more easily than industrial entities have transformed iron, or institutional entities have transformed information. The fluid and collaborative juxtaposition, creation, and manipulation of ideas will augment every individual’s ability to develop, communicate and act on their ideas. This is the iPod-scaled democratization of Doug Englebart’s 1968 dream of an “augmented architect.”

We are already seeing the effects of the passage to the imagination age. Witness the tension surrounding intellectual property as we wrestle with the internal contradictions discussed throughout your June 2005 issue. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. While people now ponder the notion of reducing human genetic identity to information, I now wonder what will happen when billions of individuals can easily explore and express their wildest imaginations and share them directly with other individuals. Surely, past formulations of intellectual property and identity are beginning to fail. The non-violent fall of the Soviet system and anti-individual terrorism may both be early effects of this transition.

As the story unfolds, I look forward to your reporting on technology and its relationship to society.

– – –

I’ve used the phrase, “Age of Imagination” once before on Wetmachine, but my wife has been saying this since 1989. We were newly engaged and fascinated by the breathtaking changes in eastern Europe. It was not just that people could organize peaceful revolution with a fax machine. It was that this power was wielded not by institutions, but by individuals in their own homes, communicating directly with other individuals.

Meanwhile, Robin had been quietly transforming the publishing production industry by using the newly available typesetting software on this thing called a Macintosh. Book pre-press services used to require a whole institution of designers and typesetters and layout specialists. They had whole rooms full of type drawers, and lots of folks at drawing boards and desks. Now a single person could produce an entire book. Before she was 25, this single woman in New York had founded a company and ran it from her apartment. To us, SoHo meant South Of Houston street, but Robin’s Small Office / Home Office soon had a bunch of people and clients among the big publishing houses. It was the beginning of the outsourcing trend. Sure, computers sucked, but they could also be empowering! What if they became affordable and easy enough to use that any individual could just work out what their ideas and convey them directly to others? And we meant not just use to read stuff, but to imagine stuff that had never existed. Surely, this wasn’t just about processing data, this was about ideas. Imagination, not information.

Which brings us back to Croquet. The current Tech Review also has Bill Joy’s review of the new book on the hippie-dreamer contribution to the development of the PC. If drug culture was about enhancing imagination, the personal computer was meant to realize it. The dream was personified by Doug Englebart’s vision of an architect working with something that sounds to me like the holodeck computer on the Enterprise. Bill notes that we aren’t there yet. “And we’re no better at entering into the computer’s environment than it is at understanding ours. The best commonly available immersive technology we have today is the video game, not the architectural design package. We, sadly, spend much more of our collective energy and focus on virtual reality for entertainment than for education and augmentation.” But he has faith: “We have, or will soon have, sufficient computing power to build interactive, immersive, and aware software, so that the rooms in which we work, as architects or engineers, scientists or students, can routinely become immersive and interactive environments.”

If Croquet doesn’t typify the Imagination Age, then what does?

P.S. – I’ve just googled “Age of Imagination.” It’s trademarked by an ad agency.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.

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