What Technology will Define the 21st Century?

Technology can have unintended consequences. The automobile was designed to get people from here to there. What perhaps wasn’t foreseen at first was the changes it would have on society. The car enabled people to flee the cities and move to the suburbs. The structure of how we all live and work was completely transformed.

The car certainly defined the 20th Century. What will define the 21st Century? Hand held devices like the iPod or iPad are off to the early lead. If you are sitting at home your iPad probably isn’t far from your reach. Outside, people no longer really look where they are going because they are checking their email on the iPhone. We have even had to pass laws to get people to stop talking on the phone while driving.

There have been a lot of direct consequences of the iPad and devices like it. It has already transformed our leisure life. It has taken all of the media and games we consume and brought them to us in a new way. One of the things that made it so effective was how adaptable it was and how much you could personalize it.

So what might be the unintended consequences of all of these hand held devices? The iPad is already proving to be the gateway to the smart home. In the coming years it will surely be at the epicenter of how we control all of the devices in our life, whether it be the refrigerator, the lights or the TV. But however much it might simplify our life by serving as a universal remote, it seems to me that devices like the iPad mostly create new wants and needs.

Have we unleashed the genie of consumerism with the latest sleek mobile device? Some might have thought it hard for our society to get more consumerist, but maybe it is possible. Many of the green mantras of yesterday seem hopelessly outdates in our brave new mobile device world. Doesn’t reduce, reuse and recycle (the 3Rs) seem hopelessly outdated? I’m not sure if the 100-Mile Diet ever really had a chance in a world where we expect everything instantly at our fingertips.

Is there any other technology out there or will this Century be defined by Steve Jobs? I think there is the possibility that cars can also define the 21st Century, but much differently than they did the 20th.

Electric cars have arrived, but the technology hasn’t reached the tipping point yet – to say the least. But once it does, clearly cars will have a smaller eco footprint. That would be the intended consequence. But will there be any unintended consequences? I think something as technologically complex as an electric engine could actually become an icon for simplicity. To date so many of the things in our life are disposable – nothing more so than the iPad or a gallon of gas. But an engine that ran on something that was totally renewable, might just make people see things a little differently and then maybe live a little differently. Now that would be truly revolutionary. It might even put the genie back into the bottle.


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