21st Century Omnipotence
Many lament the present day’s lack of flying cars and other tell-tale signs of the archetypical science fiction future. Some may not realize it, but we’re already living in such a future. For example, I know everything. Seriously, you can ask me any question and you will receive an accurate answer or an explanation for your paltry attempt at a (not very) clever ruse to trip up my initial statement. For 13ish hours a day, I’m sitting in front of a computer with a passable Internet connection. Any other waking hours are covered by two—yes, I carry two phones—LTE capable devices which can search the metaphorical web absurdly quickly, even by today’s standards. I continue to read articles and hear people talk about getting away from such connectivity. Society continues to pine for the future, yet complains about it when it finally arrives.
For some extraordinary amount of time, all answers were contained in minds—spectacularly unreliable, usually difficult to corral—which sounds absolutely dreadful for anybody interested in learning something above “wilderness survival.” If you—and this is you in what I’m imagining as some prehistoric period, but I’m not a history major so bear with me—just ate poison berries, the odds of finding the guy who can a) identify the berries and b) can, well, save you are really low, probably because you died already while you tried to remember which series of grunts made up the doctor’s name, and where you saw him last, which might not be near where he lives. Life expectancy was obviously low, but so was breadth of knowledge. You basically did all you could to learn about the stuff that was going to kill you, and then spent most of your mental efforts avoiding all of that. There was no time, nor much of a benefit to learning anything above sustenance.
The advent of written word brought scrolls and books, which are generally flammable, and are generally stuck in fixed locations across larger, more useful quantities of knowledge storage (I’m going for libraries). For most of the modern era, civil arguments, e.g. the year Beethoven’s 9th Symphony first premiered, which I’m just going to assume was high pop culture trivia in the 19th century, were settled by finding a written account about it, or asking that old guy with a really good memory who you should really get to write a memoir or something because he’s not going to be around much longer. (The answer is 1824 by the way.) I can’t imagine trivial learning was much of a concern for most of this period either, as I can’t really picture the people of this period writing notes to themselves for days before they could get to a library and spend hours looking stuff up, which is what I’d probably be trying to do.
I don’t think I would’ve done too well in any previous period. One of my more (assumedly) charming qualities is some strange innate thirst for broad knowledge. Often in conversation, this thirst amounts to nothing more than needing to check the name of that guy in that movie that I was reminded of while somebody was mentioning something else that’s not at all related by any common standards, but some connection was triggered in my mind that I needed to verify. Other times it’s fact-checking something crazy somebody is trying to sell others on in order to save them from propagating naive ignorance, validating my own haphazard memories of history, or sometimes even looking up useful information like “where the hell are we right now” while driving. Granted, I’m sure I would’ve adapted to the olden times in some way, but I can’t help but think that right now, alive in today’s swirl of information, is ideal—outside of any foreseeable, non-dystopian future for which I would sign up to travel to in a heartbeat.
In almost any setting, if there is any doubt by anybody about anything, or I think of something totally off-base (happens often) that I need to look up, the phone is coming out. In certain circles I am looked to instinctively to check on things. All the world’s collective wisdom is available in my hand at any time during the day. This behavior is often shunned or prompts many eyes to be rolled. I see two possible reasons for this: either the action of pulling a phone out to check on something, thus breaking some sort of eye contact or other cultural convention, or something deeper about keeping some mystery. I think (and hope) that this latter case, which is essentially willful ignorance, is a minority stance and has no bearing on reality.
I was raised in a home during a time of technological upheaval—the 90s. Neither of my parents were necessarily tech-savvy, but my constant use of a computer was never discouraged. While the computer was still possibly a little misunderstood, I think both of my parents recognized that this not only represented my own wishes, which they were trying to respect, but that it was truly going to be an education for a future world where this was the norm, and I acknowledge their incredible foresight in this regard. They were also admittedly a little out of their element and were assuming that I wasn’t getting into too much trouble (I really wasn’t) and they sort of just let me be.
The result of this digital nativity is a mind that is fully augmented by technology. To those who say my own mind is being weakened, I contend that, even unaided, I’m still somewhat of a trivia powerhouse. With my phone, I’m truly omnipotent—which is absolutely thrilling and everything I’ve ever wanted, even if strangely terrifying in the context of science fiction and generally uncomfortable tales of quests for ultimate knowledge.
The net social gains of universalizing this practice are astronomical. Everybody will get smarter every time they ask a question. Ignorant statements will not go unchecked. Poor trivial knowledge will vanish, prompting both more creative discussions and trivia nights. The trick is that people can’t ignorantly look things up and just blurt out what the top result says. They need to understand the context, decipher the question at hand, construct a competent search query, absorb the results, and prepare to either distill this knowledge back into the conversation or leave it banked internally. Our own minds will become cache for the search queries we perform most routinely. The true, icing-on-the-cake bonus here will be that as this becomes even more standard for the next generation, the ones who will know of nothing but smartphones, these kids will be so used to having their everyday curiosities satiated that they will want to go further, to discover the things that we have no answers to yet—or at the very least make us even cooler phones.
While the future is certainly bright, our current generations still have hope. Gen Xers and Boomers are slowly adjusting to a world that they’re not comfortable in, but their already-waning influence over our technological culture will not last much longer. As Generation Y approaches parenthood, they must be the stewards of a futuristic attitude and allow their children to explore all of the knowledge that their developing minds can and wish to consume. Current parents can help too. Let the kids have their phones out. Sure, formal occasions should be off-limits, and Angry Birds isn’t really super productive at the dinner table, but why can’t the day’s news be discussed with the actual articles available? Why can’t the family go over a school lesson with the subject material on a tablet, right there?
To those who say that this will just result in everybody staring at their phones and not talking to each other, you’re missing the point. This does not take the place of human interaction: it simply supplements it. If it’s the act of the phone itself that bothers you, this will be alleviated within the decade as things like Google’s Project Glass and other post-phone devices are developed. For now, you’re going to have to trust me that when I look down at my phone. I’m not ignoring you. I’m just enhancing the conversation. I encourage you to do the same.