The Future (Shock) Is Now

future_shockby James A. Bacon

I love my  Microsoft Surface tablet but the darn thing doesn’t take a charge anymore, so it has been rendered useless. I can no longer access my email account and, thus, I’m out of touch with the world for the duration of my beach vacation. My apologies if communications go unanswered.

I borrowed my son’s laptop to use in blogging, but now that wretched contraption won’t take a charge! (I’m now using my wife’s laptop, which means I’m blogging on borrowed time.) Meanwhile, Facebook stopped accepting my password. When I tried to re-set the password, the security screen asked me to identify the faces of various Facebook “friends.” As it happens, I know only a small fraction of the people who have friended me, so I failed that test miserably. An in an apparently unrelated phenomenon, my gmail account booted me out as well! Aargh. I think I’ll just go work on a puzzle.

These irritations all transpired within the space of a single day, which left me gnashing my teeth and temporarily unfit for beach-time companionship. My petty travails are inconsequential to anyone but me, but they seem symptomatic of a larger malaise: Stuff just doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. We’ve got this incredible technology, and it’s  so cool that we can’t live without it, but then… it suffers from incessant glitches. Sometimes, I feel like society is headed toward one giant, Obamacare rollout-style breakdown.

Security issues are a part of the problem. Viruses, malware, spam and phishing are omnipresent threats, which means we’re required to continually update and patch our computer security. The problem gets worse over time as new technologies emerge without supplanting all of the  old ones, requiring systems to be kludged together. As the Internet of Things becomes a reality, the number of connected devices grows exponentially from billions to trillions, providing more access points and vulnerabilities for infiltrators to exploit.

Another problem is the increasing complexity of IT systems. Just as hardware is kludged together, so is software. When programs have millions of lines of code (or is it billions of lines now?), there’s more stuff to go wrong. When someone tries to link incompatible systems, the complexity — an potentially for fatal conflicts — increases exponentially.

Then there’s the human factor. I’m willing to invest time learning how to use PCs, laptops, tablets, iPhones, email, and WordPress blogging software. But there comes a point when I’m tired of learning new stuff. I don’t want  to have to learn my car’s IT interface, much less that of my stove, refrigerator, lights and front door lock. I just want to flip on the lights or turn on the ignition and have stuff work. I realize that young people have a bigger appetite for novelty than old guys like me, but there are millions of other old guys who think that the incremental improvement to our lives is just not worth the effort. There are limits to technology ubiquity that humans are cognitively capable and temperamentally willing to absorb, and I fear we’re bumping up against them.

According to Singularity theorists, advances in computing power and artificial intelligence are supposedly advancing so rapidly that mankind is capable of solving all these problems. But I don’t see it. While technology and IT are progressing at a geometric rate, I would argue that kludging, complexity, and capabilities of the malevolent are hurtling along at a slightly faster rate.

In 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote a book, “Future Shock,” arguing that too much change was occurring too rapidly for people to adapt. That was 46 years ago. Now we’re experiencing Present Shock. It can’t end well.

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16 responses to “The Future (Shock) Is Now”

  1. CleanAir&Water Avatar

    Sympathies from another oldster who actually designed systems for IBM when you could see what you were doing…

    Now we have “Big Data” so Uge that noone knows what to do with it

  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Give me a billion dollars. I will invest it in battery research and we will ultimately have as much money as Jeff Bezos. I’ll use some of my profits to buy the WaPo from him and fire the Editorial Board. 😉

  3. Save yourself the headaches – buy a Mac.

    Sorry you’re disconnected. I am overseas and able to log in but, then again, I have a Mac.

    Not much happening in Virginia beyond the usual today. You’re not missing much. The mayor of Fairfax City was arrested by Fairfax County police for trying to trade meth for sex with an undercover officer. The mayor, also a substitute teacher and ardent Hillary supporter, had apparently been running a meth for sex website that the police found. A meth for sex website? How could that have possibly gone wrong? Just bad luck I guess.

    Let’s see – we have a former governor who just got off on a technicality, a former state delegate in prison, the former head of the tobacco indemnification fund in the penetentiary, four state senators under ongoing contempt of court charges for failing to disclose e-mails in a lawsuit over the clearly illegal, un-democratic gerrymandering of the state’s voting districts and now the mayor of one of our cities in an orange jumpsuit over a meth for sex website. Oh, I forgot – the Board of Visitors of UVa lying through their teeth about an illegal secret meeting to discuss slush funds.

    Just another typical day in the Commonwealth of Virginia – America’s most corrupt state.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well I feel for Bacon. Security , two-step authentication, etc… is getting to be a real pain in the you know what ..

    anytime you login from a different machine or router these days it sets off various “features” designed to “protect” and I’m kind of surprised than Don has not run into this.

    At least Jim did not blame his usual favorite targets – the govt, the central banks, leftists and UVA!


  5. Les Schreiber Avatar
    Les Schreiber

    We recently moved . The new fridge has an ice dispenser on the front door. After a few days it wasn’t working. We called GE. The re pair man shows up with a lap top computer,plugs it in, to the fridge and says the code needs to be updated. All this to get a glass of iced water. Who new?

  6. Tom Christoffel Avatar
    Tom Christoffel

    After 46 years of Future Shock, I think we’ve got Future Trauma.

    Reading “Future Shock” in 1970 informed be about many things including city planning which led me to a career in planning. I also became a futurist, they’re all self-appointed, and joined the World Future Society. In the 1980’s, as the PC began to be available for individuals and small organizations, I promoted their use and had a Radio Shack Model 16 Xenix system at our office.

    Attending the many tech shows of the time, I recall being told Unix was not secure, but that Windows would be. Hah! In the early days, someone might have seen the version problem, and the proprietary hooks that would give us our present day churn, not to mention the vulnerabilities of code that is never thrown away. I did take a Basic programming course at Lord Fairfax Community College, about 1980; learning that I was not called to do that. Many may have had this experience.

    What we’ve ended up with is a variety of digital technologies that are high maintenance friends. Patience is required and sometimes forgiveness. We just can’t dump them.

    More technology is the answer to every problem, yet what we have is disappointing. Time for rebellion, but rebellion to what?

    1. “Future Trauma” may be the perfect phrase to describe what we’re dealing with.

  7. Jim,
    You are far from alone.
    It is not Future Shock, exactly, although that is part of it.
    It is worse.
    Read Overcomplicated: Technology at the limits of comprehension by Samuel Arbesman.

    By the way, I spent 20 minutes recovering my forgotten password for baconsrebellion. Feel a little better, now?

    1. Great idea. I need a new book to read on my last day of vacation. Just downloaded it.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” I recall being told Unix was not secure,”

    UNIX was explicitly designed to NOT be secure from the get go!

    that was in the days when no one ever conceived or understood why someone would “hack” a system for nefarious purposes!

    that’s how science works in the initial stages – they’re only looking to make a concept “work” – all that other stuff comes later in the “engineering” phase.

    Trouble is that industry had no clue had computers worked but the “geeks” who played with them – did and so they put the “geeks” in charge and when the choice in a purchase was between SUN or IBM or similar and “free” UNIX variants – they took the “free” because they had “geeks” that knew how to run them.

    the rest – as they say – is history!!!

    until – at some point folks started to realize that computer security was not only REAL – but that it was not cheap nor easy.

    but I digress…

    I now have another problem. The very first thing I usually do with a new vehicle is to make spare keys to go into the house, my wallet, and some hidden location on the vehicle (not easy to get to) and now I understand that you cannot get into modern cars with just a key – you have to have the “FOB”.

    So I ask – “what happens if you lose the FOB at the mall” and need to get into your car – and the answer I am getting is “huh”? – like how would that ever happen to someone… ” no – you have to have a FOB or else you’re SOL”…

    so now – we’re back to the geeks running the asylum… except they’ve gone from no security to choke-to-death “security”.


    1. Tom Christoffel Avatar
      Tom Christoffel

      The early developers of software and hardware recognized problems, expecting things to be corrected in the future. The most visible was Y2K. Memory was so limited and costly that the year field was limited to two digits. Action was taken; the world kept running, and fixes are more and more out of sight. Encryption, probably the best way to have security, is not politically correct for security reasons. The 99% reliability promised by Microsoft sounded good in the 1990’s, but a lot can happen within the unreliable 1%. Instead of hiding a key in the yard, you need some kind of electronic safety module that is always backed up and charged; maybe with its own backup. Maybe it should be an implant? Proprietary systems more safe than open systems? Sure, but that is a form of isolation. Shock stops you dead, but traumatized you can move around and interact with others. It may rise to the level of PTSD. As the examples indicate, security can lock us out of our own lives. It barely ever reaches 1%, so we continue in our role as de facto crash-test dummies for the future. The marketeers have given us a mental environment that sells the sizzle and the debt-is-our-product banks have given easy credit to get right away, when we didn’t have the cash, all that sexy sizzle. Times passes, sizzle a memory, debt unpaid and growing. Future shocked again. Harry Flood Byrd experienced the post war debt burdened Virginia and became an opponent of debt, private and public. Many of our solutions are in the past; wisdom abandoned – not kept current.

  9. Tom Christoffel Avatar
    Tom Christoffel

    Sorry for not paragraphing. The editing window closed before I could format better.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t necessarily think proprietary is better than “open” systems but the issue has always been – who takes responsibility for upgrading security in response to evolving threats and how often and that includes documentation of the system so that someone who is trying to maintain it – knows it’s technical design and configuration.

    Actually open source has gotten a LOT better and, in fact, is sometimes ahead of proprietary.

    For instance, most Android phones are “forked” -that is – they take the Google base kernel then modify for their features – but most of them do not have a formalized process for upgrading the kernel when Google releases a new version of it’s base OS so they just leave them alone and that’s why you’ll see phones – even new ones being sold with older versions of Android on them – and no intention to update them – it’s rare that non-Google companies update their Android phones – UNLIKE Apple which does… in response to evolving security threats.

    Most PC OS like Apple and Windows AND Google Chromebooks also issue – virtually automatic security updates these days unless you disable or opt out (bad idea) but not so with some other PC-based OS variants.

    But the problem Bacon is having is that when you take your PC to another router – it gets a re-assigned IP address – which on their end – they don’t know if it is you that have moved the unit – or it was stolen… etc…

    so they challenge you on your login credentials (as they should) and more and more of them are using two-step authentication which means they send a one-time authorization code to your mobile phone or email address – so that you have to 1. actually have remembered your password and 2. understand and are prepared for the 2nd step of the authentication process.

    this is GOOD STUFF but it DOES REQUIRE – MORE than what a lot of folks are used to… and it often happens when other things are going on – like a new location for access…change of normal routine, vacation, travel, etc.

    On top of that – they warn you to NOT use a too-easy-to-guess password AND they make you change it much more frequently than before AND it has to be a STRONG password with letters, numbers, special characters…etc.. which make them harder to remember.

    so… you….. gotta keep up ….. or else…


  11. Jonathan Wight Avatar
    Jonathan Wight

    Har-har, very funny post, Jim, and sorry you are the butt of your own joke.

    We are still in the novice phases of how this technology will unfold. Think back to Henry Ford: you had to hand crank the motor, and the car was always stuck in mud or the carburetor (remember that nasty thing?) clogged. It took 50 years to build reliable cars that work most of the time.

    Unfortunately, you and I will be long gone before computers reach that stage of clever advancement.

    1. I wouldn’t give up my computers for anything. But stuff is sure getting complicated. Somehow, though, my 18-year-old son doesn’t seem to have the same kind of problems that I do.

  12. Now it’s Monday morning.

    It’s human nature to empathize (unless one has a crippling personality disorder, like DT’s) — and when it comes to the marvels and the frustrations of managing intellectual property, we’ve been there, Jim, and are back there all too often. Hell, it’s not just us ordinary citizens with our outdated personal devices — you have touched on the potential for disruption of the electric grid; the entire Delta Airlines system is down this morning and no one knows why yet. The fragile systems that bind us together all are increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic failure.

    And so, it is with gratitude (and a dose of “Bwahahaha”) that I admit to being totally out of touch this weekend, at our place in Mathews, not due to communications failure, not due to battery failure, not due to forgotten passwords — but from the visits of friends, and young children, and great weather, and many crabs right out of the water with local corn and cold beer, and the pleasant exhaustion that hit us last night when we finally had a moment of peace. Perhaps all systems were ‘go’; perhaps all devices were ready, waiting for instruction; they were not tested. Perhaps there were two or three electronic failures waiting to be discovered. Perhaps today’s Washington Post has a slew of scary columns about politics as intense as last Friday’s, and maybe, after another cup of that excellent coffee, I’ll go find out. For now, it’s enough to thank you (a couple of days late, but it’s summer!) for the excuse you’ve afforded us — to reflect, and be thankful.

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