New technology always seems to border on the edge of being weird or creepy. Back in the 1970s and 80s it was weird to be into games, locking yourself away for hours at a time in a darkened room staring at a glowing screen. Then the children (and adults) of that time grew up and suddenly spending your leisure time doing something other than watching TV or reading a book became an acceptable activity. This trend has been seen occurring more recently with the advent of social networks and smartphones with people now divulging information onto public forums at a rate that would’ve made the 1990s versions of them blush. What I’ve come to notice is that the time period between something being weird or creepy to becoming acceptable is becoming smaller, and the rate at which its shrinking is accelerating.
The smartphone which you now carry with you everywhere is a constant source of things that were once considered on the borderline of acceptable but are now part of your life. Features like Google Now and Siri have their digital fingers through all your data, combing it for various bits of useful information that it can whip up into its slick interface. When these first came out everyone was apprehensive about them, I mean the fact that Google could pick up on travel itineraries and then display your flight times was downright spooky for some, but here we are a year or so later and features like that aren’t so weird anymore, hell they’re even expected.
The factor that appears to melt down barriers for us consumers is convenience. If a feature or product borders on the edge of being creepy but provides us with a level of convenience we couldn’t have otherwise we seem to have a very easy time accommodating it. Take for instance Disney’s new MyMagic Band which you program with your itinerary, preferences and food choices before you arrive at one of their amusement parks. Sure it might be a little weird to walk into a restaurant without having to order or pay, or walking up to rides and bypassing the queue, but you probably won’t be thinking about how weird that is when you’re in the thick of it. Indeed things like MyMagic break down barriers that would otherwise impact on the experience and thus, they work themselves easily into what we deem as acceptable.
The same can be said for self driving cars. Whilst techno junkies like myself can’t wait for the day when taking the wheel to go somewhere is optional the wider public is far more weary of what the implications of self-driving cars will be. This is why many companies have decided not to release a fully fledged vehicle first, instead opting to slowly incorporate pieces of the technology into their cars to see what customers react positively first. You’ll know these features as things like automatic emergency braking, lane assist and smart cruise control. All of these features are things you’d find in a fully fledged self driving car but instead of being some kind of voodoo magic they’re essentially just augments to things you’re already used to. In fact some of these systems are good enough that cars can self drive themselves in certain situations, although it’s probably not advised to do what this guy does.
Measuring the time difference between cultural shifts is tricky, they can really only be done in retrospect, but I feel the general idea that the time from weird to accepted has been accelerating. Primarily this is reflection in the acceleration of the pace of innovation where technological leaps that took decades now take place in mere years. Thus we’re far more accepting of change happening at such a rapid pace and it doesn’t take long for one feature, which was once considered borderline, to quickly seem passe. This is also a byproduct of how the majority of information is consumed now, with novelty and immediacy held above most other attributes. When this is all combined we become primed to accept changes at a greater rate which produces a positive feedback loop that drives technology and innovation faster.
What this means, for me at least, is that the information driven future that we’re currently hurtling towards might look scary on the surface however it will likely be far less worrisome when it finally arrives. There are still good conversations to be had around privacy and how corporations and governments handle our data, but past that the innovations that happen because of that are likely to be accepted much faster than anyone currently predicts. That is if they adhere to the core tenet of providing value and convenience for the end user as should a product neglect that it will fast find itself in the realm of obsolescence.
There’s a lot of observed phenomena in the world which the only evidence we have of it occurring is from numerous first hand accounts. Whilst these can make for interesting stories, potentially leading to scientific theories to explain said phenomena, the plural of anecdote isn’t data and unfortunately that means they’re rarely the subject of rigorous study. However sometimes serendipity strikes and the right people just happen to be in the right place with the right equipment to capture solid proof of a phenomena, solidifying all those anecdotes with a solid scientific narrative.
And today we now have proof that ball lightning exists:
The video might not look like much but it’s a combination of high-speed video (the little ball on the left) and a spectrograph that details the composition of the spectra coming off the light source. This video was made possible by the fact that Chinese researches were at the Qinghai Plateau to observe regular old cloud to ground lightning and just so happened to catch a ball lightning event in action. The spectrograph allowed them to determine the composition of the ball as well and it closely matched that of soil. This is the first supporting evidence we have of the theory that ball lightning is actually vaporized silicon from the soil as the element, when heated, does seem to act an awful lot like ball lightning.
Interestingly though this only gives credence to one reported type of ball lightning as there have been reports of other types, specifically ones that move horizontally and others that don’t touch the ground at all. Considering how long it took us just to get this observation I wouldn’t be holding my breath to see the other types confirmed any time soon but this does open up the possibility of more research being done in the area. If anything it shows that some weird, random phenomena that have been reported elsewhere might be worth investigation, even if its just to confirm or deny that they exist.