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What technology wants

Is there a pattern to the development of technology? Is technological progress merely the unpredictable outcome produced by a highly scattered set of people working on diverse problems or is there an underlying thread, a story that guides its apparently furious progress? And while it would be facile to argue that if this were the case, it would be possible to predict the future of technology, is it at all possible to discern some broad themes around which change is arrayed?

Of course, in order to do that, it is important to examine what technology is in the first place. The idea of technology is so pervasive in our times that it seems redundant to think about the fundamental nature of this powerful force that shapes so much of our lives. At one level, technology is what makes our knowledge of the world and how it works practically useful. by converting thought into purposive action, and giving us instruments to exercise control over the world in newer ways.

Another way of seeing this is to think of technology as the overflow of the mind into the body and by extension, the physical world. The mind with its almost infinite capabilities, its blinding speed and its extra-ordinary ability to leap over time and space and make the most obscure connections is trapped in an unwieldy body which can perform only so many tasks in only so many ways. One can think of the mind as a hulking beast trapped inside a claustrophobic space, straining to express itself, spluttering with imaginative fervour, sparking with excess unutilised energy and chafing at its inhospitable host, the body.

Imagination is the mind’s escape from the body as it allows for the mind to create an alternative arena in which it can run free. But imagination is a self-contained universe and needs avenues to imprint its workings on the outside world. Language is the basic technology created by the mind to express itself directly. Language creates an artificial symbolic arena that becomes a common currency of expression. It makes the mind transactable in our everyday lives. Art is a way of creating an alternative reality, by using symbolic material that are freed from the conventional constraints of the physical world. Art uses reality to transcend it. It makes us experience the world that our mind is capable of constructing without always having go through the tedious medium of the body.

Seen in this light, technology is the agent of the mind as it converts imagination into reality. It uses reality in new configurations to produce outcomes that stretch our existing definition of what is possible. Unlike art where the mind expresses itself in terms that are real only to the mind, technology particularly in its early days, converts mind-thoughts into body-actions. The earliest technologies helped human beings manipulate their realities more efficiently. Tools that allowed the world to be shaped as per the specific needs of our species, that converted our intent into manifest experience. Instruments that measured the world around us and helped us navigate it as per our desires. Machines that generated work way beyond the capabilities of our bodies. Vehicles that collapsed space and time. Devices that destroyed distance. Computers that processed information at bewildering speeds. Software that helps us manipulate the world exactly to our liking. In some way or the other every technology utilises the mind to help us create newer version of reality.

Some of the principal modes through technology operates are by reducing labour, dismantling constraints like space and time, reducing the loss between thought and action and multiplying our capabilities in ever newer ways. In some ways, technology has made our body redundant as a machine. We rarely use the body for real work, and in fact are increasingly using it recreationally. We take our body out for a walk and make it sweat in a gym. Sport is an enactment of a time when our bodies were our primary source of survival. The body is increasingly a vestigial appendage that comes along with our minds and one which we are doing our best to keep occupied and amused.

Even the mind finds itself increasingly free of everyday survival worries and the need to exert itself for basic tasks of living. Entertainment is and will continue to be the biggest driver of our lives because the mind too has a lot of room for recreation. Newer technologies now no longer focus exclusively on removing constraints; they are focused on creating direct channels for our imagination. The virtual world eliminates the dependence on reality and the need to convert what is in one’s mind to some tangible form of reality. Imagination can now speak in its own voice without the need of a clumsy plodding interpreter.

Perhaps the best guide to the future of technology lies in our minds today. If technology is the gradual realisation of the imagination as it overcomes one physical barrier after another, then it should be possible to get abroad sense of the direction it will take. In some ways, the larger intent of technology seems to be to reverse the power equation between the individual and his contextual circumstance. If we began many millennia ago as individuals cowering in the world we could not understand or control, perhaps the eventual goal is for the world to be contained inside our individual consciousness. The eventual destination of technology might well be make our imagination redundant. Imagine that.

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