The future will be messy and that's good for tech

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The future will be more complicated than we've been led to believe. In many movies and television shows, for example, technological nirvana arrives full-blown and with startling monotony. Yes, there are class divisions. The poor and disenfranchised get the flotsam and jetsam of the glistening cybercities. But for the upper classes, immaculate clothing is woven of indestructible nano-fabrics and the flawless interfaces all run the same spartan OS on computers of similar industrial design. The screens, large and small, rarely contain more than a single window and by whatever means the future devices talk to one another, they handle the digital handshaking invisibly. When the computers speak to humans, they all do with the same calming voice. There are no dropped calls in the 22nd century.

The lie of that fantasy really came home this week when Microsoft announced its latest operating system Windows 8.1. It now stands as a viable alternative, even on mobile platforms, to Android and iOS. And, each operating system has its own personal assistant: Siri for iOS, Google Now for Android, and Cortana for Windows 8.1. And, each personal assistant has its own voice, and its own personality -- Siri the chatty helper, Google Now the precognitive valet, and Cortana the confidential secretary. And each OS has its own design aesthetic -- from the bright, lean and animated iOS to the darker, more flexible Android.

The idea that in the near future there will be one dominant operating system is hard to imagine. In fact, it is only the competitive pressure from Windows and Android that keeps Apple moving forward. In turn, it is only the market share that Android and Apple are stealing that made Microsoft reimagine its mobile platform in a desperate play for third place. Even further back, it is only Apple's iPhone that shook cellphone manufacturers out of their design stupor to start making actually usable multitouch screens instead of their UI trainwrecks with physical keyboards.

And, anyway, there probably isn't one operating system that's ideal for everyone. That's largely because of another reason the future will be complicated -- it will arrive for people at different times. Or, as Canadian sci-fi author William Gibson says: "The future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed."

So, for code-savvy, open-source fanboys who want to jerry-rig solutions, get under the hood and trick out their smartphone skins and functionality, Android is just the ticket. For business folks, a Windows OS that plays nicely with Office and gives them a limited but accessible ecosystem works just fine. And for folks less interested in the leading edge than in consistent functionality and interface, iOS is as close to the next century as they want to get.

For the thousands of people who for economic, geographic or philosophical reasons, are without smartphones, the "Internet in your pocket" is still an unimaginable and, perhaps, unattainable or unwanted, future.

Those of us with the latest gadgets are encumbered with short-lived batteries, are dependent on fossil fuels and deal with houses that need painting and clothes that need mending. In those things, due to realities of chemistry, the future has not come as fast as it has in the world of telecommunications.

All this means that the years ahead will be much less like 2001 or Star Trek and more like the world of Bladerunner. In that film a future Los Angeles has the future accreted on top of the past. At street level, the city is rain-soaked, soot-smeared and is still adorned by the old architecture of our modern day. The sidewalk denizens cook street meat, sell sex and live in walk-ups. Yes, a few manufacture artificial snakes and human eyes, but they are the rare birds. But, look higher, towards the realm of the Tyrell Corporation, and the future weighs down the past with layer upon layer of oppressive technology. At its zenith, that technology has created artificial humans, closer to Bates in Downton Abbey than the Siri in our iPhones.

And, I have no doubt Tyrell made the strides it did in "skin job" perfection because of competition from other replicant manufacturers. In many ways, it is a capitalist, free market future, while the clean and tidy futures of more sanitized sci-fi suggest an earlier socialism in which interfaces and devices evolved to a single point for the good of all.

I don't believe in that future and, I hope, for the sake of refinement, the years ahead remain as messy and multilayered as a Los Angeles streetscape.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Héctor García/flickr

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