Which cutting edge technologies will become mainstream?

Early adopters are the beta testers for the rest of the world.

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Credit: Apple

Sometimes I think the reason we’re fans of technology is because we are willing to expose ourselves to new and frustrating experiences just for a small glimpse at the future.

So much of what I write, and have written for a couple of decades, is to help communicate the frustrations, possibilities, and workarounds involving brand-new technologies, for people who are pretty close to the cutting edge. We are not generally the sort of people who wait a few years for the technology to settle down and become boring and reliable. Instead, we’re in line at the Apple Store hoping for a chance to live in the future today.

Even when I was a teenager, I wanted to learn about computers because I knew they would be the driving force of the future and I couldn’t wait to get there. But now, as someone in his mid 40s, I’ve discovered another aspect to this effect: I’ve seen those dreams of the future come true.

Put simply, people who embrace new technologies are the beta testers for the rest of the world. And the weird, tech-only experiences we have today are the experiences that everyone else on the planet will have in a few years. All you have to do is wait, and what seems specific to our little subculture will become universal.

In the past, we saw the future

In 1987 I met my high school girlfriend on a computer bulletin-board system. It was spectacularly weird for everyone I knew, friends and family alike. The basic concept of meeting someone in some venue that wasn’t in person was completely alien. Adding that I felt a deep connection and love to someone I had not met in real life–IRL as a concept was a few years off–was even more hard to believe. Thirty years later, having friends online is commonplace, and a large percentage of relationships and marriages begin with online connections.

In my first few months on Usenet newsgroups in college in 1989, I learned about flame wars, trolls, and every other aspect of online-community behavior I have seen in the ensuing three decades. At the time, the limitations of text communication to cause misunderstandings was tentatively offset with things like emoticons, but years before there were emojis it was painfully clear that when you strip human beings of eye contact and body language, it’s easy to assume the worst of someone. Anonymity provided freedom but also bred bad behavior.

These were all quirks of online communities, known to computer nerds the world over. It was a tough price to pay, but in return you got to use a global computer network to discover that you weren’t alone, that there were other who loved the same things that you did, even if that manifested as debating the finer points of “Star Trek” at 2 a.m in a college computer lab. These days, of course, the entire world is tied together by the web–and all of the issues we faced in 1989 are now being grappled with by our entire society. Trolls and flame wars have boiled over into the real world. Human behavior remains the same, as does the difficulty of policing bad behavior.

In my early days at Macworld, back when we printed issues on paper and mailed them out to hundreds of thousands of people, I already knew the fate of the magazine industry. Our readers turned from print to the web, and they did it quickly. Still, I would go to conferences and listen to magazine editors and publishers in other sectors write off the web as being an annoyance or an opportunity, rather than the existential threat that it was. Because our audience was living in the future, we could see what would happen–but the rest of the world needed to wait a few years to figure it out.

And now we see tomorrow today

These days I try to pay attention to what the technology world takes for granted that seems bizarre and wrong to the rest of the world. Many of the strange things that happen in the tech world are rightfully derided, especially when they’re perpetrated by companies that have a lot of money (or venture capital) and not a lot of sense. But many of the behaviors that individual technology enthusiasts are adopting today will become common in the not-too-distant future.

But which ones? That’s the trick: If I could tell the future I would probably be in another line of work. Still, here are a few trends that I think are bound to break out and impact the entire planet:

The redefinition of workspaces. So much of society, especially urban society, is based on people commuting long distances (or short distances with enormous housing costs) into city centers in order to work in a shared office space. Long before I traded my own hour-long commute for a desk in my garage, I was convinced that this is a tradition that is destined to disappear.

To be sure, some jobs absolutely require physical proximity every day, all day. But so many jobs don’t. At one point when we were negotiating a new office lease while I was the editorial director at Macworld, I suggested to our CFO that we might want to dramatically reduce the editorial space and let people work at home (or in a company-subsidized co-working space). She looked at me like I was a space alien.

I believe it even more now. Tools like Slack allow people all over the world to communicate and collaborate. Again, they’re not perfect tools, but the current work situation isn’t perfect either. And if you’ve ever spent more than an hour on public transit in order to spend eight-plus hours sitting in a cubicle working on a computer screen before spending another hour commuting home, you may have realized the pointlessness of commuting for many jobs.

I’m not quite sure what will happen to all that expensive office space in city centers, and all the related economies–restaurants, bars, and the rest–that rely on city-center workers to stay in business. Knowledge workers in remote, dispersed workgroups is the future. If this doesn’t happen, come and find me–I’ll be in my garage, working.

Smart homes and smart assistants. In the ’70s and early ’80s all the ads for computers suggested ways “regular people” could use them, like as recipe databases and as tools to balance your checkbook. It was all bunk–attempts by marketing people to make these weird devices appealing to people who weren’t nerdy hobbyists. Twenty years would pass before those promises came close to being realized.

I see a lot of parallels between that era and today’s era of smart-home tech and intelligent voice assistants. We’re all sold an awful lot of reasons why they’re great and revolutionary and will change how you live, but as someone with an Amazon Echo and a buch of smart switches and bulbs, I can tell you: It’s just not ready yet. Like those computers of old, you can get this stuff to do a lot if you work hard and are really nerdy. But would I recommend that a friend of mine who doesn’t like wrestling with technology invest in this stuff today? Absolutely not. It’s coming, but it’s not here yet.

Still–it’s going to be. Our homes are going to be wired. Every conceivable device will be interconnected. We’ll be able to talk (and probably even use body language and gestures) in ways that would seem magical today. And it will result in living experiences that are much more comfortable, efficient, and customizable than today. We won’t need robot butlers because our homes, and every object inside them, will be robot butlers. (Okay, we might still have robot butlers too–someone needs to bring me tea in the morning while I’m still in bed.)

Smart sensors everywhere. I enjoy my Apple Watch but I have to admit that it’s still a tech toy that’s fun but not necessary in life. Still, there’s no doubt that the day is coming when our bodies are covered by (and embedded with) technology that’s sensing what’s right and wrong with us. Today there are heart-rate sensors for runners and blood oxygen and blood sugar monitors for patients and the like, but in the future this stuff will be ubiquitous, and somewhere there will be intelligent software that’s keeping track of data from our personal constellation of devices and making sure that we’re doing OK.

Virtual reality and augmented reality. Right now it’s all cutting edge and expensive and weird, but there will come a time–probably in a couple of decades–where it’s common for people to see information in their vision that’s not really there, via augmented reality. It will change the rules for how we interact with one another, and will probably usher in a host of new social cues and faux pas–people’s angry reaction to Google Glass was just the beginning. But it’s hard not to see it happening in some form.

Will all of these come to pass? Maybe, maybe not. I think so, but you can never know for sure. Sometimes the march of progress is slowed for technical or societal reasons. One thing I do know for sure, though: There are ways that you interact with technology today that your less tech-savvy friends consider strange–and in the fairly near future, those ways will seem entirely mundane. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say exactly which ones those are. Predicting the future is hard, even when you’ve spent your entire life trying to live in it.

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