21st century toys

Although the number 2011 lacks the aesthetic polish of a nice round zero at the end of it, this year, and not last, marks the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century. The first decade was a bit of a ride — the world is a very, very different place than it was in ten years ago, and it is certainly not anything close to some of the utopic visions of the future that often accompanied references to the year 2000 throughout the 20th century.

The economy is as precarious as it has been in a hundred years. Disasters like the Southeast Asian tsunami and the 9/11 attacks brought into sharp focus some of the threats that we collectively face. As quickly as the fireworks that rang in the millennium exploded into ash, so too did the mystique of the “21st century,” its Jetsonian promise quickly overshadowed by harsh reality.

It’s not all bad, though. While the sleek, stereotypically sci-fi world hasn’t materialized as some had envisioned, technology has been steadily evolving, driving a renaissance that is transforming the lives of people everywhere. We’re currently on the cusp of a great leap forward the likes of which we have not seen since the Industrial Revolution, which will impact every corner of society.

Think back to 2001 for a moment. Cellphones were used almost exclusively for their nominal purpose — text messaging was virtually unheard of and expensive, and the idea of getting email on a phone didn’t sound too practical either. Broadband Internet was a luxury, and if you wanted to record a TV show, your only option was — gasp! — a VCR. Hardly a futuristic world by any measure.

So, ten years later, what’s this revolution I’m talking about? At the forefront, arguably, has been the advent of the smartphone, and the corollary deployment of mobile broadband Internet access. In the developed world, this has had obvious benefits, but the real miracle here is still unfolding — the true democratization of computing. Although cellphones have still not fully penetrated markets in the developing world, they’re steadily getting there, and soon enough it will be conceivable for anyone to access the web.

This will have enormous social implications — as the toll for the information superhighway comes down, that information will become available to everyone, which will help narrow the education gap between rich and poor. Furthermore, with the advent of collective projects like Wikipedia, tapping into the knowledge of every human on the planet is, for the first time in history, a technical possibility, though still a logistical stretch. And soon, with television white-space frequencies recently opened for business in the United States by the FCC, high-speed Wi-Fi routers with ranges of miles will make interacting with that information easier than ever.

Another major step, promised for years, has been the so-called connected home. Admittedly, this field is still in its infancy, but the ever-dropping price of low-power, miniaturized processors has in recent years and even months allowed for the introduction of a bevy of devices and appliances, all capable of being connected together by the now ubiquitous wireless home network. Why, just last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, kitchen appliances were demoed that can hook into a wireless network. It is now possible, and not all that prohibitively costly, to control one’s household lights from a smartphone, or program a cable box from a laptop at a coffee shop.

The issue on this is purely one of practicality — how much control and connectivity do we actually need? It’s an imprecise question that probably has about as many answers as there are people, but again, the Internet comes to the rescue: open-source software, developed by amateurs and available for free, is increasingly being used in mainstream consumer products, which allows for a much more flexible implementation of hardware. Since most people aren’t programmers, this isn’t a perfect solution by any means, but it’s still more responsive to individual needs than most licensed software is, and the more people have access to the web, the better that software will get.

The list of inbound advancements goes on — cheap, efficient LED lights that will replace oil lanterns in even the poorest places and wireless power that can run devices without the need for cables. The breakthroughs keep mounting each day.

So where is this all leading? Well, the future is a moving target – society’s needs will always be changing, and technology will follow suite. But the future will certainly not be the sleek, homogenous place prophesized on so many television shows. It will be a world of old and new technologies coexisting, sometimes imperfectly. And you probably won’t be buying a flying car anytime soon.

But whatever the specific path taken, we’re on the brink of a major technical and social transition to a world where technology will truly touch the lives of nearly every human being on the planet. The benefits will range from the elimination of small inconveniences to massive socio-political shifts, but across the board, it is certain that the world will again look very different in ten years’ time.

So wave a farewell, fond or not, to the 2000s. And say hello to the real 21st century.

Greg Sacks is a first year law student at Robson Hall who believes that “slow and steady wins the race” is a mantra to be judiciously applied in most sports.