Photo: Joi ItoNick Bilton reports on technology for The New York Times‘ Bits blog and has a new book, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted.
The title has something of a reassuring “Don’t be scared, Earthlings” tone, and that’s deliberate: Bilton has confidence in the ability of individuals to multitask safely, to use Google without becoming stupid better, and otherwise adapt technology to good uses. The book takes a trip through the history of technophobia — when home telephones became popular, editorial writers fretted that people would never leave the house again — and comes out concluding that resistance to change is natural but surmountable.
Bilton met with our staff on a book-tour stop in Seattle and talked with us about cars that can “hear” from open parking spots, three-dimensional printers, and other ways technology can help us build more livable communities. Here are the highlights.
Q. As the world’s population grows and moves to cities at a steady clip, you could say the task of the 21st century is the task of creating cities that work. Ecologically, but also socially, economically, and culturally. In what ways can technology bring about more workable urban systems?
A. I don’t think we’ve even touched the tip of what the internet can do. The best analogy is electricity. When it was first invented, they were talking about lightbulbs. People didn’t say, “This is going to be in fridges one day.” It was literally like, “Wow, we have light.”
I think the same thing is happening on the web. We’re using it to communicate and share information, but within the 10 years, it’s going to be in our clothing, in our cars, in our buildings. Imagine if this building and the one next door could talk to each other. When the sun is coming through and this building is heating up, why don’t we save electricity and have that one put the blinds up?
Or rather than wasting gas driving around looking for a parking spot, why can’t the car nearby you tell you when it just left a spot? Things like that.
Q. I’m curious about how information systems and the internet are enabling alternative systems in our economy, especially a sharing economy — things like Zipcar, or services that let you rent a really expensive purse for a night instead of buying it.
A. I think that we’re becoming much more of a rental society. We want access, we don’t want ownership necessarily. In the music industry, things like streaming services that let you have access to the music are taking over. Why do I need to buy a $2,000 dress when I can just rent it for $50? I know I’m only going to use it once. I think that’s going to be applied to everything, to information, to energy, to all of these different things.
Q. What do you think about the accumulation of digital data and privacy risks?
A. There’s now a privacy economy online. How many of you use Gmail? [Everyone!] You know they go through your emails, right? You don’t pay for it, but you pay with your privacy. You could easily use something else, say, an SMTP server, and nobody is going through your emails. But Gmail works really well, so I let them go through my emails, show me a couple of ads, and that’s the way I pay for it.
Q. Privacy’s obviously a concern with the internet, but when we think about a smart grid, or smarter energy systems, there are similar concerns. People say, “I don’t want anybody to know when I turn on my washing machine or when I turn on my TV.” Or, “I don’t want my building to talk to that building next door.”
A. It’s such a tricky question, because maybe you don’t want that to happen, but if you were driving around for five hours looking for a parking spot, maybe you wouldn’t mind the cars talking to each other. When the benefits are big enough and the convenience outweighs the privacy factor, it actually works. Maybe I don’t want that building next door to know what time I got home, but if it’s going to save me $100 a month, eh, not so bad.
Q. What else are you finding out there in the future?
A. There’s this new kind of Industrial Revolution that’s taking place with people building these 3D printers. If I have one of these printers, and some of them are as inexpensive as $100, and I’m having a dinner party and I need an extra cup, I can literally go online, download the schematic for free, and print out a cup.
When you think about the environmental effect that technology has on society just in the transportation of goods alone, I think it’s going to be pretty wild to see how this could start to change things. When you lose the back of your remote, you go to the remote control website, and you download a new back and you print it out and you pop it in. I think it’s going to be pretty wild to see that.