Technology, as we’ve come to understand it, is here to help us. That’s sort of its whole thing.
You’d be forgiven for forgetting, though. Over the last decade it’s hard to think of a technology that has entered our daily lives and hasn’t been disruptive in the traditional sense (i.e. just annoying). We’ve gotten louder, angrier, more stressed, less compassionate, and no better at making turnip remotely edible.
And nowhere do those problems (especially that last one) surface more clearly than around the Thanksgiving table. Wedged uncomfortably between Election Day and Christmas, there is perhaps no other holiday that so faithfully embodies the eternal struggle between one’s individual freedom and the compulsory bondage of family.
Technology may not yet have developed a direct solution for how irritating your climate-change denier Uncle Gerry is (up to and including how he spells “Jerry”), but one thing technology never comes up short on is useful distractions.
And when the great American experiment of unstructured dinner conversation among participants united mostly by genotype and scheduling takes a sudden, sour turn (as it can be relied on to do), technology offers a way to refocus energies and arguments away from the resentments of the past and the frustrations of the present, and toward the unrealized, undefined potential of the future! (Provided there is one, Gerry.)
It’s actually a really sneaky and effective way to talk about the long-term ramifications and realities of politics without ever once talking about, like, politics. Try it. Here’s a four-pack of buzzwords ripe for 2019 and guaranteed to help you change whatever unpleasant subject is forcing you to cram enough Stove Top in your mouth that you can’t tell Gerry to cram it.
Remember, you’re not derailing the conversation. You’re rerailing it.
CRISPR: No, not the thing your sister’s husband uses to transport his Thai-a-juana Mexichicken Salad with the soggy tortilla strips and the peanut sauce. It’s an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, and it represents (broadly) a field of bioscience that enables scientists to “edit” and/or control the expression of certain genes in organisms — potentially revolutionizing everything from medicine (imagine a delete button for certain diseases) to agriculture (imagine that salad tasting good). Its current uses are wide-ranging, experimental, and controversial — from experimental cancer treatments to embryonic alterations to improving sustainability of crops — but they also highlight the importance of regulation and oversight, raising serious questions about where the lines are when altering our genetic natures. If you thought Thai-a-jauna Mexichicken was an upsetting hybrid, just wait.
QUANTUM COMPUTING: Nothing brings a conversation about why cakes don’t actually have sexualities to a halt faster than mention of quantum computing. I’ve only got a paragraph to get into this, so let me bring in Wired for the elevator version: “Quantum computing takes advantage of the strange ability of subatomic particles to exist in more than one state at any time. Due to the way the tiniest of particles behave, operations can be done much more quickly and use less energy than classical computers.” A little bit of research into QC can 1. blow your mind, 2. provide you reason to say the word “quibits” with amusing frequency, and 3. really drive home a subtext of bothness and the nonbinary and oft-contradictory nature of reality that can really help loosen up the cognitive bolts among your hardliner relatives of any stripe. The future is fast and plural. (Get with the program, Ger.)
BLOCKCHAIN: This one should only be broken out in extreme conversational emergencies, for as ostensibly fascinating as the technology is that undergirds decentralized cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, and as vast as its potential to redefine the infrastructures of finance, commerce, and even voting may be, it’s also weapons-grade boring (and could very well be hot garbage). Do not mistake this endorsement of blockchain as a disruptive Thanksgiving topic for an endorsement of blockchain itself. Think of this as a last-resort smoke bomb that you can casually roll out onto the table, where the only reasonable response is coughing and running away. If you’re lucky some of those affected will briefly consider the merits of financial regulation, maybe.
5G: Yes, it’s what your older brother brags about making in a week, but it’s also the next frontier (no really) in wireless communications. We get a new iteration of “G” every 10 years or so, and while we tend to parse each notch up the tower as an advance in speed, 5G will lead us (by 2020) to a globally linked network less defined by lack of service or breaks in a signal, but rather simultaneity, responsiveness. This paradigm shift in bandwidth will introduce a new level of connectivity — where movies respond to how you watch them, the Internet of Things will upgrade to the Internet of Everything, and bees will be even more screwed than they are now. But perhaps the biggest advance of the 5G era will be the restoration of presence to our dealings with each other. Becoming more than text on a screen to each other is as good a shot at restoring our depleted global supply of empathy as we’ve got. Until then, at least you and Gerry can break bread and agree this salad is just awful.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.