When does the new year stop being the new year? Like many of you, I expect, past Januaries would find me accidentally writing the prior year’s date on checks, correspondence, and the like. The benefit of those errors was that, usually within 30 days or so, they forced me finally to adjust to the notion that a year had passed and we were firmly in the next.
Except that I no longer write checks. Rather, I use my bank’s online service, which automatically generates and dispatches payments. Entering the wrong year is close to impossible. The same goes with correspondence. E-mail is internally dated. And when I write a letter, the date-completion function on my word processor offers up the day’s date even as I begin to type. All I have to do is press “enter.”
And so, once more, technology has ripped my world asunder.
As we begin 2013, things may not seem all that different from 2012. New Year’s is an artificial marker, after all. Our lives in truth pass more seamlessly, punctuated by births and deaths, graduations and weddings, jobs and retirement. It’s change, yes, but the kind of change we expect. So too the larger world: The economy will bump along, better than before, but not markedly so. We’ll have more angst over national budgets and continued squabbles in Washington. There will be a US senatorial election (an annual affair, it now appears) and a mayoral one to boot. All predictable, even if the precise outcomes are unknown.
But one thing is not predictable: science and technology. It is those — the unique products of the human mind — that are not only unforeseeable, but whose impact can radically remake our lives.
It’s happened many times before. The light bulb effectively did away with the night. The automobile altered the landscape of the country, letting people live and work in different places. The airplane, in turn, altered the landscape of the world, knitting it together. Air conditioning immunized us from the environment. Radio and television made news, music, and entertainment ubiquitous. The computer transformed the way everyone worked, while the Internet transformed the way we shared knowledge.
The pace now seems to be accelerating. As innovation has piled on innovation, old and comfortable ways of doing things are rapidly ending. Paper books are almost obsolete. So too, libraries. Travel agents, real estate agents, investment brokers — intermediaries of almost every kind — are disappearing. Thanks to my GPS, I no longer ask for directions (although curiously, while I am never lost, I’m also less certain about where I am). Bar bets are increasingly pointless — the answer is so quickly at one’s fingertips that the disagreement doesn’t have time to escalate to a wager.
Facebook was conceived in 2004. Today, over a billion use it; for many, it’s an indispensable part of their daily lives.
America is the nation of invention, the home of disruptive, world-altering technologies which in turn propel a rapid, almost breathless sense of change. It’s fair to say that almost nothing we do today is unaffected by innovations from just the last few years.
That change brings a lot of uncertainty, but it also makes at least one thing increasingly more certain: The level of creative tumult out there is now so high that something will happen in 2013 — perhaps in a big way, perhaps small — to transform again how we live.
Innovations in robotics and 3-D printing may fundamentally alter the US economy, making us once again the manufacturing center of the world. Advances in desalinization could mean unlimited supplies of fresh water (good riddance to low-flow showers!). Improvements in carbon sequestration could solve the problem of global climate change. Developments in battery technology might do the same, dramatically reducing the need for internal combustion engines. Continued progress in our ability to manipulate DNA could wipe out a major disease or eliminate birth defects.
Or the next big thing could be something as yet unimagined. Whatever it is, 2013 will be different from 2012. The daily stuff of our lives, once more, will change. It’s a prospect both scary and exciting.Tom Keane’s column appears weekly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.