Why Is The Future Not Here Yet?

Posted on Feb 16, 2012

I had a moment last night at the bar. I’ve been reading Charlie Stross' The Atrocity Archives on my Kindle Touch. It’s a really cool story and I wanted to share it with a friend. Normally I’d hand him the book and he could read it at his leisure. Instead I wanted to just flick the e-book over to his phone so he could have a copy. I was mildly struck with disappointment realizing that we totally have the technology to make that happen and yet it isn’t here right now.

After telling him how wonderful this book is I said, “I wish I could just hand it to you right now so you could read it.” We both sat in awkward silence for a moment staring at my Kindle sitting placidly on the table. Then he looks at me and grabs his phone and with a flicking gesture suggests, “Don’t you wish it could be like in all the sci-fi movies and TV shows? You could just flick the file over from your Kindle like this and it would just pop up on my phone?” I nod and sigh as I realize that between us the technology to make this happen exists. There’s just a rift of legal and technical policy that restricts anyone from making it happen.

The world is burgeoning with these missed opportunities of late. Floating around us is a dirge of futures that could have been the present. Cool technology that could exist if it wasn’t for out-dated copyright enforcement and capitalist self-interest.

It all leads back to the question of what are we doing locking down all of these general purpose computing devices into “appliances?” (or products if you prefer). The slate gray Kindle on the table between us flashes to a new screen saver. An ad for discounted romance novels in time for Valentines Day. This little device on the table isn’t a Kindle. It’s a general-purpose CPU with all the usual bits inside of a general-purpose computer. It just happens to have a nice form factor and a display that is easy on the human eye. The only thing that makes it a Kindle is Amazon and the “agreements,” I entered into with them when I started using the device (which are obfuscated and ephemeral… how did I agree to anything by using a device? Where’s the signature and the chance to propose my own amendments to the agreement?). If Amazon didn’t exist would the device before me cease to exist as well?

Sadly this is the future we are looking at. Even if they day comes where it becomes possible for me to share a book with a friend again no matter what device they use to read it… such a transaction will be burdened by the interferences of several third parties ensuring that someone somewhere will authorize it and someone else will make money from it. However even that pale future seems like wishful thinking when one considers that presently all of these devices are in competition with one another and attempting to build silos of services that work with and only with that particular associated “product.”