HERE’S A LITTLE secret: science-fiction writers are terrible at predicting the future. But that’s okay. Everyone is terrible at predicting the future. Every significant fact about the future is unguessably weird. Only the trivial is subject to extrapolation.
I have no predictions for what the future holds. But I have hopes and I have fears, and they’re both anchored by the same observation: that computers and networks make it easier for us to work as groups.
That sounds trivial, I know, but working efficiently in groups is the oldest dream our species has. When some distant ancestor of ours in the savanna hit on the strategy, it benefited everyone—some monkeys could forage for fruit, others could watch for predators, and a third group could watch the kids, and everyone got more done.
This demanded that the monkeys spend a certain amount of time making sure that their comrades were doing what they were supposed to be doing—a certain amount of doubling-back to make sure that there really was someone standing lookout, a certain amount of coming down from the lookout perch only to discover that everyone was watching the kids and no one was gathering fruit.
But it was worth the wastage and inefficiencies. That’s because working with others makes us superhuman (or supersimian, as the case may be). I mean that literally. There is only so much any one of us can do on his own, but when we work with others, we can transcend that limit.
All of human history since then has been a struggle to figure out how to coordinate larger groups with lower coordination costs—fewer hours in meetings, fewer duplicated efforts, fewer moments when you discover that for the past six hours you’ve been pulling north and your buddy has been pulling south.
Computers and networks have come closer to solving our coordination problems than nearly any technology before them. They outperform the chalkboard, the org chart, the telephone—everything I can think of except for language, the original coordinative technology (“You go this way, I’ll go that way”).
When I was a young activist in the 1980s, approximately 98 percent of my time was spent stuffing envelopes and writing addresses on them. The remaining 2 percent was the time I could use to figure out what to put in the envelopes.
Today, we get all that coordinative effort gratis. (It’s called the “cc” line in your email client.) It’s so easy that we don’t even notice it. In my lifetime, the technology to coordinate people for positive change has gone from the rolling log to the supercharged V-8, and it shows no sign of slowing.
Of course, it’s not just activists who get this increase in coordinative power. And not all activists are created equal—the power to coordinate accrues equally to the NAACP as to the KKK.