Friday, June 10, 2011

WisCon Panel 106: The Future's Here, It's Just Not Evenly Distributed

By Nancy Jane Moore

Unlike Josh, I cannot participate in a panel and take good notes about it, so this will not be a detailed post. But our discussion of the uneven distribution of the future went to some interesting places and included a great deal of thoughtful audience participation.

The other panelists were Lisa Freitag, Katherine Mankiller, and Neil Rest. Our appointed moderator was not able to come to WisCon, which I discovered a few hours before the panel, so, being your classic responsible middle-aged woman, I jumped in and took charge to make sure we had some structure.

The program book described the panel as follows:
Many SF books presuppose dramatic technologically-led transformation for the human race. But even in a high-tech society, not everyone can or will adopt technology at the same rate. Will developing countries leapfrog the industrialized world and go right to the newer technologies, as several countries did with cell phones? What will happen to the late adopters when the singularity comes?
As worded, the subject looked to be confined to a discussion of high tech, and in making a fast outline of possible discussion topics, I came up with thoughts about the growing gap between those who know how to write programs and apps, and those who only know how to use them, as well as some thoughts on other aspects of the future besides technology that look very unequal (health care, access to water, and so forth).

Almost from the beginning, the general consensus of both the panel and the audience was that when it comes to high tech, the future isn't all that unevenly distributed. Both Neil and Katherine, who have experience in computer tech, contended that as more items are developed and prices drop, usable tech is becoming more and more widely available worldwide. And it isn't just use of high tech that's expanding; the ability to create for it -- to program, to write apps, to design new tech more functional for various places -- is also becoming more available worldwide.

The audience -- which included many people who knew a lot about the subject -- agreed. In general, we concluded that access to technology was not a large problem and was likely to resolve itself.

But -- and it's a big but -- that doesn't mean the future in general will be evenly distributed. Technology can't solve all problems, Lisa said. (She actually said this in a sharper manner, but alas, I wasn't taking notes and don't have her quote.) She's a doctor, and very aware of the unequal distribution of health care.

It's great if you have an app for your phone that tells you where you can find clean water, but what if the nearest source of clean water is hundreds of miles away? Sure, we can develop tech gadgets that help with food production, but they can't fix the problems caused by too much or too little rain. And even if we can use the latest tech to figure out appropriate distribution patterns for food and medicine, companies driven by a profit-centered bottom line aren't going to ship them to places where people can't pay for them.

As one audience member pointed out, social media has been very useful for the people who live in the Marshall Islands, who have used it to alert the rest of the world that rising oceans are going to take their homes. But while technology makes their plight more visible, it can't stop the ocean level from rising.

We veered into medical tourism: Rich Americans going for treatments they can't get at home; poorer Americans going for treatments they can't afford at home because they are cheaper in places like India or Mexico or Thailand; both sets of people using resources that are then not available to the people who live in those countries. We talked a lot about the water problem and the food problem. We discussed infrastructure problems -- another area where the rich are insulated from the struggles of everyone else.

And we concluded that even if everyone has access to a smartphone, the future is still going to be unevenly distributed.

We didn't get to the singularity -- we were too interested in the very real inequalities that aren't fixed by high tech.

This particular panel was marked by a very high level of audience participation -- I'd estimate that 75-80 percent of the audience had something to contribute. Everyone's participation was thoughtful and well-presented -- nobody talked just to hear themselves. I think the high level of audience participation made this a particularly good event and one of the high points of WisCon for me.

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