Whenever you watch a movie or TV show about the evils of technology, one message is constantly recurring. “It will make us all the same!” they cry. “No more artisanal furniture! No handcrafted clothes! Everything will look either grey and bleak, or like something from an Apple store, depending on when this film was made.”
It’s true everywhere you look: The Empire in Star Wars, 1984, the Cybermen in Doctor Who, even supposedly utopian futures like Star Trek look strangely uniform and homogenous. It’s an idea that goes back to Henry Ford – as the things we use become mass produced, the people start to look mass produced as well.
But to think that that’s what our future looks like you have to miss some fairly fundamental facts about human nature, and more importantly, advertising. So far very few advertisers have managed to make a successful campaign out of saying, “Buy our product and you’ll be an unremarkable drone like everybody else!”
No, instead the message is “You’re special! You’re unique! Express yourself! Show everyone how special you are!” Everything we own is being turned into a signifier of who we think we are, and nowhere is this clearer than in the very arena that’s supposed to make us all the same – technology.
The most obvious place to see this is in how our tech itself looks. Where the movies are constantly showing us technology that is made of grey boxes (Star Wars), or shiny white boxes (I, Robot) or most recently, completely transparent boxes with writing on (Looper), in reality your phone probably has a clip on cover that shows flowers, or your favourite band, or most beloved cartoon character.
The only choice you had with your games console thirty years ago was whether to play Super Mario Bros. or Duck Hunt first. Today you can choose your memory capacity, a whole slew of peripherals, and whether not it has a picture of Batman on the side.
These changes aren’t skin deep either. Your technology is constantly learning about you, through location tracking, your search history, which people you call or email most often, and it will often mould itself around that information in subtle ways you don’t even notice. Is it sinister and Owellian? Maybe, but it’s also really convenient.
A new kind of factory
And it comes back to Henry Ford again, or rather, the ways we’re leaving Henry Ford behind. Technology is mass produced and it’s easier to mass produce things that all look the same. But today that isn’t the only form of manufacturing there is. 3D printers allow you to create unique, customised shapes with astonishing ease, and can create everything from small toys, to prosthetic limbs (this kid had a customised Iron Man prosthetic printed) to small, programmable, open source robots. You can even, without too much trouble, use a 3D printer to print everything you need to build a 3D printer.
If the future is going to be a robotic one, the chances are they won’t be bland white iPhone robots of the kind we saw in I, Robot. Instead they’ll be done up like so many old Volkswagen Beetles.