The technology advances of the last 30 years were great. But they’re just the start. What’s most exciting is still to come, says Nilofer Merchant.
In the next 30 years, the full Star Trek story will actually come true.
Already, we’ve seen many of the show’s far-fetched ideas come to fruition. Everyone now carries a communicator, aka the smart phone. We have medical devices that test for diseases with light, not by drawing blood (like new tests for anemia by TED Fellow Myshkin Ingawale). Anyone who heard the order, “Set phasers to stun,” given by the Enterprise crew, will appreciate tasers delivered by drones, as recently happened at South by Southwest. The universal translator is real. Bionic eyes like those of Lieutenant Commander Geordi LaForge now allow blind people to see. Cisco regularly advertises “telepresence.” Even tribbles — those small furry soft creatures that could relate to your emotions — exist as Furbies.
That was some jamming technological progress.
But none of the vision of humanity’s future that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry developed has materialized yet. His idea was that each person was able to contribute, that their differences were put to use, and that purpose aligned them to do better, together.
Most of us long to make a dent in the universe, to leave a world that’s different and better from the one we were born into. Now, increasingly, we can. And this shows us something that will blow our mind in 30 years: There is a new way for you, for many of us, to make a real dent, to bring the unique thing only we have to offer to bear on a situation to improve it. We all have something to offer — and as the next decades go by, we’ll all figure out how to apply it in a meaningful way.
No longer will change be the domain of the sanctioned, the privileged, the educated and the influential. Where once we required the support and might of an organization to try to make change, we don’t need that any more. Now we can easily enlist others to create with us, and we can all harness the power of purpose. This power is already at work in the world, unleashing the power of many, not in a sentimental or moralistic sense but in the sense that most of us want to do things that matter. And this force will gain momentum and speed in the next 30 years.
That means the forces-to-be-reckoned-with of the next 30 years won’t be singular giants such as Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey or Nelson Mandela. They will be all of us. People like Shel Kimen, the former advertising exec who returned to Detroit to build a workspace and hotel out of used shipping containers. Or Ryan Andresen, a scout since he was six years old, who came out as gay in high school, and swayed the Boy Scouts to change its policy to include kids like him. His courage and honor created new policies that embody his virtues.
These individuals are battling for the things that matter to them, based on their truth. And then, through their ability to connect with others with similar purpose, they are working to reshape society.
Many economists and technologists believe we’re coming into the machine age, where humans will compete with technology for jobs and ability to create value. I think they are partially right. In Star Trek, machines enabled humans to be more social. See the world through this lens, and you realize all of this technology combined with human ingenuity can be brought together to drive towards something new — a world where all people count.
We’re not coming into a machine era; we’re coming into the social era. Right now, we are at a particular inflection point of history, where the power of purposeful networks is clearly becoming a new way to get things done. What will happen when most of us are able to make a meaningful difference? Let’s find out. As much as we like our smart phones, I bet we’ll like where this path of society takes even more.