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Putting the Fun Back in Tech

Among the technocracy – at MIT and beyond – inventing the future and having fun aren’t mutually exclusive.
August 1, 2005

Inventing the future is a difficult business, which is why the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – the owner of this publication – can be a rather serious place. MIT students are even serious about goofing off: consider the planning that goes into the clever hacks perpetrated upon the Great Dome, the campus’s architectural centerpiece. In past years students have redecorated the 46-meter-high dome as R2-D2 and topped it with a police cruiser.

In that spirit of serious play, we present what we’ve taken to calling the “summer of fun” issue. We haven’t, of course, abandoned our focus on emerging technologies. You’ll find plenty new to chew on: a new algorithm from IBM that could make search engines more intelligent (see “Smarter Search); genetically engineered fluorescent E. coli bacteria that can signal environmental changes (see “Bacterial Sensors); even an animatronic squirrel that uses social cues to manage your telephone calls (see “Executive Squirrel). But in this issue, we’ve mainly chosen to draw out the social and personal meanings of novel technologies.

Two of our features this month – on the rise of “continuous computing” and the promise of “nutritional genomics” – are previewed later in this section. Both are concerned with how technologies can change very basic, social parts of life: community and food. The third (a kind of fun travel story) is about the Kingdom of Bhutan, a poor Himalayan nation with some unusual ideas about how it should modernize and use new technologies (see “Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise?”).

Traditionally, Technology Review hasn’t written that much about society. Our subject matter is emerging technologies, and they have historically been purchased by corporations, universities, and governments. That’s because emerging technologies used to require an extraordinary capital investment, one well beyond the means of most people in their private capacities. Nor did most people see the need to experiment with really novel technologies. Thus the personal computer, the local-area network, the Internet itself were all first used in commercial, government, or academic settings.

But this is changing. The spread of cheap laptops, handheld devices, affordable Internet access, Wi-Fi, and a dozen other consumer technologies has led to a wonderful explosion of new social applications for them. But here’s the really interesting thing: most of these social technologies have simple editing and programming tools that let ordinary folks do innovative things that risk-averse corporations and government agencies would be hesitant to try. We suspect that Technology Review will be writing about the impact of new technologies on society much more frequently. Besides, social technologies are more fun.

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