Ten Years of Frontier Channel

[Commentary]

Here on Frontier Channel my beats tend toward planetary science, digital media, and life extension. By following digital media and other trends closely over the past decade I have learned a lot about prediction, commentary, futurism, and news reporting as it relates to emerging technologies. For example, it is clear now that specific news related to specific companies regarding their particular products only highlight present expectations. Trend tracking only becomes possible with news and statistics related to several companies and their products across multiple industries over time.

You would think this is obvious. However, in 2000 I was writing about specific companies developing hydrogen fuel cells, a technology that was expected to revolutionize energy creation, storage, and distribution over the rest of the decade. I was also writing about Media Fusion, a company that planned to “pass data over powerlines at speeds in excess of 2.5 GB/sec.” The clincher? I was saying the following about the AOL and Time Warner merger announced on January 10, 2000:

“Wow. Merge a content provider with a content delivery company and you have incredible potential. Definitely a sign of things to come.”

Yikes. Now, I do not claim to be a professional reporter or futurist, but it is sad to look back and realize that I could scarcely even be called a amateur of either back then. As it was, I took everything on faith, oblivious to how technology really progresses (fuel cells), fraud (Media Fusion), and how often companies make the wrong choices (AOL and Time Warner.)

Ten years after starting what would become Frontier Channel, the same enthusiasm for science and technology has not left me, but it is tempered by experience and good lessons learned. I more clearly separate my commentary from my news reporting. My predications are based more on reason than on enthusiasm, and I give them the level of emphasis they deserve: not much. I look toward scenario-building and other tools of the futurist trade to guide me through my exploration of the future. I am also much less interested in the far future; the near-term and its impact on me, my family and friends, and humanity as a whole are much more pertinent.

This is not to say that I think prediction and other commentary about technology trends are useless. For one thing, prediction is fun as hell! Bad predictions only make me want to make better predictions. As for commentary? I could not keep my mouth shut if I tried. Writing is expression, and express myself I must, in commentary, news reporting, tweets, research papers, fiction, etc. I have found more clarity through writing than in any other activity.

Predictions and commentary also fix thoughts in time, providing a repository online of what I was thinking at a particular time and how it related to everything else that was going on then. Like leaving breadcrumbs along an unfamiliar path, I can retrace that path in hopes of gaining greater wisdom and insight. Along the path from 2000 to 2010 I have learned that technological progress does not follow one technology to the next. Instead new technologies arise like plants out of a soil that is constantly being enriched. For example, the arrival of the iPhone, my absolute favorite technology of the entire last decade, cannot be explained by the strict evolution of media players and cellphones over several years. A better model is one that looks at a host of technologies in a holistic way and when they will support something like an iPhone. The iPhone arrived when the technological substrate upon which it was build could support it. That is, interface technology, memory, software development, cellular and wireless standards, and other technologies all had to reach a particular level of cost and availability before the iPhone could be created.

From this realization, I learned to focus on the “background” of technology development rather than the “foreground”. What the technology blogs focus on are technologies as they are released; this is the exciting and flashy foreground stuff. Much more interesting is the technological substrate that makes these foreground technologies possible. By paying attention to the technological substrate, I argue that it becomes easier to predict when certain future technologies will arrive. Let’s take that common cynical observation about us living in the future but not yet having flying cars. We do not have flying cars because the technological substrate cannot support them. For one thing, keeping track of vehicles in 3-D is a difficult problem. For another, fuel requirements remain high for flying vehicles. When will we have flying cars? When these and other problems are solved, by technologies that will serve as a foundation upon which flying cars can be built.

In August 2004 I was predicting a coming convergence of technologies that would allow my dream eBook Reader to be available to consumers:

“Around 2006, all the technology components will be in place, and the truly great eBook reader should become available around 2007, if not a little sooner. Once introduced, subsequent versions with enhanced features will likely spell the end for books early in the next decade as more and more people are converted to the convenience of superior eBook readers.”

I did not have everything about this dream ebook reader correct; in fact, the product turned out not to be an ebook reader at all. It was the iPhone and many of the capabilities I was looking for came in the form of apps.While the Kindle and other current ebook readers resemble in many ways what I was predicting would arrive by the end of the decade, the iPhone turned out better than what I wanted. Today the iPhone is an unrivaled platform, supporting augmented reality, gaming, content creation, and other activities in a single device I could not have imagined back in 2004. All of this became possible, however, because a host of other technologies provided the appropriate foundation to support the iPhone, Kindle, and other similar devices. In fact, that infrastructure is still improving, leading quite probably to multimodal tablets that will lead consumers away from desktops, laptops, and netbooks over the next decade.

There were other lessons to be learned while writing for Frontier Channel. A specific prediction of a capability, such “a display resolution of at least 300 dots per square inch”, may turn out not to be necessary at all. Another: surprises do happen. This makes predication more difficult, but it also makes the future, when it arrives, more exciting. I also learned that studying technology trends can serve to improve your own personal financial situation. For example, I skipped over the entire era of cellphones from 2000 to 2007 that began including features like cameras and music playing. I stuck with a simple pre-paid phone with few features for years because technology trends indicated what I really wanted would be arriving later in the decade. By listing what I want in technology and paying attention to technology trends, I have learned to budget my money to make purchases at just the right time. This has led to incredibly satisfying, personal, and exciting purchases of products that I greatly appreciate and adore. The iPhone is my best example of this methodology, as is the desktop computer I just built.

This methodology also strongly suggests that this will probably be the last desktop computer that I will ever own, that the 2010s will see the peak of consumer electronics before an inevitable and spectacular crash around 2018, and that the Metaverse awaits humanity in the 2020s. Yes, this is a glimpse of my new predictions for the coming decade. Unlike the predictions I began making back at the beginning of Frontier Channel, these predictions are based on the lessons I have learned, analysis of technology trends based on years of compiled statistics, and attention to how these technologies progress, rather than handwaving. Yet it is likely that these predications are only incrementally better, if at all, then my previous predictions. Knowing the limitations of predictions may also make for better predictions.

The best part of owning a website like Frontier Channel is recording my thoughts in public, and being held to them. I look forward to another decade of writing and the discourse that results. I want to thank the readers who have followed along any time over the past ten years, especially those who have left insightful, informative, and interesting comments. I also want to thank the guest writers that helped tell the exciting story of emerging technologies. Here is to ten more years of news and commentary about the Great Frontiers of cyberspace, outer space, the ocean, and destinations in between!

Published by

Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a fiction writer and poet, with his first published poem forthcoming later in 2017 from Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey. Richard is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team at the University of Arizona. He monitors images of the Martian surface taken by the HiRISE camera located on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars and helps ensure they process successfully and are validated for quick release to the science community and public. Once upon a time, Richard wrote and edited the science and technology news and commentary website Frontier Channel, hosted the RADIO Frontier Channel podcast, and organized transhumanist clubs. Follow Richard on his website (richardleis.com), on Goodreads (richardleis), his Micro.blog (@richardleis), Twitter (@richardleisjr), and Facebook (richardleisjr).