The Bittersweet Years

Susan Fonseca gave a talk last January at a TEDx event in San Jose, California about waiting for promising emerging technologies to arrive. Her father passed away for need of an organ despite promising advances in 3-D printing:

Fonseca’s experience is a poignant illustration of what I refer to as “The Bittersweet Years”. Technological progress in this era is sometimes rapid enough for sweet joy but most often slow enough for bitter grief. In the Bittersweet Years, the evocative distance between emerging technologies and their clinical use is measured in, as Fonseca notes, life itself:

“For my father, the space between the technology that is and that will be was the difference of life itself. More heartbreaking because my mind knows that there’s something better, there should be something better, something almost within my reach.”

These words do not express an unrealistic desire for a far future. Quite the opposite. As a founding member of Singularity University, an organization seeking to bring emerging technologies to billions of people at once, and as quickly as possible, Fonseca has long been in a position to observe and understand the pace of technological progress; she knows just how close many of these emerging technologies are from being part of everyday life, and now she knows it even more painfully after the death of her father. Fonseca with great frustration notes that:

“The people and the tools already exist.”

Technological progress in time for our loved ones to benefit requires something more than speed alone; it requires improvements to the architecture of progress itself, by allowing more and more people to participate in determining our future. Another insightful quote by Fonseca:

“I believe that real success and breakthroughs will happen when everyone contributes at their highest levels of creativity, experience and wisdom.”

One important step toward such widespread contribution is to connect people who have previously been underrepresented in technology. Fonseca is also founder of Women@TheFrontier, an organization whose mission is:

“to identify, connect and activate a new peer-to-peer community of female visionaries and thought-leaders.”

Everyone is affected by technology. Empowering women and other underrepresented demographics through efforts like Women@TheFrontier provides fresh perspectives, unique collaborations, and new contributions, and it creates a larger pool of informed people working together to build a positive future.

No matter who we are, there is yet one other distance to be bridged, and it is a particularly difficult one: the space between opinion and action. Many people mistake opinion for action. They think that if they are opinionated, self-righteous, loud, angry, sarcastic, disrespectful, and demeaning, then they have taken a constructive action. They also think they are being creative, experienced, and wise, as well as skeptical, realistic, blunt, and participatory, but they are none of these. If we would all just:

  • be quiet more often;
  • listen;
  • think, both critically and quietly;
  • allow ourselves to feel hope and awe;
  • collaborate; and then
  • act, both critically and quietly,

then we, like Fonseca, could stop waiting! Yes, even self-improvement – learning to be better thinkers, collaborators, and agents of change – can help us improve technological progress, involve everyone, and confine the Bittersweet Years to as short an era as possible. We can emerge on the other side of the Bittersweet Years with more of our loved ones standing healthy and happy beside us, the beneficiaries of emerging technologies well within our reach.

Published by

Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet living in Tucson, Arizona. His poetry has been published in Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey and Fairy Tale Review’s “Fairy-Tale Files“.