The future is calling

Illustrated social media icons fill the air as someone touches the glowing screen of a tablet with one finger.

The future is calling

An in-depth look at the research that is creating the next techie gadgets which may soon be coming to a store near you
December 17, 2015

It’s a dizzying world out there. Technological research is moving fast. Gadgets and gizmos that just a few years ago were deemed revolutionary are moving swiftly from the lab onto retail shelves. It’s an exciting and dramatic time to be a consumer — so many advances so quickly, many with the potential to transform our world. Today, researchers at labs funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation across the country are evolving our technological knowledge in many fields, their advances laying the groundwork for the next generation of consumer technology. This in-depth report showcases some of that work and anticipates an exciting future.

“Technology is now our environment — the one we have selected and created for ourselves. We shape it, and it shapes us.”

In the digital age researchers are not only making the technologies of the future but also turning a critical eye to the important social and cultural implications of the electronic-age tools we are creating. After all, controlling our inventions has the potential to be much more difficult than developing them ever was.

Can society stay ahead of the techno curve?

In Andrew Feenberg’s view, we have changed the very environment of our lives. “We have created our niche around technology to such an extent that we’re remote from what we call nature,” says the CFI-funded Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Technology at Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication. “Technology is now our environment — the one we have selected and created for ourselves. We shape it, and it shapes us.”

With that in mind, it’s more important than ever for us to understand that the new consumer technologies being developed cannot be viewed simply as tools without social context or implications. “A hundred years ago, technologies were much less present and much less dangerous, so the fact that people couldn’t control them made much less difference,” says Feenberg. “Now, it’s incredibly important that people have control, which means being able to express themselves freely.”

Do you own technology or does technology own you?

Many of Feenberg’s assessments are shared by Maria Bakardjieva, who studies the social ramifications of technology from her offices at the University of Calgary’s department of communication and culture. She says that while we’re increasingly surrounded by screens and devices and apps, it’s worth noting that we tend to use them in very human ways. Consider how much of our time is spent on Skype and Facebook, texting and playing video games in real time with our friends. So while we live our day-to-day lives in an increasingly “hybrid” way — part virtual, part in body — as humans, we still crave social interaction and tend to shape consumer technologies in ways that foster that collaboration. Technologies also let us link up with people of like-minded interests and be more active on political and civic issues. But with that power comes responsibility. “With every new technology, there is a period of taming and adjusting those new powers,” says Bakardjieva. “That must be done with an eye to our values and our ideas and how we want our lives and the lives of those around us to be.”

In this in-depth report, we highlight how Canadian researchers are both studying and shaping these consumer technologies of the future. Click on the stories to the right to learn about some of the work being done by leading researchers in the fields of wearable technology, flexible computing and smart appliances. And to understand the capabilities and limitations of 3-D printing, read the interview with Matt Ratto from the University of Toronto’s Critical Making Lab. Add our podcast to your playlist to find out how data mining will transform the shopping spree of the future, and watch the video to see how tomorrow’s gaming systems will be able to “read your mind.” So many consumer technologies are coming soon to a store near you, though in what forms only a futurist would try to predict.

Originally posted December 2013

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