A good-news, bad-news look at a world full of unicorns, robots, and wonder—the future, in other words, as seen by longtime innovation watcher O’Reilly.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” the great British futurist and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke once observed. Thus the rude but now commonplace acronym of media maven and venture capitalist O’Reilly’s book: “The world today is full of things that once made us say ‘WTF?’ but are already well on their way to being the stuff of daily life.” One such innovation was the LINUX operating system, a decentralized creation essentially given away for free, just as was the World Wide Web, and never mind all the people trying to monetize both, the source of exasperated cries of WTF on the part of techno-libertarians. There’s magic, there’s WTFery, and there are unicorns—the latter things like Siri and kindred bits of artificial intelligence that fulfill O’Reilly’s requirements that they change the world while seeming at first impossible. (And how did we ever live without our iPhones, anyway?) The rub in all this, of course, is that people are being left behind in this glamorous future, a place of “thick marketplaces” and endless churn. It is on these matters that O’Reilly turns serious, if a trifle dreamy: “The future depends on what we choose,” he intones. As such, it offers us chances to do such things as rethink government and how it delivers services, reconceive money and its place in our lives (“Money is like gas in the car—you need to pay attention or you’ll end up on the side of the road—but a successful business or a well-lived life is not a tour of gas stations”), and so forth. The argument gets a little scattershot, but understandably, since the future is a big subject and the choices many.
O’Reilly’s vision is more Utopian than dystopian, even downright optimistic in a roundabout, creative-destruction sort of way. The positive outlook is refreshing and engaging.