Artificial Intelligence and the Ever-Receding Horizon of the Future

Jenna Burrell is Director of Research at Data & Society. Shutterstock In 2010, Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell wrote a book about tech innovation that described the way technologists fixate on the “proximate future” — a future that exists “just around the corner.” The authors, one a computer scientist, and the other a tech industry veteran, were examining emerging tech developments in “ubiquitous computing,” which promised that the sensors, mobile devices, and tiny computers embedded in our surroundings would lead to ease, efficiency, and general quality of life. Dourish and Bell argue that this future focus distracts us from the present while also absolving technologists of responsibility for the here and now. We are now presumably living in some version of that future, reliant on wifi-connected washing machines, smart speakers that keep our shopping lists for us, and RFID tags that help locate a child’s precious favorite toy (all devices in use in my home). Yet our engagement with technology hasn’t removed struggle, chores, and tedium from our lives. While it has inarguably altered our social relationships, it hasn’t miraculously gifted us more time to focus on them. With the good has come the bad, the disappointing, the cludgy, and the intractable. Meanwhile, the techie futurists continue to train their vision on the horizon, and the latest headlines about artificial intelligence serve to keep our eyes fixed there, too, instead of on the messy present, and the dilemmas on our doorsteps. Dominating the current news cycle is a 22-word statement,…Artificial Intelligence and the Ever-Receding Horizon of the Future