Last week, I had the opportunity to sit in the driver’s seat of a Tesla Model S, and it was amazing.
I’m not a car person, but as an admirer of Elon Musk‘s continued career as Iron Man, this was too good to pass up. And despite my lack of appreciation for automotive design, there’s no denying that this car is cool. The level of control is on par with the starship Enterprise: I was able to control everything from the car’s ambient lighting to the degree of steering control via a single touchscreen. The only thing I didn’t do was drive the car (mall security might have frowned on that).
Of course, these are all minutia when compared to the vehicle’s main achievement: it’s the first truly viable mass-market electric car. I have no doubt it will be the forerunner of a whole generation of personal transportation that relies on renewable energy rather than fossil fuels.
We throw around the word “innovation” a lot, and sometimes it takes a tangible reminder such as an electric car to recalibrate my understanding of the word. When compared to recent advances in alternative energy, commercial spaceflight, and medical technology, the self-aggrandizing frothings of the digital world seem so petty. We build cool things, but rarely do they move us forward. We dream too small.
The internet hasn’t made good on its potential. Most of what the startup world produces amount to nothing more than party tricks. Instagram and Snapchat are great, but they don’t solve real problems and the world would hardly be poorer without them. We’ve focused our attention on making nifty little things, projects that help us to exist better while we forget to actually live.
Because the tech world is such an echo chamber, and we’re still caught up in the magic of software — code goes in, experiences come out — we have an inflated view of what we actually do. The internet has finally reached ubiquity, but if the best tools we can come up with are Facebook and YouTube, then what’s the point? The internet brings out as much bad about us as it does good. It hasn’t raised the tone of conversation, and it hasn’t made us smarter or kinder or more charitable. It’s just another stage upon which our human nature is magnified.
Compared to other technological arenas, the internet is actually behind on true innovation. We can do better. If our digital technology has as much potential as we believe, it shouldn’t be difficult to turn that potential towards real problems. We’re well-practiced in our craft, and our experience making smaller things leaves us well-equipped to build bigger. Let’s make this year the year that the internet comes into its own as a tool for good more than a playground of distraction.
There are frontiers yet to conquer, and we can expect to see significant headway made in this coming year. 2012 saw the advent of consumer-grade wearable computers, true commercial spaceflight, street-legal self-driving cars, and electric vehicles which can match their petroleum-fueled counterparts.
What will 2013 bring?