Ahead of Our Time:
Intersections of Thought and Technology Towards the Future
The story of humanity - who we are, where we come from, how we see our place in the world - is inextricably linked to technology. We tell the story of humanity through the lens of Ages: The Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Industrial Age, the Digital Age. What will we call the Age of humanity through the rest of the 21st century and beyond?
We live in a time of unparalleled technological breakthrough and advancement. Creature comforts aside, science, healthcare, information access and transfer, business, computing, analytics, the arts, and many other sectors have changed exponentially over the past few decades. Yet, we also live in a time of unprecedented existential crisis. Climate change looms large. Ecosystems are in distress, and mass extinctions threaten habitats and food chains. In response, the city of Phoenix recently established an Office of Heat Response and Mitigation – the first government office whose sole purview is to address and deal with rising temperatures in the hottest urban landscape in the United States. There are, of course, two sides to each increment of human technological progress - the means to improve society, and the means to abuse technological discovery for selfish, cynical gains. Misinformation and the death of truth already haunt us, piggybacking on technological advances in artificial intelligence. Indeed, our collective sense of reality, already fractured by media echo chambers amplified by social media algorithms, is further threatened by advances in AI technology.
In many cases, those who would benefit the most from access to new technology are often the last to do so. One need not look further than advances in medicine and healthcare to see gross inequity locally and abroad. The story of human technological advancement must include narratives of equity and access, and not just in healthcare. As technology advances, who gets left behind? How do the marginalized and voiceless claim equal access? What is clear is that our public and private institutions have a responsibility to guide and implement technological advancement for the betterment of society. Many people are now working from home, city infrastructures are struggling, and ancillary businesses are closing due to a lack of commuter influx. Another relevant example resides close to home - higher education. Forty percent of New York State-held real estate is part of the State University of New York (SUNY), which includes 64 campuses throughout the state. When institutions get this large, be they public or private, they must be mindful of what they do and how they run. They have incredible power to change lives, whether they are driving or responding to technological change.
Now more than ever, the question of employing new technology is a moral one. Automation threatens countless workers across numerous sectors of our economy. Many of the technological breakthroughs intended to improve worker productivity have not led to a decrease in the time spent working. Of course, a compelling argument may be that automation paves new avenues to career paths that support the automation process. Either way, the successful unification of technology and progress will be one of reconciliation. While the specific threats posed by technological changes such as AI and automation are new, the broader societal impacts are not – workers’ rights, child labor, government regulation, and corporate monopoly remain as relevant as ever. As any historian, sociologist, or anthropologist will tell us, abuses of power are a constant in human society. Consideration and critique by the arts and humanities provide cultural context and help us grapple with these issues that new technologies pose. The arts consistently introduce new mediums with which to subvert and critique the current moment, past missteps, and the potential future.
Technology is an emergent property of the intersection of ideas. Human interaction – collaboration and conflict – remains one static in technological progress. We encourage you to think about how the sharing of thoughts and ideas plays a role in driving technological change and its broader societal impact. As the seat of New York State government, Albany has long been at the forefront of technological innovation, so it is no surprise that we have chosen this theme for our 2024 conference. The Erie canal, one of the great technological achievements of the 19th century that revolutionized the transportation of goods, started (both physically and conceptually) in Albany. Now surrounded by institutions of higher education and a nanotech complex that champion technological progress, New York’s capital embodies the state’s leadership in cutting edge technological research to guide us through the 21st century and beyond. We hope you will consider the roles technology, ideas, and progress play in your own projects and areas of interest. We look forward to engaging with your ideas during our time together in 2024.