Four Things I learned at Long Island Tech Day

by Gregory Quinn, Zimmerman/Edelson, Inc.

I recently spent a day at the Long Island Tech Day, a “revolutionary one-day expo created for Long Island-based tech companies.” Here are four things I learned.

4. Things, no one makes things anymore.
Silly me — in the days leading up to this expo, I pictured booth after booth of gizmos and gadgets and children cruising around on hover boards (real ones) with helmet-sized virtual reality goggles strapped to their heads. What I got was booth after booth of printed-our PowerPoint slides, each sheet emblazoned with multicolored bar- and- circle graphs. It was a data analysts dream I’m sure, but for me it was heartbreaking. With one very notable exception (see #1) the future of tech is digital — it’s software and applications and Search Engine Optimization. That’s inevitable and eco-friendly, but it’s also a little sad, in a wide-eyed-child sort of way. And for now, at least, it also has tangible drawbacks. For one, our ability to store digital data lags far behind our ability to store physical data. (What do you think is holding up better these days: A book from 1976 or a floppy disk from 1996?) Another drawback, of course, is the vulnerability of our digital media, storage and personal information, a concern demonstrated with terrifying clarity by recent DDoS cyberattacks and the constant stream of Wikileaks hacks.

3. Even in the future, the wireless doesn’t work.
As a child of the Alanis Morissette generation, my grasp of the word “irony” is pretty weak. Still, I think I got one here: The internet at an expo dedicated to emerging technology barely work. Is that ironic? Probably not. But still — it’s odd in a funny kind of a way; it’s like going to a plumbing convention and seeing an “Out of Order” sign over the toilet. I visited several booths that used no more than a placard and a laptop to present their companies; problem was, with the internet hardly working the laptops were fundamentally useless, and all I had to go on was their word that what they did was awesome. It illustrates an interesting issue moving forward: We can create virtual worlds near indistinguishable from our own, but we still have a hard time connecting more than 20 people in the same room to the internet.

2. Remember The Terminator? That movie series with futuristic, semi-sentient solider robots? Yeah, that’s happening. 
Well, maybe not the part of the movies where the robots flail through time like wonton ping-pong balls or learn why humans cry — but robots providing community policing? That future has arrived, my flesh-and-bone friends. I spoke to one start-up that builds drones and robot RC cars that police departments can use to provide advanced security and safer crime-scene investigating. While I can certainly get behind the idea of throwing a Go-Pro on a militarized WALL-E and sending it to examine bomb threats, the thought of using giant, menacing drones to police outdoor festivals — or, particularly, protests — raises some rather obvious ethical questions about privacy and what not (not to mention sounds terrifying). And at a moment where the chasm between police departments and the communities they serve is so wide, I’m not sure having robots to do what humans used to do is the best strategy to bridge that gap.

BONUS LESSON! Future food may be a real bummer. In an effort to embrace the World of Tomorrow more wholly, the Long Island Tech Expo apparently applied 2045 food prices to all its dining options. $2.50 for a small coffee, $9.00 for a pre-made tuna wrap?! And while we’re on the subject, the Expo’s lackluster dining options were disappointing and off-brand; I was really hoping for a buffet of astronaut ice cream and maybe a side shank of cloned tofu cow. And aren’t all our meals going to be in pill form in a couple decades? Could have really gone for some calzone pills, folks.

  1. None of this matters because virtual/augmented reality is here and it is going to render everything else pointless.

In Roger Ebert’s review of the science-fiction film, Gattaca, a movie that expertly (in my opinion and his) deals with the social and moral complications of eugenics and genetic modification, Ebert looks on at a potential future in which humans are healthier and smarter — but less rebellious, spontaneous and diverse — with a shrug, saying eloquently, “Don’t you sometimes have the feeling you were born just in time?” That line from the late, great critic has stuck with me since I first read it years ago, and as I peered into a virtual reality headset for the first time, “walking” through a virtual shipping dock, I was reminded of that line, of its wise understanding of the downside to constantly progressing technology.

You can’t interact with the virtual reality world just yet — you can’t run around unshackled like the world is your own personal Grand Theft Auto — but once you can? Forget it. Forget everything you know about everything. Why spend thousands of dollars on business travel when you plug yourself into a virtual meeting room? Why go to Disney World when you go to Virtual Magic Kingdom, cut in line at Space Mountain, punch Goofy in his face and annex Pleasure Island? What’s the point of imperfect, expensive, ZIKA-infested reality, when sweet, sweet augmented reality is one Galaxy Note away (provided it doesn’t explode)? Why have intimate relations with a real human when…well let’s not get into that.

I’m an old millennial — I fit the specific demographic boundaries, but SnapChat might as well be Mandarin to me. This is to say that I remember pre-Internet life; I know a thing or two about this Rubicon we’re about to cross. There’s no going back. It’s too game changing. Those amazing drones that can surveil giant festival crowds won’t be so useful when people stop going to concerts and sporting events. And they will stop — why put up the cost, the discomfort, the weather, the bathroom lines and everything else when you can sit on your couch and get a perfectly comfortable front-row seat with better sound and picture quality?

Before virtual reality becomes are only reality, do me a solid. Walk outside for a moment and touch some stuff — a tree or a brick wall or traffic sign — and pay attention to what it’s like. We can still do that now. We were born just in time.