When the first commercially viable light bulb was produced by American inventor Thomas Edison in 1879, the reaction to this innovative shift in technology wasn’t entirely celebratory.

At the time, it was ridiculed by some as a product doomed to failure, and a British Parliamentary committee at the time threw shade on the creation by saying it was “Good enough for our transatlantic friends, but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men”.

In 1926, when Scottish inventor John Logie Baird gave a demonstration of the television in London, American inventor and “Father of Radio” Lee de Forest denounced Baird’s invention as a financial and commercial impossibility. Other prominent critics suggested that people would soon tire of spending their time staring at a screen.

These are just two examples of the many major technological advancements that were ridiculed in their early days. It’s easy to see why: Few people enjoy change, especially those who grew up just fine without all these newfangled gadgets, thank you very much.

“Everything is amazing, everything is horrible, and it’s all moving too fast,” writes Tim O’Reilly in his new book WTF: What’s The Future And Why It’s Up To Us. Examining how new technologies such as on-demand services, artificial intelligence, and online platforms are changing the world and how we interact with it, O’Reilly offers insights into how we can make significant innovations more human-centred.

WTF: What's The Future And Why It’s Up To Us, by Tim O’Reilly

O’Reilly – founder of O’Reilly Media – has been keeping an eye on tech trends since his student days at Harvard. Starting out as a technical writer in 1977, in 1983 he began publishing computer manuals and set up business with a handful of employees in a converted barn.

As an advocate of modern technology, O’Reilly predictably shines a positive light on where we might be headed into the future, complete with the Silicon Valley veneer of optimism that insists technology is here to help us humans to become the best of ourselves rather than create problems.

O’Reilly quotes one of the famous “laws” formulated by British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, to allude to both the latent potential of new technologies and our underlying apprehension of the speed at which advancements evolve.

Indeed, O’Reilly’s style of writing, while positive and engaging, can sometimes leave you feeling like there’s scarcely time to catch your breath between pages. As with some other books written by CEOs, WTF has the feel of a memoir and business guide rolled into one, which makes for an interesting book – but also one that at times leaves you wondering if you’re revising a text for an upcoming exam.

Nevertheless, O’Reilly’s latest offering leads the reader down the interesting path of pondering the role of humans in the influence – positive or otherwise – that technology has in our lives. While he gives a nod to the fact that technologies can give rise to sizeable issues (see Uber, for example), O’Reilly argues that such issues are really down to human error and misguided governance rather than the technologies themselves.

He adds to this defence by prophesying that innovations and trends – including artificial intelligence and the gig economy – will help to free people up to “entertain, educate, care for, and enrich each other’s lives” – a utopian vision if ever there was one, and one that is passionately presented.

At times, WTF can appear somewhat disjointed in the case and arguments it tries to make; however, there’s no vaster expanse than the future, and nothing more unpredictable, which points to the difficulty in pinning it down. That said, O’Reilly sets out his stall with great aplomb and engaging foresight in what is ultimately an entertaining and stimulating book.


Author Tim O’Reilly. Photo: PETER ADAMS/Faces of Open Source

Author Tim O’Reilly. Photo: Faces Of Open Source/Peter Adams

WTF: What’s The Future And Why It’s Up To Us

Author: Tim O’Reilly
Publisher: HarperCollins, technology trends