The various brands of virtual reality made their appearance at different times and there seems to have been a repeating cycle. The concept gets introduced, some applications appear. Then everyone sees massive implications for the future. And then - nothing happens. Or, nothing seems to happen. Rheingold's Virtual Reality seemed to live through this sort of cycle, and the Second Life bubble was similar. Now we are discussing things like Kinect that point to huge changes in human-machine interface, and ludic organizational strategies that will rewire the corporation.
We seemed to have reached the stage in technological development where the pace of advance greatly exceeds the pace at which advances can be processed by human social systems (see Brown and Duguid and I'm sure many others). Technological change is a self-accelerating process, and so is human social adaptation; but one of these runs much faster than the other. We have two positive feedback loops that are out of synch.
This creates a technology backlog: A set of projects that everyone knows are important, yet that remain to be adopted. The technology backlog that I can identify in my little neck of the woods is already prodigious (virtual currencies, guild-based production, entertaining interfaces, self-customization). It can only grow larger - the industries I watch are coming up with new things every year, even though their "old" innovations are still waiting for widespread adoption.
Imagine a process in which the technology backlog gets larger exponentially. There are a couple of interesting dynamics that might come from this kind of situation.
First, it seems like this would have to make adoption a chaotic process. Utterly unpredictable. The Technology Backlog would be like a massive puzzle - thousands of interlocking pieces, most of which fit together poorly, and fit with current institutions more poorly still. Then someone, somewhere, puts the correct 3 or 4 things together and BOOM, there's a massive change to something important. Expect revolutions, and expect them to be surprising. Therefore, train for adaptability and change.
Second, there's going to be more inequality. There will certainly be huge knowledge inequality, in that some tiny slice of the population will know that, eventually, such-and-such a change is coming. I know, and you do too, that virtual currencies will eventually dominate the workplace. OK, that makes 800 of us, out of 6 or 7 billion.
There will be material inequality too. If you live in a place where the technology backlog gets farmed well, you will have a nice standard of living. But farming the technology backlog is a positive feedback loop. The first people to get in the game will always be ahead - until the aforementioned revolutions change everything.
Third, let's talk Singularity. We have technological systems whose ability to prepare food exceeds the ability of social systems to eat it. The technological systems will naturally begin to work on this problem - trying to speed up the messy human process. Perhaps AI will do the backlog farming for us, and simply hand over the good stuff when they find it. Perhaps AI will select certain groups or individuals (based on intelligence or age or location or organization) as vaccines: people who are used to inject new technologies into the social corpus. Perhaps AI will eliminate the notion of the backlog by deprecating the value of human applications. /robotvoice "The purpose of advance is to advance the advancers."
Finally, whatever change we're talking about - the shift to pure imagination, for example - it will come surprisingly fast for us. It's true that we can get used to the pace of change dictated by our social adoption processes. If that's the limiting factor, we can get to know it well. But then those revolutions will come along - the gradual pace of social adoption will get interrupted by the introduction of a revolutionary weird gadget from the technology backlog. Some thing or practice that we thought was going to be in "the future" will suddenly just appear. Most of us will be caught flat-footed.
But there's more to this than mere surprise on the part of the generation that happens to be alive when the strange new dawn (or amazing new zombie game) breaks upon us. From a broad historical perspective, these changes are like lightning. The best analysis to date suggests that the cultural processes necessary to give birth to the Industrial Revolution took not decades but hundreds of years to develop in northwestern Europe. Even 700 years, though, is a small-ish slice of the 10,000 or so years of technology. Now the pace of major innovation is by the single generation, the decade, maybe the year? Whatever - it's awfully, awfully fast.