Saturday, May 14, 2011

Devastating Technologies

Yesterday and today, Blogger went down for hours. This is a reminder to us all that you get what you pay for. In the case of free cloud-based services, that is sometimes exactly... nothing. Don't forget, you are not Google's customer: their advertisers are. Ditto Facebook. Ditto Twitter. How often is Twitter over capacity? How often does Facebook leak your personal data? They owe you nothing. I've talked about issues with digital data before. However, while the amateur historian, computing professional, and worrywart in me concerns myself with the problem of losing data that is either not in your control, is in proprietary formats, or is simply on easily ruined media, everything else in me loves the ability to just post my thoughts to the world, and to access massive amounts of knowledge and thought from my desk, and in just the past few years, my smartphone.

In many ways, aside from its flaws, the Information Revolution has been one of the most exciting things humanity has ever seen. However, as I explored in one of those earlier links, it also has created generations of people who can't live without new technologies, and perhaps worse, can't live with them. Mankind has a history of technological changes that have completely upset the way the world works and often take ages to adjust to. This is just the latest of many, and contrary to what people seem to think, I'm optimistic we'll adjust.

Take the crossbow: the Medieval knight and his expensive custom armor and extensive training all of a sudden could be taken out by a peasant with a simple, easy to produce weapon. The Pope was asked to ban the thing to keep the status quo. It didn't happen, and the world adjusted. Not long afterwards, gunpowder revolutionized warfare, making walled cities obsolete and finally making traditional armor obsolete. Entire battle tactics that had been used since the Classical Era became obsolete. After centuries of being a bastion of civilization, Constantinople fell to Turkish cannon and guns helped end feudalism, and the world was never the same...and we adjusted for the better.

The printing press was a great communication tool, often considered one of the most important inventions of all time, but it was blamed for many things, including the death of many traditional memory techniques and travelling storytellers. The Industrial Revolution changed a rural world into an urbanized one. It took years of poor working and living conditions for that to settle down, and it left the world far wealthier and educated than ever before. In some countries, this process continues into today. Mechanized warfare in World War I turned the fields of Europe into disease-filled trenches as defensive weaponry grossly outpaced offensive weaponry, and continuing a disastrous trend first seen in the American Civil War, injuries and sanitation issues outpaced medicine. Finally, further advances in mechanization lead to the battle tank, the stalemates ended, and the very injuries lead to much improved medicine, and the world improved.

More recently, the locomotive, the automobile, and the airplane allowed ordinary people to travel great distances with ease. It was truly a great democratiser, but it was not without downsides. After years of urban shakeup caused as a side-effect of mass motoring, we are learning to live with the car and not for the car. The Age of Speed is winding down. My parents' generation often got from A to B faster than I can. I've never seen anybody go to the moon, and without a renewed interest in space, soon we may never see humans leave Earth's gravity. But, they couldn't talk to people on the other side of the world for virtually nothing like I can.

And now, the Information Age. Cell phones have empowered people in the Third World in ways that Americans can't fully appreciate. We have the whole world's knowledge at our fingertips. Despots struggle to control ideas in a connected world. Conversely, these changes have allowed Americans to be rude, unfocused, self-important, and has taken away our ability to plan. Much about the computer age has taken away our ability to be patient and enjoy simple things. As Arcade Fire put it, "I used to sleep at night, before the flashing light settled deep in my brain ... we used to wait for letters to arrive. Though stranger still, how something so small can keep you alive". We all know exactly what they're talking about.

So, point being...give it another 20 years or so. This shakeup will all come to pass. Changes in information technology will slow, and some other "can't live with it, can't live without it" technology will take its place. What will it be? Androids? Virtual immortality? Virtual reality? Whatever it will, most likely, it won't destroy us, but enrich us...once it redefines normalcy.

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