Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Back to the Future! (Part 3)

This is the third installment in what should have been a 2 part series! The first two installments can be read here:

Part 1
Part 2

It turns out this will be a four-part series! I promise! No more!


It has become rather common to refer to our era as the "Information Age". However, careful consideration of the technological and cultural trends that make up our society leads me to conclude that a more appropriate label would be the "Communication Age". I'm certainly not the first to suggest this: the word information implies somehow that we are more informed, or that we have more knowledge than in previous ages. I'm not sure that is true. We do, however, have faster and more agile access to the collective "knowledge" (ideas, beliefs, opinions) of the world's population, and that is the key point that I want to discuss.

Instead of robots, we have the home computer. One could reasonably claim that it is exactly this technology that characterizes our "age": the possession of personal computers by individuals, whether setting on our desktops or carried about with us like "notebooks". I suppose it is one of the most visibly apparent aspects of modern life. Actually, one could argue that a home computer is basically just a physically handicapped robot. "Personal" computers are our very own electronic assistants, except that today's computers don't get around much on their own, and, although very powerful when compared with those of even a few years ago, offer little in the way of artificial intelligence.

At least computers don't fill up a whole room any more; in fact, they are getting smaller and smaller. Those who are more technologically savvy will realize that the embedding of computers in virtually everything is a far more significant trend than just having access to our own computers. Let's face it: computers are not our servants, like we once imagined robots would become. They don't actually do anything by themselves. They are really nothing more than sophisticated tools (or, in some cases, toys), much like our televisions, domestic appliances, telephones, cars, and the uncountable gadgets which we have come to depend upon on a daily basis-- and most of which, in general, are powered by some kind of embedded microprocessor control. In most cases, the computer is not an end in itself; the device in which the computer is embedded is the end.

Mobile phones are a good example: this is a technology that has been long predicted, and the reality perhaps surpasses the imagination of most science fiction writers. I'm sure 11-year old Jim would be impressed with the "Star Trek" communicators that virtually everyone carries around all the time. We are in touch constantly, whether we want to be or not. You can build a cellphone without necessarily having to embed a computer in it; but these computers are what makes it possible for today's cellphones to be chock-full of cool features: they're beginning to look more like McCoy's tricorder than a mere communicator, with built-in cameras, video, GPS, and web browsing. Pretty soon they will be monitoring our blood sugar and heart rate, and, who knows what else?

But back to computers. Computers depend on software to do anything. In general, software still has to be written by someone: we don't yet really have computers that can be taught, or can figure out how to do things on their own. Of course, well designed software can provide the illusion that the computer is doing these things. Certainly a computer can be very good at solving problems if provided with an algorithm and data: it is here where the computer excels, having the speed and patience to iterate through millions of possible solutions until it finds the one that fits. They are also great for storing information.

Although we often speak of computers in the same breath as "information technology", computers don't actually have information either: at least, not unless someone has digitized and stored that information. With the exponentially increasing size of hard drives, computers can now store vast amounts of data, as well as provide mechanisms for quick and easy retrieval of that data. Much of the growth of the computer industry during the 1970's and 80's springs directly from the dependency of modern businesses on this aspect of computers: information storage and retrieval.

But, beyond businesses, most of us don't have that much information to store; at least, not that much more than we had a few decades ago, although the information format has changed. These days, we may fill our computer's storage medium with images, music, videos ... but when I go down in my grandmother's basement, I find boxes of old pictures, videos, super 8 films, LP's, cassette tapes (OK ... I admit it ... I still have boxes of that stuff in my garage!). It's all stored in a far more bulky form than the digitized info on my hard drive, but it's still basically the same kind of stuff that I want to keep for my kids and grandkids. I wonder how many new technologies will arise ... how many times I will have to copy and transform the digital data that I want to store forever before my grandchildren get around to looking at it. Will they be able to read my CD's ? My DVD's? My jpg's, mpeg's, divx, mp3's, avi's, bmp's, gif's, htm's, and the rest? Or will I have to copy and convert it all to the "new formats" and "new media" every couple of years? How long until CD's and DVD's go the way of floppy disks? (how many people still have 5 1/4" floppys stored somewhere???).

This is a serious question, although it has nothing to do with "the point" of this essay (if it can be said to have one point!). Years after I am dead, if my great-grandkids dig a box of old cd's out of my attic, will they still be readable? One of the things on my "to do" list is to transform all of my "legacy data" -- my 8mm and VHS videos -- into DVD format, which ought to buy me a couple of years. But I guess maybe I am going to have to print out all of my digital pictures after all ...

So why do we call this the Information Age? Well ... it's probably because of the technology which has become so ubiquitous that it is practically taken for granted these days -- but has also come to be considered indispensable for a large segment of the world's population: the Internet. The internet has placed an immense volume of "information" at our fingertips. With the click of a mouse, I can read the newspaper of virtually any city in the world; or find information about practically any subject I wish to. The internet has been called the information superhighway. Political interests aside, it's not a bad analogy: the internet is not a repository of information-- it's a communications channel. Sometimes we think of it as a vast data bank -- but it's not.

The internet, more than any other factor, is what put a computer on the desktop of the great majority of today's computer users in the world: sure, a lot of people need a word processor and a spreadsheet, but not everyone. Like electricity and the telephone, to participate in today's global technoculture, everyone needs the internet. At least we think we do.

It's ironic that, in science fiction, computers and robots have usually been foreseen as entities which do things for us. The reality has been somewhat different: like the mobile phone, computers are mostly just tools for communication -- sharing, formatting, and storing information and ideas.

I have a WiFi access point in my home that covers my entire yard. I carry my Sony VAIO around, generally looking for a peaceful spot to work (somehow, kids and a dog seem to gravitate to wherever it is I happen to be located at the moment!). Almost all of what I am doing with the computer at any given moment can be classified as communication: either as a passive recipient of information that someone has produced for my benefit, or the benefit of others; or as an active participant in conversation with one or more other people (e-mail, instant messaging, Skype, etc.). At other times (like right now) I am an active producer of content, seeking to communicate whatever crackpot thought I have at the moment, to any and all who possess the patience to read it!

I've mentioned the concept of the "communication age" -- but I don't mean to imply that this is something new. Actually, the internet is the latest manifestation of a process that began in the 19th century, with the first "teles": the telegraph -- then the telephone -- radio (ok, that's not a tele!), and finally the television. The Internet is just the first step in the natural evolution of all of these trends.


(to be continued)


At March 28, 2006 12:19 PM, Mark said...

I'm still patiently reading your crackpot ideas. Ha!

This is a great essay, Jim. I hear some people condemn all this communication as a way to avoid human contact, and that folks should just get out and talk to their neighbors. Rather, I see it as a way to get directly the humans you actually might care about contacting. Walking outside and talking to the neighbors is fine, as long as you like your neighbors. We're fortunate right now to have several we like, but I would not force myself to talk to them just for the sake of face-to-face interaction.


Post a Comment

<< Home