Friday, June 27, 2014

Technology

I'll start by proposing a significantly wider definition for the word 'technology'. 

To me it is absolutely 'any' and 'all' things that we use to manipulate our surrounding environment. Under this rather broad definition it would include such age old technologies as fire, clothes and shelter. 

I like this definition because it helps lay out a long trajectory for how technologies have shaped our world, and since many of our technologies are so firmly established -- like fire or clothing -- it really frames our perspective on their eventual impact.

My view is that technologies are neither good nor bad, they just are. It's what we choose to do with them that matters. 

Fire, for instance, is great when it is contained; we can use it for light, warmth or cooking food. It is dangerous when it is burning down houses, forests or whatever else is in its path. We've long since developed a respect for it,  we have an understanding of its dangers, and so we react reasonably whenever its destructive side emerges. 

You wouldn't try to ban fire, or declare that it is bad for our societies. People don't protest against it, and to my knowledge pretty much every living human being utilizes it in some way. It has been around long enough that we no longer react to it directly, but rather to the circumstances in which it appears.

This holds true for any technology, whether it be fire, clothing, machines, radio or computers. 

Upon emergence, people take strange positions on the 'goodness' or 'badness' of the new technology, but as time progresses most integrate it ubiquitously into our lives. Specific usages of the technology might still be up for debate, but the technology itself becomes mainstream. 

Still, new technologies have a significant impact.

Marshall McLuhan seemed to take a real dislike to TV, particullarly as it displaced the dominance of radios. His famous tag line 'the medium is the message' was once explained to me as capturing how the creation of any new technology inevitably transforms us. 

That certainly rings true for technologies like lightbulbs, radio an TVs. Their initial existence broadened our abilities. 

Lightbulbs made us free from the tyrany of daylight. Radios personalized information dissemination well beyond the limits of newsprint and pamphlets. And TVs dumped it all down for the masses into a form of endless entertainment. 

Each came with great advantages, but also with significant dark sides. By now we've absorbed much of the impact of both sides, such that there are fewer and fewer adverse reactions. Some people choose to live without any of these technologies -- some still don't have access -- but they are few.

Technology acquisition seems to have been fairly slow until the early 19th Century spawned the industrial revolution, with its nearly endless series of clever time-saving machines. 

We amplified theses wonders in the 20th Century to create mass production factories and then added what seems like a huge new range of addition technologies: computers, networks and cell phones. 

As these new inventions have swept through our societies, they too have shown their good and bad sides. 

The Internet as a technology went were previous information communications technology could never go, but also has its own massive dark underbelly. A place were danger lurks. Computers have overturned many of the tedious jobs created in the industrial revolution, but replaced their physical aspects with intellectual ones. Cell phones broke the chains on where we could access computers, but chained the users back to an almost mindless subservience to their constant neediness. 

None of these things are bad, but than neither are they good. They just are part of our slow assimilation of technologies over the ages. 

To many it may seem like we are in a combinatorical explosion of new technologies, but really I don't think that is the case. Well, not directly. 

Somewhere I remember reading that it takes about twenty years for a technology to go from idea to adoption. That jives with what I've seen so far and it also makes sense in that that period is also roughly about 'generation'. 

One generation pushes the existing limits, but it takes a whole new one to really embrace something new. Collectively, we are slow to change.

If this adoption premise is valid, then the pace for inventions is basically independent from our current level of progress. It remains constant.

What I think has changed, particullary since the start of the industrial revolution, is the sheer number of people available to pursue new inventions. 

Changes to our ability to create machines enhanced our ability to produce more food, which in turn swelled our populations. Given that weapons like nukes dampened the nature of conflicts around the globe, we are experiencing the largest ever population for our species in any time in history (that we are aware of). 

Technology spawned this growth and as a result it freed up a larger segment of the population to pursue the quest for new technologies. It's a cycle, but likely not a sustainable one.

It's not that -- as I imagined when I was younger -- we are approaching the far reaches of understandable knowledge. We are far from that. We don't know nearly as much as we think we do and that extends right down to the core of what we know. 

Our current scientific approach helps refine what we learn, but we built it on rather shaky foundations. There is an obvious great deal of stuff to learn for practically every discipline out there and there is just a tonne of stuff that we kinda know that needs to be cleaned up and simplified. 

Healthcare, software, economics, weather, management; these are all things that we do optimistically, but the results are not nearly as predictable as we would like, or people claim. On those fronts our current suite of technologies certainly has a huge distance left to go. 

Each new little rung of better predictability -- better quality -- represents at least an exponential explosion of work and knowledge acquisition. For any technology, it takes a massively long time to stabilize and really integrate it into our civilizations. 

Controlling fire was exotic at one point, but now it is no longer so magical. Gradually we collectively absorbed the ability to get reliable usage from it and lessoned its negative side, or as in the case of firemen, at least we built up a better understand of how to deal with any problems rapidly.

For each new technology, such as software, it is a long road for us to travel before we achieve mastery. It will take generations of learning, experience and practice, before these technologies will simply become lost in the surroundings. They'll no longer be new, but we'll find better ways to leverage them for good, while minimizing the bad. This is the standard trajectory for all technologies dating right back to the first one -- which was probably just a stick used to poke stuff.

With this broader definition of technologies, because it extends so far back, it is somewhat easier to project forwards. 

If we have been gradually acquiring new technologies to allow us to manipulate our environment, it is likely that we have been chasing low hanging fruit. That is, we have been inventing technologies and integrating them roughly in the order that they were needed. 

Shelter might have been first, followed by fire then perhaps clothing. Maybe not, but it would not be unreasonable to assume that people tended to put their energies into their most significant problems at the moment; we do not generally have really good long-term vision, particullarly for things that go beyond our own life times. 

With that in mind, whether or not you believe in global warming, it has become rather obvious that our planet is not the nice, consistent stable environment that we used to dream that it was. 
It's rather volatile and possible easily influenced by the life forms trapsing all over it. 

That of course shows that the next major technological trend is probably going to be related to our controlling the planet's environment in the same way that clothing and shelter helped us deal with the fickle weather. 

To continue our progress, we'll need to make sure that the continual ice ages and heat waves don't throw us drastically off course. Any ability we gain that can help there is a technology by my earlier definition. 

As well, the space available on our planet is finite. 

Navigating outer space seemed easy in the science fiction world of last century, but in practice it does appear to be well beyond our current technological sophistication. 

We don't even have a clue how to create the base technologies like warp drives or anti-gravity, let alone keep a huge whack of complicated stuff like a space shuttle running reliably. 

We're talking a lot about space exploration but our current progress is more akin to our ancestors shoving out logs into the ocean to see if they float. It's a long way from there to their later mastery of crafting sailing ships and another massive leap to our state-of-the-art cruise liners. Between all of those is obviously a huge gulf, and one that we need to fill with many new technologies, great and small.

Given our short life spans, we have a tendency to put on blinders and look at the progress of the world across just a few decades. That incredibly tiny time horizon doesn't really do a fair job in laying our the importance, or lack of importance, in what is happening with us as a species. 

We're on a long-term trajectory to somewhere unknown, but we certainly have been acquiring lots of sporatic knowledge about where we have come from. 

Of course it will take generations to peice it all together and further generations to consolidate it into something rational, but we in our time period at least get to see the essence of where we have been and where we need to go. 

Our vehicles for getting there are the technologies that we have been acquiring over millennia. They are far from complete, far from well understood, but we should have faith that they form the core of our intellectual progress. 

They map out the many paths we have been taking. 

Technology is the manifestation of us applying our intellect, which is the current course set by evolution. It tried big and powerful, but failing that it is now trying 'dynamic'; an ability to adapt to one's surrounding much faster than gradual mutations ever could.