Friday, February 08, 2013

Illusions of technological nirvana

One formulation of technological optimism is found in Moore's Law, which has accurately stated that computing power will double approximately every two years. 
Futurists believe that Moore’s Law will lead to what is known as a technological singularity.
A situation in which computations occur virtually instantaneously. 
This could perhaps be attained using quantum computers based on super-positioning and entanglement. 
However, here one must remember the law of diminishing returns. 
How much benefit can be drawn from this ever increasing computing speed? 
We have long since passed the point at which greater computational speeds have greater significance in everyday life. 
For instance, when I search "house" in Google, I get 1,520,000,000 hits in 0,05 seconds. 
The question being, whether am I significantly better off now than two years ago when I only got 760,000,000 hits in the same time.
Or when it took me all of 0.1 seconds.
These differences are effectively beyond the threshold of human senses:
The time differences have become negligible and I would never in a whole lifetime be able to browse all the results and make a meaningful choice between them anyway. 
So, in this particular case, Moore’s Law has not improved my life significantly. 
In fact, some would argue that the proliferation of possibilities and options as regards hits in a computer search and technologies have made me much worse off, 
Creating paralysis in the face of all this information and choice. 
The psychologist Barry Schwartz has eloquently argued that this reduces the quality of life.
Although computing speeds double every other year, the computer is itself an old invention, as readers of Neil Stephenson's Cryptonomicon will know. 
The first mechanical computers go back to the 1600s and savants such as Blaise Pascal and Gottfried von Leibnitz. 
Indeed, the cryptology and mathematics involved are older yet, since the binary number system used for computers originates with the ancient Indian mathematician Pingala. 
The 1800s saw the rise of punch-card computers and the first modern electrical computers were designed by Alan Turing in 1936 and built during the Second World War. 
This is old stuff. 
The first commercial word processor was WordStar from 1978.
Which was coincidentally made famous by Arthur C. Clarke who praised its qualities from a Sri Lankan beach. 
The Internet is from the 1960s. 
The cellphone is from 1973. 
The first satellite was put into orbit in 1957.
The idea and details of which were put forth by Clarke in a Wireless World article in 1945. 
But Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had already calculated the necessary orbital speeds in 1903. 
The first heart transplant was in 1967.
And the first kidney transplant in 1953. 
The list of technology goes on and on: television, radio, nuclear reactors, cars, refrigeration, rail, internal combustion, reinforced concrete, aeroplanes, industrialized agriculture, robots, windmills, solar panels, in vitro fertilization, and so on. 
These were all invented in the 19th and 20th centuries. 
In fact, one would be hard pressed to suggest a single innovation from the last 30 years that has changed, improved or eased everyday life for ordinary people in a radical way, such as those mentioned here.
At best, one could speak of combining existing technologies, such as internet on the cellphone or improving efficiency, as in Moore’s law and deadly and destructive economies of scale. 
In fact the Time magazine list of best inventions for 2009 has astounding wonders such as the universal unicycle, the edible race car, and the sky king, a radical breakthrough in paper plane folding.
Even seemingly useful inventions on the Time 2010 list, such as a seed bank or Seed Cathedral is a rip off from the 20th century. 
The 1972 Sci-fi movie Silent Running has a seed bank.
But reality also has them
Such as the 1926 Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry.
The 1936 Wellcome Trust.
The 1984 Nordic Gene Bank at Svalbard. 
Why delude ourselves into thinking that this is innovation in any other manner than presentation and aesthetics? 
Similarly flying cars (sic), jet packs (sic) and plastic fur (sic) from the 2010 list are not true innovations either, but high-energy gimmicks.
Which leads one to the question.
When will man wake up to the limitations and shortfalls of technology?
Technology obscures it's own total failure to make us happier
Technology does not answer our needs
Technology does indeed support us in certain areas while taking away in others.
Only when we look more objectively at technology can we see where it has harmed our ability to grow a fairer more equitable planet.

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