Archive for February, 2010

Doom or Salvation?

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

Still here. I know that I don’t post nearly often enough for some readers, but I’m resisting the urge to post regularly just to be posting, or to waste your time with whining or bragging. There must be a million diary blogs out there if you are into that, but this isn’t one of them. This isn’t about me…it’s about all of us and how virtual space is changing the way we think and live.

I appreciate your comments, which have been mostly positive. To those of you who enquired about my copy writer, hello. It’s me. I never learned to type, and took only a couple of English courses in college while earning my B.S. Physics degree, but I can knock together a complete sentence with a little effort. I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy novels, with mixed results. On the one hand, I had problems in elementary school because I was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and Mars books, so I tended to spell words different than the standard American way like “colour” instead of “color” and so on.  On the other hand, by the time I entered the 9th grade, I tested out at the 14th grade reading level. So it goes. Social maladjustment can lead to premature erudition. I lived in books. You could say that back when I grew up, Virtual Space was called “books”.

 I am still alive and kicking, working when I can, loving when I can. Now back to ideas.

We’ve been kicking around ideas about living and loving and playing in virtual space. Now let’s project the trends ahead and try to guess what this recent obsession with computer-mediated interaction could lead to in the next, say, hundred years.

Even if somehow the technology stopped improving and evolving, we can see that there would have to be some effects from so many people spending so much time playing, working, romancing in front of a monitor.

1. Bifurcation.  One of the possibilities for the future is that humanity may pull apart into two branches: those who love computers and cannot live without them, and those who hate them or don’t feel any need for them other than as necessary evils in a global information economy. Will the usual inequalities of income and education determine this? Will we become two species, one lost in intellectual fantasies, one mired in practical survival? Could a transformation occur that replaces the current class system of rich and poor with Net-adapted and Net-repelled? 

Children from all backgrounds are entranced with computers. A computer gaming system is semi-standard in many homes now. When I was growing up we had one television set for the entire family. By the time I was working it was common for homes to have several. Once people wondered if the telephone would be anything but a way for rich people to talk to each other. Now it is common for family members to all have their own cell phones, for convenience, emergencies, and so you dn’t have to kick the teenager off the phone to call your boss. The same must be happening with computers. When I was born there were NO personal computers. Then we had a time when people were adopting them and many homes had one. Now we are past that. Like cell phones, computers are no longer an oddity. They are becoming personal possessions like toothbrushes. If you don’t have one, you can go to a library and use one.

This would seem to imply that eventually everyone who wants to be using a computer will be. Thus the question: will this be a new feature of our species, or will we divide into users and nonusers? With some inventions like the automobile, what was once a novelty is now a necessity: it is fairly difficulty to make it in the current context of post-industrialized society without personal transportation. Will the computer follow the same career path? It is still perfectly possible to survive, earn a living, and raise a family without ever logging in. But will this continue? The efficiency of Internet-mediated activity is hard to ignore. I do my taxes on the Internet, and I don’t miss the paper forms one bit. I get my news on the Internet, work on the Internet, play on the Internet, talk to my girlfriend on the Internet. I have been fighting the urge to order my groceries on the Internet and have them delivered, because right now that is my main motivation for leaving my apartment: food. But that’s just me. One friend of mine drives trucks. He has no use for computers himself. But his daughter has one.

It’s an arms race in the schools now: kids with access to computers can produce better papers (if they can avoid the temptation to plagiarize). When I went to high school young ladies with career aspirations took Typing 101 (boy do I wish I had taken it!). Now that typewriters have been edged out by word processors and then by PCs, the class is called “keyboarding” and it is required for all students. Lucky rascals.  So will the computer-indifferent humans die out, or will they become like a separate species, a permanent underclass?

2. Environmental effects.  Will the Internet reduce the number of cars on the road? I hardly drive at all any more, but perhaps I am far from typical. Still, it seems to me that in a growing information economy, working from home is inevitably growing. That means less commuters. Sitting here “keyboarding” on my computer, I am still using energy, sucking at the global power grid. But I am not burning gasoline. Yes, I realize that there are lots of things that cannot be done on a computer. We still need people building houses, mining ore, harvesting crops, yadda yadda yadda. But there are also tons of jobs that can (and will) transition from the old-fashioned corporate world of cubicle farms into the leaner, more efficient business model of letting people do from their home office what they used to do in an office your company had to rent, furnish, clean, maintain, and equip. Telephones helped build the world of cubicles, and I believe the Internet will help to dismantle it, replacing it in lots of cases with the new world of the distributed business.

So will there be less pollution from fewer drivers? Products still have to move from producers to consumers. Until something better comes along, we will always need trucks and ships and planes and trains. But the cult of personal transportation might be on the verge of a contraction. We might even see the dawn of an era when teenagers forget about cars and brag about their computers.

3. Governmental changes.  Where I write in the United States, the form of government is representative democracy. The founding fathers presumed that the people would never be able to coordinate decision-making processes en masse, and so the idea is we elect representatives who meet in a special place to vote on laws and budgets. But is this something that is still necessary, or just a hanging-on tradition?

We now have the ability for the first time in human history for the population of a country to vote collectively on issue without the need for intermediaries such as senators. And, please, do not tell me that hackers can influence voting and elections so we shouldn’t do it. Encryption has made the Internet trustworthy enough for hundreds of millions of us to type in our credit card numbers. Are you less worried about people stealing your money than you are about them stealing elections? Personally, I believe that voting-machine companies are doomed in the long run. DVDs killed videotape. Digital cameras are doing the same to photographic film manufacturers, who I expect will be all converting over to selling mainly memory sticks. GPS is making paper maps look like quaint antiques. It would be bizarre, in my opinion, if elections and governmental decision-making processes are not eventually completely changed. Resistance is futile! You WILL be assimilated.

4. Conflict-resolution changes.  In the “good old” days, nations behaved like schoolchildren: bigger, powerful countries beat up smaller ones and took their lunch money. Need iron and coal? Invade and conquer a neighbor who has some rich deposits. As the global wave of industrialization proceeded, the need for materials continued, but the need for markets expanded. We need poeple to sell our stuff to, so we can keep the factories rolling and we cannot solve that by killing them. Atomic bombs do not feed the bulldog. Brute force conflicts were replaced by economic competition, where the ultimate weapon is the volume discount, and the goal is not to kill other people and take their stuff, but to sell them our stuff at a profit so we can afford to buy their stuff.

Enter the Information Age. People still need to eat, cars still need gas, houses need electricity. But the economic powerhouses of the last century now find that the new must-have commodity is information, without which they cannot manage their multinational enterprises. We still mine ore…but now we also mine information. What is the total projected need for shoes in Brazil in 2015? How many 3D televisions will be sold in Europe in 2011? How much “disposable income” will an average teenager in Germany have next year? Companies want to know now…so they can be the ones to take advantage of sales opportunities.

Some writers have predicted a future in which corporate armies do battle royale on dedicated islands. Somehow, I doubt it.  OK, call me an optimist, but I think our destiny as a species is to become more rational and less interested in playing king of the hill. History does not necessarily support this belief, I admit….but remember, practically all of human history is pre-internet. We are in terra incognita now, breaking trails into a future fraught with so many possibilities and choices that it would be a pity to see it devolve into merely higher-tech bloodshed.

In the past men wanted gold and land. Then it was oil and crops. Soon people will wake up and realize we are surrounded by untapped riches: the medical miracles hidden in rainforest plants and animals, the smart materials being created in our research labs, and the imaginations of our children.

Will we waste time and energy fighting over them? Will the rising technology be doom or salvation? We can still choose. –mrk

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