Thursday, September 29, 2011

Technologies R'Us

The Conservation of Energy is one of the fundamental laws of our physical universe. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It can - and is - transformed continuously from one form to another.  Potential energy to kinetic energy. Heat to work. Work to motion. Energy moves constantly through our universe making the universe as we know it possible.

I sometimes think of technology in its broadest sense as a form of energy. While it gives the illusion of having been created through countless inventions, new technology always comes from a convergence of older technologies which make the new technology possible.  It is a flow, not an aggregation of static ideas. In the 18th Century, a new understanding of steam and other gases opened the door for the first steam engines to pump water from mine pits.  Coal powered not only the first steam engines but it also made possible the scientific fabrication of steel. Steel and the steam engine opened the door to manufacturing on an industrial scale.

In the 19th Century, iron and steel and the steam engine morphed into a revolutionary form of transportation - the railroad.  With the easy movement of goods and people, more trade evolved. The movement of goods and people became faster and cheaper. Costs dropped dramatically as manufacturing increased in scale. For the first time, almost everyone in the 19th Century owned at least something that was factory made.

Paralleling the advances in manufacturing and transportation came equal advances in communications, illumination, and motors - all based on a growing knowledge of electricity. The telegraph made communications across long distances virtually instantaneous. Eventually, transoceanic cables made the world a much smaller place.  As the century progressed, people wanted the electric lights, telephones, and electric street cars made possible through new technology. By 1900, the world was poised to explode on a wave of mass production facilitated by transportation, communication, and distribution networks.

The early parts of the the 20th Century were dominated by the emergence of the automobile.  The lure of being able to travel where you wanted when you wanted, free of the train and trolley schedules, was irresistible to anyone who could afford a car. New and better roads led to everything from suburban living to extended vacation travel across the country.  Mass consumption demanded a ready-made mass market which was created by raising consumer advertising to a virtual science.  Now, people commonly owned the products of technology - radios, refrigerators, washing machines, irons, and telephones. Not only did people buy these products but an ever-wider array of choices became available. There were products for people to buy not just for their function but as symbols of a rising status in the world.

The 20th Century unleashed people's feelings of autonomy. They could travel when they wanted, where they wanted. They could listen to any number of radio programs, choose the style of clothing that suited them best, and furnish their homes with a seemingly-endless array of consumer goods.  After World War II, new technologies and mass consumption kicked into yet a higher gear. Radio gave way to television. Live broadcasting was supplemented with video tapes and DVDs. A panoply of cable channels supplemented the major television networks. Music was unfettered from the home and car radio and became a more personal and portable form of entertainment through the Walkman and later the iPod. Electronics opened the floodgates to affordable information technologies starting with the personal computer which morphed into the internet and then to the wireless world of smart phones in an endless variety of models and capabilities.

We stand at the doorway of the 21st Century which will surely be the age of ubiquitous and constant information. Everything will communicate in some way with everything else. Information will wrap the planet in a garment of bits so thick that we will no longer remember what it was like to have to write a physical letter, or find a pay-phone, or do our taxes by hand and mail them at the post office (which may also disappear).

The advances of the last three centuries have been mind-boggling.  We have gone from a mostly agrarian world to a predominantly urban and connected culture.  But each advance has carried its own costs - its own Conservation of Good and Bad.  As people moved to the mill towns of the 18th century, they lost their independence and became dependent on the mill owners for a (usually poor) wage. The air became fouled with smoke and pollution. The density of housing with poor sanitation brought epidemics of disease. Eventually, of course, the worst of these ills of the mill towns started to be addressed - by new and better technology. Technologies moved on but so did the side effects.

In the 19th Century, more and more people gave up the farm for the factory, for what clearly seemed to be a better way of life. The route to prosperity was through the middle class with its better wages and better education for the children. More people worked for larger companies which, with the advent of the railroads, gave rise to the modern corporation. People were no longer just owners or laborers but occupied intermediate rungs on the corporate ladder.  Time became regulated by the clock to dictate everything from the hours of work to the schedules of the trains. The world became more networked with the sharing of stock prices by ticker tape and the creation of world time zones to unify travel and communication. Cities grew ever larger and more congested.

The 20th Century gave people a sense of autonomy while at the same time making them evermore interconnected and interdependent.  There were more choices of products but fewer choices on how to earn a living without being part of the interconnected web of commerce.  The population continued to grow and with it came more cars and traffic jams, more need for electricity and more air pollution. The world was both much richer and much more complex than ever before.

Now we face the Knowledge Age with only the slightest grasp of how pervasive and powerful it will become in our lives. We gain a sense of exponential connectivity while at the same time we face the specter of losing our privacy almost completely.  We will live in a world where our actions and intentions become the stuff of marketing research and directed advertising. Our children will never know what it was like to live in the Prewired World - and likely they would not choose to live there if they could.

We live in a world where we are becoming increasingly inseparable from the technology that we create and that surrounds us. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it should give us at least some pause for thought.  Can we control our technology or has it moved beyond our control into a stage of evolution that is almost biological in form?  Technologies now define us, define how we work and how we play.  We use communications technology ubiquitously. We social networker on Facebook, Google, and Twitter.  We are hooked to our iPhone even while we watch a movie in a theater. We drive and talk on our cell phones and think nothing of it.  Technologies make our everyday life possible. Do we know how many functions in our automobiles are now controlled by computers?  Digital electronics run our refrigerators and even our furnaces.  We have crossed the threshold and there is no going back.  But this is not a new phenomenon. The same was true a century ago - just to a lesser degree. We live in a world that is evermore shaped by our own hands and minds but that same technology is now shaping us.  We may no longer be masters of our own destiny.  Ready or not, Technologies R'Us.

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