Back to school

Very little has been accomplished since the end of the Second World War.

At least, that is a proposition one might offer after reading the promises and prophecies of Hughes, Bush and Licklider — great optimists all. For despite the advances imagined and proclaimed, despite the rise of the computer, the network, and the Internet, what achievements can we point to in the second half of the 20th century and say, “Well done!”

Here’s my short list, what’s on yours?: the moon landing and the defeat of the USSR. And this thing we call the Information Revolution. But what exactly is that? Has it helped us cure cancer, or radically reduce our dependence on oil? Has it improved the standard of living of a significant part of the planet?

True, it gives every person who can afford it access to a wealth of information — to the entire knowledge base of civilization, let us say. But no great new religions, political systems, or works of art that we can tell. We can call up every bit and serve out every byte, but the Hubble telescope still wears glasses and the election of the President of the United States hangs on paper chads.

Let us agree, at least, on this: that the persistence of typographical errors in even the most advanced computerized environments suggests interactive communication has yet to be effectively achieved. And further, that a Webex meeting sometimes unexpectedly zaps out.

Vannevar Bush, is that some sort of anagram? His “As We May Think” of 1945 recalls the sociological study of the Nacirema assigned to grade school students in my day. “The applications of science…may yet allow [man] to truly encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience,” writes Bush. Then again, “he may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good.”

Or as Hughes concludes, after chronicling the rise and fall of the “military-industrial complex” between Hiroshima and Saigon (and between Iraq Wars 1991 and 2003): “Dramatic swings in attitudes stimulated by passing events have long characterized history.”

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2 responses to “Back to school

  1. “We can call up every bit and serve out every byte, but the Hubble telescope still wears glasses and the election of the President of the United States hangs on paper chads.”

    That’s a great line, Allan. I didn’t discuss in my post, but after reading “As We May Think,” I kept thinking that Vannevar Bush purposely avoided thinking about the negative impact of all this techology. Bush didn’t consider all the “junk” that today is so easily passed around.

    Bush wrote: “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.”

    But his vision is naive. What about all the misinformation that has been amplified? So many items on the internet appear as fact, but are historically wrong or libelous, or worse. Urban myths propagate over and over. Think about all the SPAM you get in your inbox every day. What about the proliferation of websites that promote activities detrimental to society and the human race in general?

    And online, lots of people just don’t use manners. Just like the pre-teen boys who used the telephone to crank call people back when that communication tool invented, internet users abuse email, “flame” people on message boards, and act in ruder ways than they would if they were face to face with another human being.

    “There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record, ” Bush wrote.”The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.”

    What if the scaffolding is just plain wrong?

    How does the spread of misinformation via interactive techology further science, or communication, or elevate man’s spirit?

    It doesn’t.

    Technology is a lot like human beings. It is imperfect.

  2. Pingback: Naivete « Goldfish

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