Times change

19 Nov

Not even 25 years had passed since World War II when I was born. A remarkably short period of time, considering that I would place 1945 and 1969 in different historical eras. The sense of a long time isn’t captured by just the number of years. It’s the changes brought by those years that lets us feel the time.

It’s an interesting exercise to compare to the change over the last 25 years, since 1987. When I was a child, 1987 was the shining future, and there’s a part of me that still hasn’t let go of that image. But from today’s perspective, 1987 doesn’t seem much different from 1969. Until recently, both of these years could even feel like the same historical era as the present. But that has changed.

On the surface, the change from 1987 to the present may look like just more of the same technological development that made 1945 into 1969, even disappointingly little of it. But the important changes are in our mental perception of the world, which is also true when comparing 1945 to 1969. I think it’s reasonable to say that we have, at long last, entered a new historical era.

The most critical change is not the end of the Cold War (which seemed significant at the time) or any other of the shifts in world politics. It’s how we’ve adopted digital communication and, as an effect of that, that we no longer live in just physical euclidian space. Life in Scandinavia, just to take one example, felt distinctly provincial in 1987. We were a considerable distance into nowhere. Now, we are living in a fully integrated part of everywhere.

I would much rather live in this era, with its boundless exchange of information and ideas (and even, to a large extent, commodities), than any other that I know of. But still, I have to admit that if a science fiction writer in 1987 had projected the future that we are living in, it would have had to be perceived as a rather bleak vision. More dystopian than utopian.

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Luke Skywalker probably can’t code

17 Oct

The article by Ryan Britt about how society in Star Wars seems to have “slipped into a kind of highly functional illiteracy” is interesting, particularly if you catch the unpronounced warning that this may be where we are heading as well.

To add to the absence of passive written information in people’s lives, another major piece of culture that seems to have been completely left to the droids is the knowledge about active information, software code. Citizens of the Star Wars universe make use of lots of advanced information technology, but you don’t ever see them relating to it in any creative way. It’s all about using fixed interfaces. Very advanced interfaces, certainly, including flawless speech recognition, holographic visuals etc. But nothing that taps into the true power of IT by controlling what the tools can do.

Who created the fantastic future replacements for books and Ipads that the intergalactic counterpart of Apple Inc. churns out? Droids, no doubt. The only individual I can think of doing something that would require knowledge of programming is R2D2 hacking into various systems. (Obi-Wan turns off a tractor beam on one occasion, but that’s less impressive.) This is a boring variant of the singularity, machines becoming smarter than humans and not exterminating them physically, but intellectually. The droids have taken over the tasks that they do better than humans, and humans have become something on the level of pets, cattle, or vermin. They still see the machines as their servants, but the relationship is far from obvious if you try to see it objectively. (Then, the machines apparently stopped being creative too, because technology doesn’t change in the decades we see over the six films.)

Interestingly, humans still have the basic skills to tinker with hardware. Brat Anakin, for instance, constructs not only a racing pod but also a droid, C3PO. So didn’t he code C3PO’s mind? No, Anakin’s droid is a standard issue, with the same design in both hardware and software as lots of others. It’s like somebody building a car, using only existing ideas and blueprints. Anakin put the pieces together, connected the wires.

A final reflection: I wonder what mental capabilities our ancestors would have missed if they could see us today. After all, technology’s greatest contribution is to permit people to be incompetent at a larger and larger range of things.

A 3D printing society is an armed society

9 Oct

A friend of mine once showed me a pistol that he had made in his garage (or rather, his parents’ garage). The friction when I pulled the slide felt and sounded like sandpaper, but the bullet that had been in the chamber was properly ejected, and I have no reason to believe that it wouldn’t have been properly fired had I pulled the trigger. (Looking back, it seems like pretty serious criminality in a country with hard restrictions on firearms, but not yet quite having entered adulthood, we still lived by the flexible laws of the harsh community of children.)

My friend knew quite a bit about guns, of course, and was a pretty skilled mechanic. In a probable future where most people can get access to a 3D printer, that won’t be necessary. You’ll be able to get the specifications for weapon parts online, and print them. Indeed, according to the BBC, this appears already possible. Why the gun in this case would need to have no moving parts is beyond me, but we can assume that this is not a lasting restriction.

Just like development of digital storage and communication made copyright law largely irrelevant, we can expect 3D printers to make arms restrictions rather futile. People will be able to conveniently make things to hurt themselves and others.

Governments will try to place restrictions on 3D printing, I suppose, for this and other reasons. But I predict that they won’t halt progress in the long run. Printing technology will develop towards more advanced and more accessible, and will have a too positive impact on people’s lives to be held back. The future holds access to pretty much any toys we can imagine, further reducing the gap between man and machine. That which does not kill us makes us stranger.

The abiding evil of Microsoft

8 Oct

The browser bundling thing, which the Microsoft XKCD panel comments on, was always silly of course. But still, I was, and still am, much more annoyed with Microsoft than Google or Apple. I think the main thing was that they seemed to be fighting progress. They made people use their software, inferior to their competitors’, and pay for it, and allowed nobody to fix the problems. Often Microsoft was years behind competitors, some of whom gave their code away, open source and with no charge. Google and Apple at least try, and often succeed, to make things that are actually good and represent progress, instead of just being bullies. And Google still has an inviting attitude to hackers. Bill Gates was always against the hackers (see his “open letter to hobbyists”) even though he looked like the darkest stereotypical image of one.

About the absence of flying cars

8 Oct

I finally got around to tackling the “where’s my flying car” article people were talking about a month ago, though I must admit I couldn’t keep my interest up for many pages. My comments:

It’s pretty obvious this guy is a few years older than me, and was a child in the 1960s. For someone who was a teen in the mid ’80s, the absence of nuclear holocaust more than compensates for the absence of colonies on Mars. In fact, the utopian heavy-engine future peaked at about the same time as the Utopia of the political left: in 1968, the time of Star Trek. The personal spaceships and other standard future gadgets of the time have since grown into jokes, or attributes of childish fantasy stories like Star Wars.

Graeber asks himself if our expectations about the pace of technological change was unrealistic. The pace? Our expectations about the nature of technological change was unrealistic. The problematic role of generating energy hadn’t quite dawned on the people of the ’50s and ’60s.

I find the nature of life today, with our life environment increasingly being shaped by code, much more fantastic than the industrial futures of the industrial age. Not as utopian perhaps, but more fantastic. We are changing our own very existence. People in the ’60s didn’t have sci-fi about that, because they could never have understood it. Not even the people of the ’90s could. In fact, most people still don’t understand it. Graeber certainly seems to be one of the ones that don’t.

I may have missed some interesting points later in the article, but then I think I should be excused for losing track because the premise of the article is wrong.