Monday, November 14, 2005

Chilled Milk for the Suburbs

I resurrected and updated an older post, on a whim, inpired by a technical comment from a4g on my previous post. This small essay is on the social effects of enabling technologies. It is reminiscent of the works of Alvin Toffler.

Cool Consequences

My father told me that, when he was a very young child, he and his mother would venture into town every other day for fresh bread, produce and milk. Every day they would meet neighbors and fellow church goers. When they got their brand new refrigerator, a portion of this social activity gradually abated. You did not even need a visit from the ice man. He told me about the great marketing effort nationwide for the new safe and affordable freon based refrigeration. There was a direct social impact consequence of this simple new technology. There were so many good things to come out of it. Less spoiled food, the ability to buy in bulk, the ability to make winter pastry in summertime are just a few that comprise the list. Everybody naturally thought it was a great convenience, which it was. But a social price was paid.

From Tool to Crutch

Engineers, before calculators, had to use slide rules and paper. When calculators arrived, these engineers were enchanted by the convenience. The calculator was tool of great accuracy and precision. Older engineers now had power in their fist, to augment their analytical skills, with quick calculations.

New student engineers were given the calculator and quickly cast aside manual and slide rule calculation. However, these new engineers did not have the discipline of mental estimation. The slide rule forced you to mentally estimate and place that decimal point. It forced you to make conservative projections.

They lost the ability to visualize and estimate the scope, or order of magnitude, of a design. The older engineer would look over his shoulder and say:

Don't those numbers look wrong to you?.

The new guy wouldn't know what to say, because he has learned to blindly trust the machine; He would stumble through a long sequence of calculations and arrive at a wildly inaccurate solution. There are now schools in this nation which don't require students to use multiplication tables or long division. There is no longer any emphasis on paper calculations. Why bother, when the calculator is there?

Here is a human consequence of the technology which has transformed the magnificent tool for the older engineer to a potential crutch for the new engineer.

Imaginary Substance

Television and modern communications have had an enormous and dramatic impact on society. Television brought crucial weather news and graphs to our eyes. It brought the marvelous moon landing into our homes. Television brought sports into the living room. It brought enormous commercial power and jobs to our nation. These were all good things.

Television also brought the main stream image based media. We have not had an American presidency, unmolested by brutal scrutiny and editorial mastication, since the birth of national television coverage, in the late Eisenhower years. Many of our greatest presidents, without telegenic faces, existed prior to national media.

Would they have been deemed so great, if this demand for a telegenic image had existed in their time? How would TR's high voice or Lincoln's humble looks survive this new media?

Be Inspired; not just wired

How will the new interactive technologies nourish the vices in people?

How will they amplify the virtues?

Will they cater to our own natural tendency to lapse toward mental and physical entropy and move us to crippling apathy?

Information technologies provide new degrees of freedom in communication and artistic expression. However, new technology is most appreciated by those who have suffered its absence. It is appreciated by those who are first introduced to it. It is appreciated by those who have been trained to view it with the eye of personal discipline.

New technology is rarely appreciated by those who take it for granted.
It is important to pass that eye of discipline to the younger generations. The school of hard knocks is not just your father's Oldsmobile.


Uber said...

There are so many examples of what you've so eloquently described that it boggles the mind.

You're back with a vengeance, yay!
Resurrection works for you.

Dr. Phat Tony said...

Another problem that I see is the vast amount of information that is available for anyone. Scientist stand on the shoulders of earlier geniuses and take their expirements in a direction that the scientific founders may have found repugnant. Newer scientist come into information without having to work to get there and by this may not have developed the sense of responsibility needed to ask the question of whether or not what they are trying to achieve is right or wrong. They only care about whether they can do it not about whether they should.

Insolublog said...

Uber - Thanks. As you can see, DPT has spotted another consequence.

DPT - Yeah, I eluded to the piles of data, in the comments to Fitch (last post). You have picked up on both the intellectual property and the morality hook.

In addition to the moral question:

When so much is out there, how can the people, who have done the hard work, get their reward?

Will the only people producing groundbreaking new open discoveries, be ones who are doing it for altruistic and humble reasons? Our whole publishing infrastructure may become tenuous, in the near future.

The Conservative UAW Guy said...

I read this earlier today.
I have nothing to add, particularly.

As usual, thoughtful and insightful.

Thanks, bro.


Peakah said...

Do you mean my Xbox is causing my brain to accelerate the natural laws of entropy? kewl....