I have, since my earliest memories, been fascinated by the rapid advancements in science and technology. I have seen, in the course of the last years, our ability to affect the world around us in almost any way we desire, and I have also seen changes to major segments of humanity made through the application of power, without thought to long term consequences. In addressing the impact of the computers and their networks on society and our relationships with others in general, we must consider the three main mechanisms of the information exchange process as it exists today. They are the personal computer, the Internet, and the human mind. All three are capable of perceiving and representing the world as pure information, and the rate at which that information can be processed and transmitted is increasing rapidly. From the perspective of past years, I can see a distinct direction that the computers are moving mankind.
I say “moving”, because I believe we are blindly and gently being pushed down the path of least resistance and most enjoyment, hurried on by the call of faster throughput, more content, and brighter colors. As long as its moving, working, or giving us satisfaction. Hail Ceaser, and thanks for the bread and circus! Chairman Mao Tse-tung was quoted as having said: “Power comes from the barrel of a gun.” He can be excused for his near-sightedness, because Chairman Mao never sat down to a personal computer and browsed the World Wide Web, or had to sort through dozens of pieces of spam email each day. When you can present specific information to five million, ten million maybe 50 million people a day, then you have power. When you can browse through hundreds of libraries instantly and simultaneously, or search for a specific individual in over 6 billion then you have power. When you can do all this from the comfort of your own home, and do it while playing golf or fishing, and then have your computer page you with the results, then you have real power. I dont think the Chairman ever dreamed of this kind of power. They now have the “Pursuit Watch” web site where you can be notified by pager of a high-speed pursuit as it happens and if near a computer, watch it live over the World Wide Web.
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Every invention, every discovery, every breakthrough is drawing us closer and closer towards real, visceral event participation. Real TV, Real Cops, Real Life on the Web. Now you can browse at the speed of life. Today the computer has become more valuable than the house servant of the affluent 19th century family, and is almost certainly destined to grow into something closer and more personalized than most of our human acquaintances in the coming years. The nomenclature of the Roman Caesars will fit in our pocket, and be capable of handling our social and professional interface with the rest of society. We will name it, anthropomorphize it, worry about it, care for it, and ultimately do what ever it tells us to do.
The Mark of the Beast may well be Pentium 4. But who can blame us for wanting to know more? If we ate of the fruit of knowledge, maybe were paying for it now. We are the curious, hairless monkeys who live in a desert of ignorance and have a desperate passion for the rivers of learning. Far from being quenched, our thirst for knowledge has grown in direct proportion to our ability to gather the information we desire. More importantly the amount of information available has grown geometrically in proportion to our ability to search and sort it. At an ever increasing pace, the amount of information available to the average human being has steadily increased over the centuries to point where, approximately 200 years ago, it surpassed a single individual’s ability to absorb the greater percentage of any given line of thought.
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Printing presses were increasing. Vast libraries were made available to the public, and illiteracy was declining rapidly. With the advent of telegraph, telephone, radio, and later, television, the amount of information accessible to the average individual took a quantum leap. Within a single lifetime, from the period of television until today, it has taken another quantum leap through the invention of the computer and the Internet. To better understand the situation we find ourselves in at this time in human history, there are two new “laws” we must understand and come to accept. Although they may seem humorous at first glance, they are amazingly accurate. The first is Moores Law.
Moores Law was postulated by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel. Moores Law states that the density of silicon integrated circuits closely follows the curve (bits per square inch) = 2(t-1962) where t is time in years. That is, the amount of information storable on a given amount of silicon has roughly doubled every year since the technology was invented in 1962. In essence, computers are getting smaller, faster and “smarter” at a geometric rate every year. The other “law” that deals directly with information as it applies to humanity is a little more esoteric, but nonetheless true. This second principle is called “Parkinson’s Law Of Data” and is usually expressed like this: “Data expands to fill the space available”.
In other words buying more memory encourages the use of more memory-intensive techniques. It has been observed over the last 10 years that the memory usage of evolving systems tends to double roughly once every 18 months. The same principle can be applied to information storage and retrieval systems (hard disks, as well as CD and DVD burners).
Terabyte drives are now affordable to private citizens. There was a time when our dreams and desires represented, for the most part, that which we deeply yearned for but would probably never attain or felt we did not deserve. The greatest dreams, the wildest fantasies were hidden in the deep, dark recesses of our psyche and hardly ever exposed to the light of day, much less our peers. Today, the Internet is capable of fleshing out more than just a little glimpse of every individual’s fantasies. We are capable of disguising our persona many times over, masked by the shroud of anonymity and facelessness.
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We may adopt any characteristic we want when we choose to interact with other people in cyberspace. We can be young or old, tall or short, fat or thin. We can be compassionate, or angry. We can even be destructive, which underscores the fact that there really is “something” out there that has perceived value can be destroyed. With the stuff of cyberspace, we can finally become the dream as well as the dreamer. The software game companies use a term to measure the marketability of potential game releases, the term is “twitch factor” as in “Theyre going to need a lot of twitch factor to beat this one!” A good twitch factor means fast reflexes, and the ability to mentally process and respond to incoming data without consciously thinking about it (actually it involves a lot of “pre-thinking” or you end up shooting down your friends, or the hostages, or whatever is not a valid target).
Alvin Tofler, in his book Future Shock, described changes in the structure of society so severe and alien that the impact could be perceived, through rapidly increasing changes in society, years before the actual event had taken place. In other words, the social impact of an event can be so great, the events social shock wave could be felt backwards in time. From that perspective, it would simply look as though social changes had increasingly lead up to the event itself. The phrase “within the fullness of time” comes to mind. In his book he discusses various types of events and how they presently (or will very shortly) impact the fabric of our culture. In one sense, as you read the book you can easily identify with the situations he describes: the nightly news with the “Crisis de Jour Coverage”; the latest ads for “Almost Online version 9.9, now with PPOE!”; a car that will call your personal customer service representative 2000 miles away if it doesnt like the way it feels; small wars in places you never knew existed; tourists in space; citizenship for dolphins; free cradle to grave high-speed information access.
How do you sort thought this tsunami of data and put it in perspective? And even if you could slow it down, what could you possibly measure it against to gain a reliable point of relevance and importance? Even the cultural horizon has moved, and we can never go home again. Maybe the most common social malady today among the first generation of the information age is the disappointment over unrealizable expectations. Its just possible that we did it to ourselves, and perhaps the best remedy for our generation is to accept that fact and not look back. Dennis Miller, a very popular social satirist, once made the observation that “when we reach a point where the average American male can plug in a cassette and have virtual sex with someone like Claudia Schiffer, it will make “krack” look like popcorn.” It isn’t wise to just laugh at such a scenario, everything we have created to extend the dissemination and retrieval of an information rich environment points directly towards that sort of trend. If you can fool your logical mind into thinking your physical body is experiencing something that isn’t really happening in the physical world, but is still fully interactive, where does the logical difference between reality and simulation end, if there is one? If you build it, they will buy! The rest is just details and engineering. More and more we are “cocooning” ourselves in front of large monitors, and turning our backs on physical interaction and the outside world.
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We are trading the communication channels of lively interaction and contact for the chimera of high-speed data flow. We have created special text based symbols to augment the lack of verbal, facial and audible cues of vocal inflection that occur in normal everyday conversation. We are raising a generation of digital children who will be able to perceive the world both through analogous experience and digital input. They will be more at ease chatting with their friends on the other side of the world than they will discussing their homework assignments over lunch in the school cafeteria. And they will have unbelievable “twitch factor”! In the science fiction movie “Forbidden Planet” an extinct race, known as the “Krell”, had long ago discovered a method to transform their entire race from their corporeal bodies into a pure mental state through the utilization of a giant machine. However in doing so, they released an unsuspected pattern of subconscious behavior so unified that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of the collective mind.
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The ‘gestalt’ of this racial subconscious entity was at once, hideous, evil, and it was totally out of control. The good guys won, the girl was saved and the Monster vanquished (for the time being).
While it is not being suggested that such an event could really happen, the pace of technological advancement and it’s ability to concretize our visions, does not rule out some similar catastrophic event occurring. Historically we’re too close to the Cuban Missile Crisis to disallow any such possibility. Nuclear weapons are only the most graphic way in which we could destroy ourselves. We seem to have a passion for developing machines capable of greater and greater power and capabilities, and fooling ourselves into thinking we have full control over them. The term “accident” or “oversight” does not seem to be applicable to the rampant desire to grab hold of the reins of creation and destruction, for they are both just two different sides of the coin of power.
So we have an information network spanning the entire globe in a way that no one outside of our era could comprehend. Lets examine the fabric of this vast information bank we call the Internet, and look upon all its weavings. Do we know what the long-term consequences of its existence will be on future generations? We have achieved an instant person-to-person communications ability that functions reliably regardless of geographical location, nothing less than electromechanical mental telepathy. Not since the transition from hunter/gatherers to agriculture has humanity faced such an enormous change in personal interaction, and all within a single span of time that encompasses just a few generations. The majority of people in the world who can, use these channels for simple person to person communications, almost solely through the use of electronic mail or email. However the actual content stored and available upon even the vaguest request reveals virtually every characteristic of the human psyche.
Both good and bad, beautiful and ugly are freely available to anyone who seeks them. We may have not released the ‘Monsters of our Id’, but we certainly have created homepages for them, in full graphic color and animated glory! Indeed, that to which we gave birth now has a life of its own and exists beyond the control of any group of individuals or nation. It is growing exponentially and is not restrained by any cultures, norms or prohibitions. We cannot legislate morality on this creation, but if we are to use it wisely and effectively, we must be sure that what comes out of it is beneficial for our race. As surely as the fruit of the tree of knowledge closed the gates of Eden, the Internet will thrust future generations into a world where only the unfettered imagination is the limit of reality, however we must understand that once connected to the Internet we disconnect ourselves from the real world of nature, families, friends, and simple human relationships.
... automobile, or the telephone. Personally, I cannot picture the world without the internet. If we live away from family and friends, we ... as a decade ago, if someone tried to explain the Internet and World Wide Web, it would have been difficult, if not ... fiction television for such wild accusations. However, as the next generation of children grows up, they may find it funny that ...
Hauben, Ronda,. Hauben, Michael, 1995, “On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet”, Available from World Wide Web: (http://www.columbia.edu/~hauben/project_book.html ) “The Impact of the Internet on the Global Brain”, Available from World Wide Web: (http://www.chem.vt.edu/chem-dept/dessy/honors/pap ers98/CWENGER.htm) Katz, James E.
Social Consequences of Internet Use: Access, Involvement, and Interaction. Detroit: MIT Press, 2002..