Thinking out loud

Monday, October 09, 2006

Where are we headed? (Part II)

In the last post, I seem to have given all the credit to wireless communication, saying that it led to the ultimate speedup. Yet I contend that computers are a key ingredient to what we are observing today. And here I will explain why I think so.

Wile the invention of wireless communication (and indeed, electronic communication in general) was indeed a quantum leap, it speeded up only part of the process of change. Change is the result of two very distinct activities. One is, of course, the dissemination of ideas/information. Clearly, however, there is the creation of ideas/information that is a critical activity. Speed-of-light communication allowed the quick transportation of information. However, now the bottleneck in the process of change shifted from transport of information to the generation of information. Initially, this is where computers created the greatest impact.

Computers were mammoth machines crunching numbers at phenomenal speed. Suddenly it became possible to make sense of a much larger amount of information. This naturally led to a greater speed of generating ideas. These ideas could be related to particle physics or national demographics. Calculations which would take days could now be done in a matter of hours, allowing new ideas to be tested much more quickly. Printing presses and electronic communication allowed data and research papers to be sent around the world at tremendous speeds while computers allowed the validation and generation of new ideas. Part of this research fed back into developing better and faster computers, better storage technologies and reliable communication technologies. Now both components of change were operating at superhuman speeds. The plan was set. What we are observing today is this result of an interplay of this tremendous computing power and communication speed developed by man over the millennia in a series of steps that would seem only natural.

At this point I would like to reiterate something that is oft forgotten in any discussion of technology. It is the fact that communication speed-up is a phenomenon quite distinct from the increase in raw computing power, which are in turn quite distinct from the increase in our capacity to store information. It is true that these three forces affect each other dramatically and often depend on each other for their own growth. However, keeping this fact in mind can help us understand much of this apparently chaotic change around us much more easily.

Where are we headed? (Part I)

I have this habit of giving "gyaan" to people... to the extent of being called a "Compulsive Gyaan Giver" even by some rather tolerant people. Usually this gyaan can be about any of the numerous aspects of life or the world. One of my favorite subjects is technology. I sometimes end up spending hours talking about the kind of things happening in networking, computer hardware, storage, the web, etc. Recently, I got asked a very pointed question - "You keep talking about all the things that are happening. But do you really know what this will result in eventually?". There are two problems with this question. One, that there is hardly a notion of an "eventually" in this matter; and second, to really make a guess as to where this will lead to in the next 8-10 years is anybody's guess. If I were to hazard a guess today and I happen to become an eminent person someday, I will be jibed at for being either very outlandish in my expectations or being too conservative. I'll take that risk nonetheless; if for nothing else than to make nature want me to be an eminent person. To explain where we are headed today, I'll start from distant history, borrowing ideas freely from several sources (not all of which I might remember), but especially from two people I consider to be real visionaries, Alvin Toffler and Bill Gates.

People often attribute the rapid change they are witnessing today to some inventions that took place a couple of decades ago. They are partly right. They are right to an extent that computers (and communication networks) helped accelerate the process of change to a speed where it is noticeable by a single generation. This speed-up has led people to pay attention to the process of change and makes them attribute the change itself to computers. (I will write about why computers are not the only method by which this speedup would be possible, but more on that later). The speed-up in change that has occurred in the past few decades has also caused uneasiness resulting in the kind of questions I was asked - "where is all this leading?".

Toffler explains that the uneasiness because of change in society today is not because of the change itself but the pace of change. He says that the pace of change has effects on people irrespective of the change itself. The kind of change that in earlier ages took place over several generations, with the situation not changing significantly within one lifetime, now happens in 20 years or less. The amount of change that people had to cope with in previous ages was negligible compared to the changes an average individual copes with today. Computer systems become obsolete days after they are purchased, telephone tarrifs plummet by the day, airplane fares fluctuate by the minute and new ticket booking mechanisms spring up every few months. However, what Toffler fails to explain is why these changes take place at an increasing pace. I will first make my case for why this change is necessarily going to be accelerated.

All change is driven by information/knowledge. In that sense, the first seeds of change were sown when man developed language. As soon as man found a mechanism for communicating ideas, he had stepped over the first hurdle. Now it was not necessary for every individual to discover a better way of doing things. Once an idea came into being, it was not lost with the individual. It was preserved by being passed on to others of the next generation. This was the foundation stone of the huge edifice of knowledge we stand in awe of today. With only a spoken language, however, which could not overcome the barriers of time and distance effectively, the diffusion of ideas was slow. Of the many ideas that were built on top of the initial ideas passed down by word of mouth was the idea of writing. Writing added a new force to ideas, a new permanence. It added speed to the dispersal of knowledge.

Somewhere in this stream, the wheel was invented. Not only did the wheel provide mobility to men, it added, more importantly, mobility to knowledge. Thus, the wheel, which was a knowledge product helped in the propagation of knowledge itself. With the wheel to cover distance and writing to carry knowledge over time, the basic requirements were established. The first river valley civilizations were born. Ships, a much later invention, allowed man and his ideas, to travel all over the globe. Now, an idea born anywhere on the planet did not need to be confined to that part of the planet. It still took months or years for an idea to travel to other continents, but suddenly the world was one, for the first time in history.

The printing press, as is widely accepted, was the next stepping stone. Now more people had access to knowledge than ever before imagined possible. Knowledge started slipping out of the hands of the few elite in society and started trickling to all its members. Now even more minds were available to build on previous knowledge. The renaissance was a direct result of this access to knowledge. Where there were once 10 minds creating ideas, there were now 10000. The speed of generation of ideas increased and so did the speed of change. At this point, change came up to a pace which was visible to people. And it led to the first revolution (the industrial revolution), when man invented the steam engine and railways. Faster dispersal of ideas resulted, accelerating change. Next came a quantum leap - wireless communication. This single invention speeded up the flow of ideas/information by a factor of several millions. Messages that took days or weeks aboard a ship or a steam engine were now transmitted instantaneously.

An examination of this growth from the invention of a language to the invention of wireless communication will show that the acceleration in the creation of ideas (synonymous with change) is the result of the creation of ideas themselves. Writing, ships, the printing press and wireless communication were creations of the very ideas which they then helped propagate at higher and higher speeds with greater and greater reliability.