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.


  • One could actually extrapolate your ideas much further...
    People today are uncomfortable with the accelerating rate of change; however the newer generation is definitely more adept at using the tech better. Future generations will eventually adapt to the accelerating rate of progress.
    I'd say its evident that this process will continue to the point, where tech progress will reach a particular limit (bounded by the speed of light constraint, if valid) and similar constraints for storage and proc power. At that point, we will have an inverse arrangement - people will be uncomfortable abt the lack of an accelerating rate of progress, coz by that time they would have adapted (in an evolutionary fashion, of course) to that accelerating rate of progress.
    It may not be a sudden fullstop to the acceleration, but still, vague discomfort will be felt by quite a few, similar to that being felt today.
    (tedious line of reasoning, but valid, nevertheless?)

    By Blogger His Dorkness, at 11:14 PM  

  • ahem. certainly i'm not gonna read this online. gonna read it later from history

    By Blogger .:Infektia:., at 4:04 AM  

  • The last paragraphy of computing power being distinct from communicating 'power' being distinct from storage is just asserted as a fact to be remembered without any justification. I'd love to see some reasoning of that.

    There is always PSPACE, NP, and some other communication complexity class that can be used to assert their equality, and maybe prove some result in complexity theory. I think your statement is just a conjecture that seems true under a tech. layman eyes, but would fail under a computer scientist's eyes, and I thought you were the latter.

    By Blogger Tejaswi, at 5:16 AM  

  • @tejaswi:
    I think you're misinterpreting what I meant by storage capacity (probably because the context seems to be that of computing only). I don't mean the capacity to store more and more numbers in data-structures while we do computation. I mean the ability to store digital information (audio/video, etc) which is certainly independent of compute power (given the shannon limit on the amount of compression that can be achieved on any information). Again, for communication, there is only so much speed you can achieve by perfect encoding of information (which again might need lots of compute power). Beyond that you just have to rely on more and more wavelengths being available on optical fibres. And clearly, storage capacity is independent of the ability to communicate.
    Moreover, when I say storage capacity, I mean storage capacity both on huge servers (like the petabyte machine being built at the internet archive) as well as the 16 GB flash drives now available on the markets.

    This will become clearer in my next post, which is quite overdue I realise :)

    P.S. - Its hard to say this for oneself without sounding pompous, but I stopped being a tech. "layman" a while back :)... though I might never make it to being a computer "scientist". I'm somewhere in the comfortable middle of the two.

    By Blogger Parijat, at 9:04 PM  

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