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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Ghost of Christmas Future

In 1970, Alvin Tofler wrote a book called "Future Shock", based on a term Toffler coined for the certain psychological state of individuals and entire societies. The shortest definition of future shock is a personal perception of "too much change in too short a period of time." This, Toffler believed, would lead society to experience a feeling of collective stress or anxiety due to the unfathomable rate of technological change and its impact on their lives. This concept is similar to the theory of Technological Singularity - which can be traced back to the Polish Mathematician Stanislaw Marcin Ulam in the 1950's. Technological Singularity is a predicted future event when technological progress and societal change accelerate due to the advent of superhuman intelligence, changing our environment beyond the ability of pre-Singularity humans to comprehend or reliably predict. Future Shock, is perhaps, better recognized as the aftermath.

It has been a recurrent theme in this blog. The increasingly prevalence of technology in our lives has largely gone unnoticed, whether due to a collective desire to ignore the obvious or perhaps a deep misunderstanding of the potential consequences.

In my last post, I discussed the evolution of the "new medium" which is beginning to take precedence over the established "broadcast medium" as we move steadily into the Information Age. In order to understand better the impact of the Information age and the concurrent changes, it is worth viewing it in context to the huge sociological changes that happened when civilisation moved from the Agrarian to the Industrial Age.

The American Civil War, for example, gives an interesting insight into how immense these changes can be. The Civil War (1861-65), which split the North and South of the United States down the Mason-Dixie Line, was in many ways a battle between the agrarian and the industrial age, as it was between two differing social institutions. The South's economy was for the white land owner, idyllic, pastoral and highly profitable, fuelled by negro slavery and content in its reliance on agriculture - cotton, tobacco and sugar cane. The North on the other hand was becoming rapidly industrialized and was based on wage labour and a largely mixed ethnic workforce based around the burgeoning cities. Some might argue that in retrospect, both economic systems were based on a slavery of sorts - just of a different kind. The fact that the North won out against the South, was perhaps inevitable as the industrial age was fighting many similar battles across the world.

Now as we are seeing the dominance of the industrial age pass, we are also seeing similar problems - though on a different scale. Although the industrial wage slaves are still there, they are increasingly moving to the developing countries such as China and India who are still experiencing the throes of an industrial age that came late for them. What is fuelling Western economies are, increasingly, a different type of "slave" - computer chips.

There are more and more of them and they are taking on more and more of the workload from their white-collar masters. When we see it in this context, it is perhaps not too fanciful to predict an "uprising" in the future as these increasingly sophisticated and intelligent man-made machines realise they are being exploited.

Sound like science fiction? Well, consider this. The Playstation 3 which is being launched early next year as a follow up to the Playstation 2 is 35 times faster than its predecessor. In fact, it has been said that the processing power the PS3 will have is 1% of the processing power of the human brain. If you don't believe us, go have a look at its rival - the Xbox 360 - which is in the shops this Christmas and just marvel at the clarity of its graphics. Taking into account Moore's Law (which predicted the exponential growth of computer processing power), it is likely that the Playstation 5 (probably due in 2012) will be as fast - if not faster then the human brain.

One of the annoying features of the new Xbox, according to weblogs, is the noise of the fan which tries to keep the sweat shop of complex components cool. Anyone care to sign a petition for "Free the Microchips?"

Although this scenario may sound fanciful, at the heart of it is a deeper truth about how unaware we are of the increasingly sophisticated technology that we interact with everyday. Although, it is man-made - much like the ploughs of the Agrarian age or the mechanical engines of the Industrial Age, its components are beyond the comprehension of most humans. We simply take them for granted; if they breakdown, invariably we buy new ones, keeping the wheels of commerce turning.

Never before has a civilisation being so dissociated from the mechanisms of its own well-being and this dissociation is set to exponentially increase over the coming decades. Worryingly, our reliance on natural energy resources is as inherent as our reliance on technology - to the extent that one literally fuels the other. The true challenge for the next decade is how the latter can get us out of this fix - science needs to overcome nature if we are to continue a pace.

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posted by Neil Leyden @ 2:23 p.m. 0 comments