Sunday, February 28, 2010

Technology Overload

Rock concert
Live performances nowadays depend on high-tech equipment and go for the *WOW* factor of huge LCD screens and light shows. It's understandable, given the size of the crowds being entertained, but in this age of technology how many of us watch the video screens instead of the live performance? Indirectly we have become totally dependent on the technology available to us today and the power it requires to function. A refreshing change was a concert last year in Melbourne celebrating "Earth Hour". The power for the concert was generated the week prior to the event by 16 cyclists pedaling 12 hours a day to charge up batteries. It highlighted how dependent we have become on power to keep our technology (and entertainment) working.

Eifel Tower
The growth of technology

What did people do ten, fifty or one hundred years ago at similar events? The 1925 Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris was an extraordinary event from what I've seen from photos and commentary of the time. Electricity was first used to illuminate the Eiffel Tower with a huge Citroen advertisement. Earlier events start getting difficult to imagine because they didn't have the technology to faithfully record daily life and events. Unlike today, which must be the most detailed record of human activity to date, there was only the written word and created objects (including paintings and drawings) left to give any hint of what everyday life really looked like.

Edison's first light bulb
In this age of the silicon chip we are surrounded by LCD screens, CCD arrays capturing the moment and instant global communications via the Internet. It's sobering to remember that just 130 years ago, in 1880, the first electric light bulb was patented by Thomas Edison. Thirteen years later in 1893 the first 3 phase power generator opened at the Mill Creek hydroelectric plant near Redlands, California.

Wright brothers first flight Only 110 years ago, in 1900, the Wright brothers left the ground at Kitty Hawk followed 68 years later by the first Boeing 747-100 rolling out of a hanger in Seattle! A year later saw Apollo 11 taking Neil Armstrong to the moon while we watched it all on television in the comfort of our loungerooms at home.

A380 Airbus over Sydney
In 2005 the wunderkind of the 21st century, the Airbus A380, had its maiden flight. It is a double-deck, wide bodied airliner that can carry 853 passengers.

Today we have two rover's exploring Mars, probes circling Saturn and exploring her moons and in 2015, from the very edge of our solar system, the New Horizon's mission will let us see, for the first time in human history, what Pluto and Charon really look like.

The technological explosion of the 20th century leaves you breathless. Never has so much change been experienced by humankind in one lifetime.
Silicon chip technology
At the heart of all this technology are specialised hardware and software packages. The knowledge base for this arcane technology is akin to a religious order controlled by high priests who guard the mysteries of stored program control, object variables and dynamic link libraries. We all use the technology but what goes on "under the bonnet" is a total mystery. You can't see it, feel it or smell it - unless something goes awfully wrong. And that's usually when the hardware fails. Software problems silently transform sophisticated electronic equipment into useless boxes. When something goes wrong there is little you can do to fix it. Only a handful of people on the planet have any real idea how it all works. Repairing equipment involves identifying "modules" that are faulty and replacing them. Trial and error is the proven repair strategy in today’s high-tech world. It's a little scary. Few people are capable of repairs at the component level on PC boards. They are so cheap to manufacture that it's not worth spending the time to diagnose a fault and do the repair. And if you did have the time, finding documentation to troubleshoot a problem is akin to accessing the Dead Sea scrolls.

Society has become totally dependent on technology. A balance needs to be struck between the offerings of technology and the daily reality of our lives. While the Internet can provide a global network of friends it can simultaneously isolate individuals from their neighbours. We live in a material world and as such need material contact with others otherwise we will withdraw into our own solitary (now virtual!) worlds. This is expressed very well in the movie "The Matrix" where humankind is "cocooned" into individual cells for power generation while their minds are distracted by living in a virtual world. It is not such an outrageous possibility looking at what is happening today.

It falls back to individual responsibility. You can go through life blissfully unaware, consume and die or you can be active and choose to question and expand your experience. Technology is a huge asset in this pursuit although the insights gained are no substitute for real life experience and getting out there and actually *doing* something.

Earth from orbit

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