Defining Our Past And Shaping Our Future

The world seems to be advancing technologically so rapidly that even some of the devices which were at the pinnacle of consumer luxury a couple decades ago are now some of the most rudimentary and perhaps sometimes not even recognizable by the younger generations. I myself am relatively young at 24, and yet I've had the opportunity to witness the incredible advancements of quite a few branches of technology in my time so far. There must have been a time when record players, to give a simple example, were such amazing devices, and then cassette players became so much smaller and portable, and then CDs offered so much more space and quality, and then the digital era offered even better quality and eliminated the frustrations of skips and scratches and misplacing and limited storage. I remember listening to cassette tapes as a kid, and buying my very first CDs as a young teenager, and then buying my very first mp3 player a few years later, and being so utterly fascinated at every step along the way.

The first mp3 player I ever bought, sometime around 2004, seemed so wildly incredible at the time. For the hefty price of $70 or so I could fit 40-some songs on a 128 megabyte device, which was more than twice what I had grown so accustomed to fitting on a mix CD. And on top of that there was no concern over tracks skipping on a jog, or ever having to buy new blank CDs when I wanted to make a new mix. This was the most profound appreciation of mine at the time; I didn't need piles of mix CDs anymore. I didn't need to toss a disc every time I wanted even one single new song to be included on the current mix. The digital contents could simply be updated. And now, for the same price or less, you can easily get 8 gigabytes of space or more and the capacity for thousands upon thousands of songs and any combination of separate playlists. The sum of the contents of dozens and dozens of mix CDs can be enjoyed by a few touches on a handheld digital media player with sufficient size.

Similarly, video media has gone from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray (not even considering all of the varieties of digital file types able to be shared online) with the quality and cost improving all along the way. Of course, when a new format and new devices to play them with are developed, across all medias, the prices start higher, but they quickly decline and before long a device vastly more powerful than the one you purchased several years before is even cheaper. Today I could buy an mp3 player with 16 times the storage capacity than that first one I ever purchased for a mere ten dollars. And you would probably face difficulty in even finding a place that will take your old VHS tapes or even DVDs from you for a fraction of what you paid for them back in the day. Their demand has almost entirely vanished, for good reason, in the wake of so much vast improvement.

This digital age has certainly disrupted things, and not only in the music and video industries. The high technologies of even a few decades ago not only lose their popular use and their monetary value, but you can hardly even give them away sometimes. They just become so utterly outdated by the perpetual advancement of newer devices and ideas, and eventually only the vintage or nostalgia-seeking collectors see any use whatsoever in their ownership. But they will always serve as healthy reminders of how far we've come, and tantalizing hints at where we're still going.

Not too long ago I bought a shiny new printer. And the other day I needed to scan a document so that I could attach it to an email. And so I did; I put the paper on the tray, pressed the scan button, and selected its destination. And it struck me right then, considering for the first time this option that was now available to me to send it directly into a folder on my PC, how absolutely incredible technology is. This was all done wirelessly--the printer has no tangible link with my computer. And yet, when I place a piece of paper onto its tray and command it to scan it for me, suddenly an exact digitized replica of it exists as parts of the 1s and 0s navigable within the depths of my computer. And I can send this data to anyone else on the planet if I wanted to, and they could have it, see it, even print it out for themselves, and no physical link was ever made between us. It's like exactly how magic would be if magic were a real thing, but this is real and we can understand it and we can manipulate it to our will.

Arthur C. Clarke said that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I think this holds some deep insights, considering so much of what we have at our disposal in today's world that would probably send a person from a thousand years ago screaming away in terror and condemning us as demons. Who could have thought, at the time, that we'd be able to almost effortlessly communicate with people anywhere else on the planet without even any physical link? Or even see them on video monitors? Or fly across the oceans? Or film movies? Or cover so much of the planet with artificial light? Or find the answers to so many questions with just a few keystrokes into an online search engine? Sometimes I wonder if the entire concept of magic has really been all along just the inexorable progression of our thoughts and understandings of the world transformed into the fanciful dreams of what we wish we had the power to do.

And then the day comes when we do have that power. Have you noticed how so many things are becoming more and more automated and touch-free?  Oftentimes doors will open for you as you approach, lights will turn themselves on as you enter a room, toilets will flush for you as you leave, faucets and soap dispensers and hand dryers will dispense for you as you place your hands under them, and devices will even operate by spoken command and turn themselves off after an idle period. Increasingly often you don’t even have to touch a doorknob, or a light switch, or a toilet or faucet handle, or a paper towel dispenser (or even a paper towel). You can walk into a bathroom, use the facilities (well, a guy, at least), wash and dry your hands, and leave, all without ever touching anything.

You don't even have to touch your hard-earned cash anymore. I handle cash less and less often even as I continue to make more money and purchase more things. I rarely have more than twenty dollars in hard cash in my wallet; more often than not I have none at all. It strikes me sometimes that this is a really incredible thing, this ability to accumulate and spend money without ever actually touching the tangible pieces of paper and cotton and linen we’re so used to thinking of it as.

Like most, I imagine, I work a job and have funds automatically deposited to a bank account with every paycheck. I never actually see it. I don’t bring a check to a bank, and my wallet doesn’t grow fat with bills. The money just shows up as if a fundamental part of my being. So long as I utilize only that amount of money, debit purchases are like the simple returns on that labor, to be acquired at will. Each time it deposits it’s like I just became worth that many more dollars, and it’s almost as if I can just walk into places and visit websites and help myself to my desires, as if my presence holds an intrinsic worth only requiring verification by a small piece of plastic and a few numbers. With the simple swipe of a card I can walk out with a cart full of food, or appliances, or video games, or any combination of things I wish to own, or even have them delivered to me. And that little piece of plastic, that card which represents my monetary worth, doesn’t change. It remains safely in my wallet and yet represents so much of what is laid before me to enjoy. I only have to go out and acquire it. Sometimes it feels like I’m not actually purchasing something, I’m just going and grabbing a thing that I want and it’s now mine and later I go and perform some tasks that I enjoy doing and the cycle repeats and the world is just mine to appreciate as I please.

Social media has become a truly massive force in the world. In a few seconds you can create a profile on any of several major websites, add some  pictures and some interests and some history, and continuously present yourself to the world through public postings. Some reports say that as much as 25% of all Internet page views are on social media sites alone. You've probably heard some of the generic complaints such as "people used to actually know their neighbors" and yet today's society has been shaped so that you can know any number of people all over the world. Of course there is some concern over still maintaining actual physical relationships with people, but sometimes it seems as if the simple new wave of potential is making it seem like so much of the physical is gone. Such a phenomenon has never been known before, so it's no surprise that the controversies abound. I don't believe this is the case; I still see people hanging out outside with each other all the time. I still spend as much time as I can get with my dear friends around town. I still cherish face-to-face communication more than any other, and I can only assume that this is generally the case universally. It's just that we have so many more opportunities now. If not for social media I would have lost the majority of the connections I've been able to maintain despite the major moves I, and others, have made. Never before has a person from, say, the U.S. been able to randomly become acquainted with a person from, say, Australia, and share thoughts and feelings with each other without ever having actually been closer to each other than a few thousand miles. A healthy mix of digital and physical communication is arguably more valuable than any other combination has ever been. You can even share your physical relationships with your digital ones, and vice versa. You can connect with more people around the planet than you can likely even comprehend. Thus cultural hurdles are so much more easily avoided. The world seems like a much more fitting, opportunistic, shared place when people have social access to others around the globe. I don't see how that's a bad thing if you look past the minor issues.

If you're curious about something, you can find almost anything to your heart's desire with a brief Google search. The amount of information available to us just sort of "floating" around on the internet (also in textbooks and the like) is truly staggering. A person can get at least a basic understanding of such topics that took the prodigious minds of Newton, Darwin, Bohr, Einstein, and the like an entire lifetime to puzzle out…using nothing but a keyboard and a few keystrokes, and/or some page turning, and some reading. As a certain telescope manufacturer, Meade, proclaims on their website, with even a cheap telescope and the knowledge of how to find certain celestial objects one "will see more objects in one night than Galileo saw in a lifetime."

For so much of history a person's skill set has been almost exclusively utilized for monetary gain. That was how you made your living. But today, with this tremendous advent of social connectivity through the internet most of all, people are willing to share their expertise on a subject, with their own precious time and resources, for no other gain than the near-selfless enjoyment of doing just that. Of course, some gain fame and fortunes still, but so many remain virtually anonymous despite their thorough investigations into insightful questions or the development of popular apps or wiki articles or software or independent music or film or artwork or writing or general advice or practically anything one could desire to seek out. There seems to be a profound movement in the use of spare time and skills for the betterment of the general public even if this means that the contributor does not receive specific recognition. Perhaps such people just simply treasure the enjoyment of doing something worthwhile even if it's not relevant to their personal career. I find this incredibly beautiful.

And there are always still people out there making discoveries, even at this very moment, and our descendents will, in turn, be able to seek out and understand their contributions in the same way (probably even more efficiently) that we are entitled today. You don't have to be an employed astrophysicist, or personally know  someone who is, to share in the current times of such a field. Each generation has the advantage over the previous of having access to the accumulation of all of recorded history in their grasp, and today more than ever (and tomorrow even more so) this unimaginably deep well of knowledge, this collection of our incessant desire to understand the deepest workings of the world around us, can only continue to provide us with more understanding, which in turn leads to more probing questions, which in turn leads to more insightful answers, which in turn leads to more understanding, which in turn leads to more probing questions…

The world is certainly changing, shaping, progressing ever-onward. We have at our disposal things that were probably never even dreamed about in the wildest fantasies of our distant ancestors… feats that they may have never even imagined the grandest wizard could perform. The boundaries of our knowledge are, at every new moment, always pushing the frontiers of our thoughts in new directions. The most fantastic, magical ideas in the minds of those living today could very well be the simple play-things of the children of a few generations to come. This all just makes me so prideful to be here—part of humanity. I look forward to every other new advancement, every improvement on our quality of life, for as long as I can enjoy them. The best is yet to come. It's going to be so fascinating.

Posted by Eli Stanley | at 12:28 AM | 13 comments