Information Age: Interesting Times


I thought of the first article when I was using my first hard personal hard drive, and getting on modem’s in the early 80’s, which way might the storage vs. network wars play out? Then I wrote the first version of this in the early 90’s as we shifted from private networks (BBS’s) to the Internet. Then I rewrote it in 1998 when the first iMac came out, without a floppy disk I remember plug-in storage that you carried around with you (pre-Flash Memory sticks) and relying on the network (the ‘i’ in iMac stood for Internet). Then, the minor edits below were in early 2002, just after the first iPod started taking off (and all your data/songs could be in your pocket). That one got more attention and was seen as "insightful" back then, but the article was already 20 years old, and based on concepts a decade older than that.

During most of the time, local storage seemed to be winning. But in the last few years, it seems like the cloud (virtual storage and network) is starting to take off. People are getting over their fear of unreliable networks, and just having faith in the virtual, and not needing the physical as much. So now days, a Smart Phone has both: more data in my pocket than ever before, and a faster network to the cloud and when we’re out of cell-service, it feels like we’re in a disoriented alter-world and we fell backwards 100 years in time: and it’s only been less than a decade (2007) since the iPhone was first created (and 2008 since there was an App Store).

This has been sneaking up on us in slow motion. But they have been "interesting times".


## Information age : living in "interesting times"

There is an ancient Chinese curse — "May you live in interesting times". Basically, it means, "may you have instability, uncertainty, and rapid change". It is a curse, because most people don’t like change. Technology certainly keeps things interesting.

When I put on my prognostication hat (which looks surprisingly like a beanie, or dunce-cap, depending on your view), I start thinking about technology and the ramifications of innovations. After a few minutes my head hurts — but the propeller starts going around (from the heat coming off my overtaxed brain), and all the pain is worth it for glimses into potential futures

Dueling Futures!

There seems to be a two extreme choices as to which way computer technology will go. The basic question is which is more import, our physical data or network access to that data?

In one universe, physical storage rules. We will have infinite (or near infinite) storage, so that you can carry everything with you. You pop in your little info-card, pen or key, and everything you want is at your fingertips. Every book, article, or tidbit. Since computers are all over the place, and they all work with the same memory and same programs (give me my fantasies), then every application, movie, song, and so on goes with you. Each computer you plug into adapts and customizes to your settings, which you also carry with you.

In the other universe, we have infinite bandwidth (network mania), so that everything you want can be tapped into. If you want it, you can find it, get it, or just access the machine that has it, from wherever you are. Since everything you want to do can be done across a network, each computer adapts and customizes to your way of working, and you can run anything from anywhere.

In case you didn’t tell, things sound suspiciously similar in both futures. The only difference is whether you have it with you physically or virtually.

The world is not black and white, and we’re actually progressing towards both digital utopias at once. The physical one is ahead for now, and humans feel better with things they can touch, but the network utopia may catch up. And we’ll probably have a little of both. But the information age is coming; and it is changing how we do everything.

The scary part is that computers are evolving much faster than people. We’ve seen huge progress and changes in society already; but the speed of that change is growing geometrically. The Internet is just an infant — we don’t even know how to use this stuff yet. Our storage devices are just getting interesting with how much they can store. Momentum is growing. So don’t think this is a fad, this is the beginning of change for society.

Conclusion

Whether we take the infinitely cheap data model, or the infinitely powerful network, we are going to change society in similar ways. Computers are going to become much faster, easier to use, and more adaptive. Our ability to use them and adapt to them, and have them adapt to us, is going to increase. Information costs ripple through society, and technology is rapidly eroding those costs towards nothing; this changes business, changes lives and will change society. The question is not how fast technology can happen; it is doubling every couple years – the only question is how fast can humans and society adapt to keep up. And if we old fogies don’t keep up, there’s a younger generation more than willing to push us forward.

So technology has made the Chinese curse a reality — we live certainly live in interesting times!

2002.04.09


History is repeating itself

Some people read my last article on the future of information, and ideas about infinite data or infinite network, and they credited me with some big insight (it was going sort of pre-viral). The truth is less glamorous; I just observed the past.

In1968 a researcher named Alan Kay, did a thesis and a cardboard mockup of a computer of the future — this was called the DynaBook.

The idea was a portable computer that could access information in many different ways (including wireless) and was far more powerful than most people could imagine at the time. 20 – 25 years later, when Alan Kay was working for Apple, they were making laptops that in many ways were rivaling his science fiction predictions of a generation before.

Alan Kay didn’t create his concepts from nowhere; there are many papers and ideas floating around that had parts of what he was saying (computers were going to get faster, better, easier) — it was just that he was able to bring these ideas together in a compelling vision that inspired people to do what was going to be done anyway. He didn’t predict the future as much as he just clearly stated the obvious, and his vision was so clear and compelling that people raced to the goal (without realizing how far away they were). Before we new it, we were doing much of what he predicted — at least partly because he predicted it. But mostly, if he hadn’t, someone else would have.

We all build on what came before. In technology we call this standing on the shoulders of giants (or our ancestors) — though I believe Alan Kay was quoted as saying that we just, "stand on the toes of our peers". But technology happens, and society evolves. Whether the Wright brothers got the aeroplane to work first, or someone else did, it was going to happen because it could.

The predictions I made about infinitely fast networks or infinite sized data were just observations at what has been happening in the present, and how that has changed things already.

Many years ago, I encoded my entire music library from CD’s to MP3 format. Later, I moved that collection from my large desktop computer, onto a small portable hard drive. This last year, Apple (and others) made smaller physical hard drives, with more storage space, and better playback abilities (iPod) since I don’t need the drive even connected to a computer (it has a computer built in). And the Internet allows me to connect to local radio stations, or read local newspapers from anywhere in the world, far out of range of the mail or radio waves with which they would normally be distributed.

Hardware costs and performance have had amazing growth during my career. Computers that were thousands of dollars a few years ago can be bought surplus for a few dollars today. My laptop computer has the computing power of a super computer (Cray) that was so expensive 25 years ago, that my father used to run a large businesses (Boeing), just leasing time on that computer. I personally own a few computers that powerful. My home network, and connection to the Internet, surpasses what most businesses had 10 or 15 years ago. Ten years ago, a friend and I were tinkering, making our computer control VCR’s, TV’s, and stereo devices. Now days a computer can replace every one of those devices. And the rate of progress is increasing.

Conclusion

It is not hard to predict that technology will change the world; if you look around, you can see that it already has. I remember going to libraries to do research on book reports, and the weeks of effort a term paper could take, and that most of my research was on books that were years old.

Now days, kids can do it from home, with more research material and up to the minute research data, and they can email the authors of those papers and get their personal views on the subject, and they can get reviews of their paper from others, before ever turning the assignment in.

These small tales are just the beginning because society is standing on the shoulders of giants. Imagine what next generation will be able to do, while standing on our shoulders, without the limits of our puny little imaginations, and our rediculously primitive hardware and network restrictions?

2002.04.10