Afloat in the Ether on my Smartphone
By: Ron Lipsman
In order to bolster his argument that Western Civilization is dying, Mark Steyn in After America: Get Ready for Armageddon, makes the following comparison between 60-year intervals. He posits that a time traveler from 1890 who alighted from his machine in 1950 would find a world that he could barely believe or comprehend. The automobile and airplane have been invented and are in widespread use. Indoor plumbing is ubiquitous. Radio, TV and movies provide spectacular entertainment. Washing machines, dishwashers and refrigerators transform the meaning of what it means to be a housewife. Miracle drugs like penicillin and insulin have been discovered and previously fatal diseases like diabetes, diphtheria and tuberculosis have been tamed. And the atom has been split.
The nature of human life was altered radically by these developments, and mostly for the better. By contrast, asserts Steyn, the time traveler from 1950 would be far less impressed. Oh the gadgets have been glitzed up a bit, but the American home, neighborhood and country did not look all that much different in 2010 than they appeared in 1950.
Steyn acknowledges two great exceptions to his assertion of an overall desultory advance in the last 60 years: space travel and information technology (IT). But he doubts that either has had a beneficially revolutionary effect – the first because we have lost interest (due to cost, boredom and a lack of vision and boldness); the second because much of the information technology revolution has resulted in vapidity (mind-numbing computer games, frivolous communication, pornography, cyber crime and too often, great wastes of time, energy and resources). I would like to take strong exception with him in the case of IT.
I believe the IT revolution has changed the way that we live as much as did any of the labor-saving, distance-shrinking machines invented in the first half of the twentieth century. The compute power that I hold in my hand (inside my smartphone) is truly astounding. It dwarfs what was available to me in gigantic machines that I programmed 45 years ago. And “dwarf” doesn’t do justice to a comparison between my smartphone and the guidance computer on the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Moreover, the depth and variety of the tasks that I can perform with my smartphone boggles the imagination. Here is a tiny sample:
- I can produce in seconds an answer to virtually any question on any topic that is posed to me.
- I can locate and obtain directions to literally any spot on Earth.
- I can instantly access news stories about almost any event that occurred in the last decade with the flick of a finger.
- I can obtain current financial information about any public company, stock or government agency in a flash.
- I can pay my bills, complete my shopping, find out where my kids are, see the weather forecast for the out-of-town locale at which I’ll be next week, read a pending Congressional bill, peruse the menu of the restaurant in which I’ll be dining tonight, get the ball scores, consult my social club or place of worship’s newsletter, set the temperature in my bedroom (from my office), warm up my car, and oh so much more. The power at my fingertips would be just as inconceivable to 1950s man as were the mid-century gadgets to 1890s man.
These and numerous other capabilities have altered human life in myriad ways – among which are the following:
- Information. I have virtually instantaneous and almost unlimited access to all the knowledge in the world. There is barely a question, on any subject, to which I cannot get one or more answers with a few taps and swipes of my finger. Of course, it is incumbent on me to judge the reliability of the source of the information. But – perhaps unbeknownst to us – that was always the case. In the past we trusted unquestioningly the encyclopedia and Walter Cronkite. We should have known that the former made mistakes and the latter allowed his political biases to color the content of his reportage.
This item alone represents a revolutionary feature of human life that was beyond the imagination of any human that lived up until say 30-40 years ago. But the technology in my smartphone has also revolutionized many other aspects of human life.
- Communication. Email, texting, video-conference and online chat all provide communication capabilities that would have been way beyond the ken of our grandparents. Moreover, we access them at a fraction of the cost of their clunky ancestors.
- Business & Finance. From online and instantaneous stock trades to QuickBooks to internet banking to ATM machines to smartphone credit transactions, the world of the businessman, investor and consumer has been changed immeasurably.
- Education. The educational tools available to today’s students and teachers are as many light years removed from yesterday’s slide rules, calculators and chalk boards as was the Ford Mustang from an 1890s nag. My 5-year old grandson’s classroom amazes me, as does the knowledge that is already accumulated in that boy’s head.
- Entertainment. When I visit the park, I can take with me the music of the world’s greatest composers, the words of its greatest authors and the movies of the finest film directors.
- Politics. In principle, the activities of our national and local governments are more transparent to the citizenry, as any of us can easily access government legislation, regulations and budgets. It doesn’t always work out as it should, but new IT capabilities have had profound effects on political fundraising, organization and campaigning.
- Culture. Again, in principle, advanced IT makes the varied aspects of our multicultural society readily knowable to all citizens, which should have a homogenizing and salutary effect on society. Once again, it doesn’t always pan out as expected. But there is no denying that the USA is the most successful polyglot nation on Earth, and the technological improvements that have abetted matters in the previous six items have helped to make it so.
Now one may legitimately ask: are all these dramatic changes good or bad for the human condition? In fact, there is no shortage of arguments on both sides of the issue. On the plus side, the tech aficionado asserts: how can the availability of vast amounts of information, which was previously inaccessible to the individual, not be a good thing? Furthermore, the ability to communicate easily across vast distances helps to keep families close. Investors have more information about investment opportunities; consumers are more knowledgeable about the products they seek; children are exposed to more ideas and opinions in their education; and all of us learn more about other cultures, which leads to a more tolerant and peaceful world.
But not so fast: the unbridled freedom of the internet has led to licentiousness and a coarsening of the culture; the ubiquitous nature of political discourse has led to political polarization and government gridlock; computer trading allows insiders to control the market and enhance the gap between rich and poor; the brevity and unsupervised mode of information technology communication has eroded verbal and literary skills, and contributed to the dumbing down of American youth; the hypnotic nature of IT has turned citizens into automatons and rendered society more fragmented, disunited and incohesive. All the electrons flying around are frying our brains.
These are legitimate, if somewhat overdramatized complaints about the consequences of the IT revolution. But it is instructive to note that the same kind of of diametrically opposed evaluations of societal evolution could be – and were – made in 1950. The arguments for the positive effects of the labor-saving, distance-shrinking devices of the early twentieth century are evident and have already been made. Contrarians would counter: cars polluted cities, created lifeless suburbs and damaged the environment; all the labor-saving devices freed up women to be more like men with horrible consequences for marriage, the family and children; the advent of popular and cheap visual media crippled reading and literary capabilities, and contributed to the dumbing down of America; and splitting the atom led to the most barbarous act ever perpetrated by mankind (Hiroshima) and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.
Nevertheless, on balance, I think most would agree that the positive consequences of the advances of the first half of the twentieth century outweighed the negatives. Although…acknowledging two world wars, one can argue that it was the bloodiest half-century in world history. But the root causes for those tragic conflicts lie at the feet of human beings – whose behavioral instincts have not advanced an iota in millennia. That doesn’t change the fact that the nature of human life improved dramatically over the course of the trip taken by our first time traveler.
With regard to the enormous advances in IT that occurred during the journey of the second time traveler, they must be judged to be generally of benefit to mankind. Human stupidity, greed, cruelty and jealousy may still plunge us into regular turmoil. That doesn’t alter the fact that because of pioneers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Sergei Brin, our physical and social lives have undergone marked improvement.
So, happily afloat in the ether, I will continue to enjoy the marvels of my smartphone. Just like my grandfather when he clicked on that air conditioner for the first time, I am pleased to be living at the present moment and not 100 years ago.
Ron Lipsman, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, Former Senior Associate Dean College of Computer, Math & Physical Sciences University of Maryland