I think there is a world market for maybe five computers. - Apocryphal quote attributed to Thomas J. Watson
So why are these computers such a big thing, anyways?
This tongue-in-cheek thought came to my mind while waiting for bash script I wrote to process a file literally over 8 million lines long. That could easily lead to a talk on program optimization and using the right tool for the job, but that’s been done to death, hasn’t it? Now, while I was impatiently waiting for my script to complete its job, I was suddenly bemused that I was upset this was taking any longer than 5 minutes in the first place. Who would expect a human to complete this task on any timescale shorter than weeks?
So I started to feel that sense of wonder at the little notebook sitting in front of me, when I then saw my even smaller cell phone, and the wondrous things it can do, then I thought of the GPS and the wondrous things it does, television and what it has done, and the internet which is the lifeline of all of these now. Looking back throughout history, thinking of the similar things they supplanted, I came to a conclusion:
A GPS is like binoculars, A computer is like a pen and paper, And the internet is like a horse.
What do I mean by this? First, let’s ask ourselves a fundamental question: what is information? That’s actually a very hard question to answer without using a synonym for information. Go ahead, try to think of something that doesn’t include “data”, “knowledge”, or other words. :)
Information is a property about something that can be observed.
We observe things constantly, our eyes inform us of our surroundings, our ears tell us about activity around us, our nose directs us to nutrition and away from poison, our tongue determines what we are consuming to help us decide if we want more, and our skin reacts to objects it touches.
Binoculars or a GPS are information observers – they help us acquire information, such as whether that dust cloud on the horizon is merely a sandstorm or an invading army, or our exact location on the Earth within a few meters, updated every second.
When we acquire information from our senses, our brain attempts to make sense of it.
What was that shadowy movement in the corner of my eyes? That rustling sound from the same direction? That damp smell in the air and dryness in my mouth? Oh, now I know, I can feel a dog latching onto my back! From the sound of its growling and the clawing into my skin, I know roughly where it is, so I can stab my spear backwards against it. Now I can look closely at the dog and can see that it has a collar, and must have been trained by a neighboring tribe! I’m losing too much blood from my wounds. I want to warn my own tribe even if I can’t make it back on my own, so I take out a piece of parchment and a quill, write what has happened, tie the parchment to my spear, and throw my spear back into the clearing between my village and the woods; somebody will hopefully see it.
The quill and parchment, a computer, and so on are information processors – they help us process and encode information we have observed into a more succinct piece of relevant information. In this example, the entire sensory experience of the hunter was processed in his brain, then transcribed with the quill and parchment into a reduced, encoded form (language) that can be read by his fellows. Now, one may thing of the parchment as just another piece of information – and by itself that is true – but when coupled with the quill, it provided the hunter with the tool to process that large body of information from his five senses into something his compatriots can understand.
By this point, it should be clear what the horse and internet have in common – they are information transporters – they help us move information from one place to another, but cannot do any processing of that information on their own.
When we look at the technological advancements of the last, oh, 200 years, they apply to essentially one of two domains: information and material. Technological advancements involving materials, material processors, material transporters, and material observers has been aimed at sating our needs and wants. Our technological advancements involving information have been primarily involving in meeting these material needs and wants.
But for the past 60 to 70 years, our material desires have been mostly sated. Food, clothing, shelter are essentially taken care of in the developed world. But our capitalist system demands companies to continue fighting for a greater share in meeting these desires. Classical economic theory considers the participants as rational actors who make transactions in their own best interest. To determine “best interest” perfectly, one must know the entire economic situation of everyone, everywhere, at every moment, which essentially an impossibility. But to know more and more about what is occurring around the world than others can give a special advantage to businesses, and so they pursue information fervently.
Now information itself has become a powerful source of income in economics. Research and Development funds are spent on the pursuit of new information (by synthesizing observations into a compact piece of information that can be used more easily – Science), computers to process information are a massive industry, the telecommunications industry to move information around the world is a massive industry, GPSs, accelerometers, gyroscopes, and other sensors have become commonplace in cellphones to help people observe information immediately from their cellphone, even the gathering and dissemination of pure information has become big business (Google, Facebook, Posterous…). Information itself has developed a very large value in our economy (which can explain the attitudes of those in favor of strict IP regulation).
There is one other reason why information has been the driving force of technological development this past half a century – having mostly sated our needs, we can attempt to sate our wants; to entertain ourselves. As we interact with the world through our sensory-gathering organs, our sources of entertainment can be boiled down to information presented to us. The developments of radio and audio records, television and video recordings, and video games have begun fulfilling our entertainment desires through our senses of sight and sound.
The end-game scenario is obviously the Holodeck, where all senses can be provided for. We aren’t there yet, and I can’t begin to imagine what exactly humanity would do if we achieve a perfect substitution of reality for whatever entertainment a person sees fit to pursue.
Our pursuit of knowledge, however, has also taken us to the edge of the solar system itself, and our exponentially increasing population will eventually hit a hard limit on what is sustainable for planet Earth. Perhaps our need for materials will come once again and cause us to rise up and go exploring reality once more.
But we’ll always need to be informed of our surroundings as we explore…