Were are we going?

Human Understanding of Technological Advances.

Several millennia ago, when there was no division of labor, people made their own tools. The tools were the true extensions of our hands. A single family could live alone at the same technological level as with a tribe (it didn't - due to many issues irrelevant to technology). Later the manufacturing of tools and their use became separated: craftsmen made swords and plows, while warriors and peasants used them. The "atom of the civilization" became larger - a village instead of a family. This was a necessary and important step. Something was gained - the quality of the tools improved, the skills in their use improved too. Little was lost - the connection between the tool and its user decreased only slightly. The user understood his tool thoroughly, and could do minor repairs. The totality of the contemporary "scientific knowledge" was known by everyone (shamans might know a little bit more than the rest of the village, but it does not matter for us here).

The next important step was made 150-200 year ago. Before that, there was no specialization between different fields of science. A scientist ("Natural Philosopher", as one would be called at the time) would know all the science to date, and every more or less educated person could, if not make or fix the tools in use, at least understand how they worked, and explain it to the children (the most complicated device at the time was a clock). Throughout the industrial revolution the "atom of the civilization" remained a country, as most of the trade was internal; international trade being hampered by customs, tariffs etc.

That has changed now - with the advent of steam and electricity, and then cars and aircraft, and then radio and television, and then nuclear power and space travel... How many of you can explain why the "second space speed" (aka "escape velocity") is square root of 2 times the "first space speed"? Or what are these 2 speeds? Or what is the "third space speed"? The scientists are getting more and more specialized. They are not just "Natural Philosophers" anymore, they are "Mathematicians", "Physicists" and "Chemists" now, moreover, they are increasingly becoming "Algebraists", "Analysts", "Particle Theorists" etc.

Nowadays, the "atom of the civilization" is the civilization itself. No modern country can maintain the current technological level alone. Even the US, with it extremely domestic-oriented economy (only 16% of the GDP is exported), doesn't make everything, e.g., all color TV sets are imported.

Right now an average person, even an educated one (say, with a Master's degree in biology), is all but lost in the realm or gadgets, devices and machines. Can you fix your car or TV? Can you at least explain how they work? Can you explain the difference between "unleaded" and "unleaded plus" gasolines? (do you know what "octane number" stand for?)

I have so many gadgets in my house, everything is programmable and automated...
I just called my answering machine and it said to me:
You know, buddy, we don't need you anymore!

There seems to be a problem here. Note, that I am not calling for abandoning of the current technological development schemes. I do solemnly believe in the virtues of the technological progress, but I think that with all its benefits it brings some troubles too, and these have to be identified and addressed.

The factory of the future will have two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog, and the dog will be there to keep the man from touching the computers.

Fragility of the Civilization.

"If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization."
Weinberg's Second Law

There are many examples when a seemingly minor software error produces a major disaster (the French Arian V rocket explosion was only one of them). Now the Internet makes the civilization a truly unitary system. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence about a small glitch bringing down major networks.

This can be put into the following syllogism:

What big one? Imagine the following: a bug in an Internet routing software makes a LAN (Local Area Network) isolated from the backbone. If this happens to be the corporate HQ of a chemical company (and we all know that intra-company communications are being switched to the Internet en masse now), and if this computer was responsible for managing a chemical process, something uncanny could happen. If the company were a communications one, a total shutdown of all cellular communications in a large area are quite imaginable. Etc. Note that these scenarios are truly optimistic.

I did not mention the so-called y2k (Year 2000) problem. It is a solitary error, identified well in advance, which was fixed by the right time. Nevertheless it is indicative of the the whole class of problems, whereby the programmers make an unwarranted assumption of the range of the values of a particular quantity. Another example is the recent bug in Windows (they used a 32-bit integer to keep the time since boot in milliseconds, which overflows in 49 days, 17 hours, 2 minutes and 47.296 seconds thus causing a crash. No wonder it took them several years to discover the bug - who ever heard of a Windows machine not crashing for 7 weeks?!) Note that both this kind of problem (overflow) and its result (crash) are typical for statically typed languages (like C/C++/Java), where the type is associated with variables and can never occur (unless specifically asked for :-) in the dynamically typed languages (like Lisp) where the type is associated with values instead, thus providing enhanced security.


Our privacy and, eventually, freedom, are deeply threatened by the modern technology. E.g., now your cellular provider knows your current location as long as your cell phone is on, so you can sort of control it (by turning the phone off or just no owning one). But if the "radio tags on all consumer goods" proposal ever gets implemented, and it realy looks like it will, you will be traceable at all times, no matter what you do, as long as you are not naked in the woods. Privacy is being "reinvented" by people who do not care about it.

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Sam Steingold
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