Sunday, December 27, 2009

Everyone Is Everything

It used to be that you could tell a lot about a person by what they owned. If I walk into your house and see a bunch of programming reference books on the shelf, I assume you work with computers for a living. If I see instead a collection of marketing studies and economics textbooks I assume you work in something related to sales and research. We are defined by what we collect, and what we keep around.

So what happens when we no longer have to collect? If I want to learn a new computer language today, I go to the Internet and access some tutorials. If I have questions while working on a project I open the language reference manual which is probably online as well. My home contains almost no trace of the last four languages I've learned -- only browser history, which is incidental and would probably not be missed if deleted. When information is scarce and hard to transport, we are defined by the information we collect; but as we rapidly move toward a world where information is plentiful, cheap, and therefore available any place at any time, that definition ceases to matter. Every one of us effectively has a world-class collection of information on any of an endless number of subjects ranging from common to esoteric.

That's only the beginning, though. Physical collections are cumbersome and potentially expensive, certainly, but their scope can't even begin to compare to the effort we expend in building and maintaining huge collections of internalized information. Literally years of our lives are spent in memorizing facts, dates, and scientific principles, because this used to be the only way to quickly access this information. Because some day you might need to know how gravity works, or who assassinated Lincoln, or why the Puritans fled to the Americas, you spent hours upon hours painstakingly copying that information into your brain, and storing it away for a future date.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Everything Is Everywhere

How far are you, right now, from a copy of the Gutenberg Bible? In twenty seconds I can have the full illustrated text of the original German at my fingertips, as well as a number of translations, annotations, and an exhaustive history. And this isn't a staged test -- it was a random choice, although it seems fitting given the special place that document has in the history of information transfer. I'm guessing you're about the same distance from it right now, if you're reading this on a computer and have heard of Google.

What would the answer to the same question have been twenty years ago? Assuming you're not a scholar specializing in the subject, probably at least five miles, and that's if you live near a book store that's more well stocked than most. How about two hundred years ago? Maybe a couple hundred miles (several days travel) to a large university, or maybe you wouldn't be able to find one at all.

How far are you from the episode of The Daily Show that aired two weeks ago on Thursday? I'm guessing about forty-five seconds because the show's site is a bit hard to navigate, but that's still not bad. Even five years ago the answer would have been anywhere from a couple months to nearly a year, and that's assuming the show in question was ever released for purchase (in this case it isn't aside from some "best of" compilations). The same is not currently true of all television, but there's no reason it couldn't be except that the studios think they can make more money by not releasing them this way.

The fundamental genius of Gutenberg is not so different from what makes computers and the Internet revolutionary. In fact, if you strip away the specifics of the technology the basic statement of each is exactly the same: "this invention makes it easier to copy and transport information". The reason that some things are everywhere, and that more and more things are becoming omnipresent, is that it takes next to no effort to copy them.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hello, World

I've been thinking a lot about life. I think our culture is at a turning point, where a lot of the ideas we were sold as kids are starting to fall apart and the things that are going to replace them haven't shown up yet, or at least haven't found acceptance. There are a lot of pieces in flux, and a lot of stuff is going to happen in the next twenty years that nobody can predict, but I think some patterns are starting to emerge.

I grew up on science fiction. Nothing was as fascinating to me as a story about what will happen, and I know that the same is true for many people. And while I still love science fiction, I'm starting to think that in a very fundamental way we got it very, very wrong.

Any great science fiction has at least some speculative piece of technology that's central to the plot -- some yet-to-exist device without which the story couldn't happen. And when you're making things up, you're bound to screw up the details, and I can forgive a lot of that. But there's something I can't ignore, and that's the constant habit of over-emphasizing the technology.