Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Two worlds

Every so often, I realize that I don't necessarily see the world the way other people do, and that that is not always to my credit. Many of my blog posts assume the opposite, that I challenge conventional wisdom in a positive way (if only everyone would listen to me...).

Being out of step, though, cuts both ways. It can blind me to the natural perceptions of others. One such occurred to me when reading a blog post by Joe Posnanski (I've written previously of Posnanski, most recently this past Saturday; he is a perceptive writer, and a fellow modern enough to use computers to analyze baseball). He was writing humorously about a trip with his family, then this:
We are the Jetsons. Map navigation systems in cars and telephones the size of baseball cards that play movies and cars that tell you when someone is calling and allow you to talk to them as if they’re sitting in the back seat. It isn’t just that none of these things existed a few years ago. None of them even seemed remotely possible. None of them even seemed like an invention you could dream about. I know I’ve written here before, but when I was 12 years old, I was utterly convinced that everything that could be invented had been invented. I guess everyone is like that, but the logic was so clear to me. Someone invented a box that sound came out of — that was radio. Someone then invented a box that had sound and pictures, and that was television. Someone made the pictures on the box colorful, that was color TV. Thus ended the great era of invention. There were no worlds left ti conquer. It had all been done except, maybe, a flying car.

Now, these things — the Internet, bluetooth, handheld devices, the Amazon Kindle*, 24-hour banking, high def television, Tivo, the Slap Chop, iTunes, DVDs, the WII — these are all part of our daily lives. They are so intertwined in our daily lives that in many ways they lose their wonder, and it becomes hard to remember how we lived without them.
And I realized something, that, to most people, that is exactly how they apprehend the world. They believe that we are incredibly advanced, then, something new comes out and they goggle at it anew.

That is 180ยบ away from how I look at the world. Maybe it's because I've worked in technology most of my adult life, maybe it's because I read a lot of science fiction and science fact when I was a kid, but most new things that come out are pretty much expected to me. New concepts in science impress me (still not sure how Einstein did what he did), but the engineering that grows from that science is fairly natural.

People have been writing about Internet-type networks for decades. Geosynchronous satellites were first proposed in the 1920s, and Arthur C. Clarke wrote about them in the '40s, so GPS systems are not so much, "How do they do that?" as "What took them so long?" (Clarke also wrote, famously, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," which probably is a far better summary of what I mean than this blog post.)

I, and I would guess others who work in technological fields, despair at the lack of progress we've made, the low level of engineering that's actually been done. I look at Twitter or Facebook, which are what I would call "dummy apps" (not for their impact, and social innovation is important, but for their low level of technical complexity), and am impressed only with certain data storage implementation details; as computer applications they are remarkably simple.

Yet others look at Twitter or Facebook as incredible pieces of technology, as advanced science making its way into the workaday world. This is something that technically-oriented people (well, me) need to remember as they design things and talk about things.

Pre-publication update: I wrote the foregoing, then put it aside to ruminate a bit. While wandering about, I came a post from today by Hank Williams (welcome back to the blogging world, Hank). In one of those examples of synchronicity, he wrote about these same things, and probably did so better than I:
I have often lamented the short term focus of those of us who create products and services based on bits and bytes. The last decade has, in many respects, been depressing to me. The internet did a great thing in that it made all kinds of services accessible to more people. But it also redefined what "technology" means. Today, a web page is considered tech. And so, Alltop, or Digg or Blahgirls, are considered technology. This kind of stuff, which may have merit, muddies the waters, when it is stirred in the same pot with tools that require serious technical depth to create. The other thing that has happened is that an enormous amount of our focus and mindshare has moved to quasi-entertainment focused tools such as Twitter.
He laments our focus on the trivial, when technologists have the power to dig deep and do significant things:
And so as information technologists, what can we do about it? Well obviously we don't make food. But we may create a tool that helps farmers increase yield, or perhaps distribute more effectively. We can't build a new power grid, but perhaps we can develop a new modeling tool that helps develop insights into the most efficient way to organize such a grid. We will not, for the most part, be teachers, but perhaps we can develop software that helps increase the efficiency of learning.

The point is that we don't tend to solve the most important problems directly. But we can make it easier for those that are solving the problems to do so. We create tools that increase efficiency, and that indeed may make new more effective approaches possible.

And given that this is what we can do, this is what we must do.
He's so right, but there's no real roadmap as to how we might get there. Any accounting or inventory system has far more complexity than toys like Facebook, but venture capitalists aren't lining up to fund the former, much less power grid optimization software. We confuse the time something consumes with its significance, but the millions of hours a day people spend on Facebook is not creating much of anything (yes, there are the isolated examples of the Facebook group that raises money for something or other, but I'm talking net cost-benefit).

But this circles back to my original point: as long as people are amazed at the bells and whistles, it will be hard to get them to focus on the ways technology might be used to take on bigger challenges. And it will be hard to make a living in doing so until someone is convinced of that.

1 comment:

Hank Williams said...

Thanks for the reference and for your warm welcome home!

I certainly do not think that we can get most people to focus on the most important things. But if I can with my small voice convince one person to do something more meaningful I will consider the discussion a success.

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