Sunday, August 21, 2011

People just don't get computers.

Technology changes orders of magnitude faster than the people who use it do. The creative geniuses see a technology and quickly realize that if it were widely adopted, it will change the world entirely. Unfortunately, most people aren't really too creative and tend to use technology to do stuff they always did before. Computers are an excellent example of this, but it is the tendency of people to misunderstand science and technology that is actually quite more troubling to me.

Taking the example of computers: these devices have always had the ability to do social networking, even back in the 80's when the internet was just a few universities and government buildings connected together, there was Usenet -- the original facebook. Though the peer-to-peer nature of how Usenet works is quite different from cloud computing nature Facebook, the way it was used is quite similar to Facebook today, even for playing social games. But all throughout the 80's, computers were seen by the general public as specialized technology for certain applications. Businesses quickly realized how they could reduce costs by an order of magnitude using digital information to store records, instead of paper. For the sake of efficiency, computers were necessary and therefore profitable.

As technology improved, it transpired that computers would exist in every household. Still throughout the 90's, people were using their computers to do things that paper and pens did just as well: calendars, address books, phone books, dictionaries, mail, word processing. These were all separate "things", often sold as individual software packages that you bought at the store in boxes and with printed manuals and you had to install them onto the computer before you could use them. It rightly seems silly today that people actually thought of software as stuff that came in boxes. But had it not been for this business model, computers would not have been profitable as household appliances.

It took an entire generation of time, more than twenty years. But now, the kids who were born into households with the personal computer as an ever-present utility have grown up and become consumers of social networking, making it a profitable enterprise. Technology continued to improve, but now people are smarter as well. Now, calendars, address books, phone books, and dictionaries, mail, and word processing, aren't necessarily separate "things" that are all packaged and installed separately, rather they are built into the fabric of the larger application of the social network.

The idea of "Apps" is still frustratingly similar to the idea of buying software in boxes, but at least now you are getting them over the Internet. Hopefully someday, the idea of apps will disappear too, and people will stop thinking of software as "units" of stuff you pay for that can only do one thing, and start to see only tools that they can piece together like Lego blocks to do whatever they want. People in the computer industry already see software in this way, but this is still way beyond the ordinary consumer. It may take another thirty years for this to change.

Finally people realize that the old way of doing things, keeping appointments in a scheduling book, addresses in an address book, and so on, these things are no longer necessary because of computers and the Internet, and the new way of doing things is called "Social Networking". The original designers of the Internet knew about this back in the 80's. Thirty years later, what those visionaries knew then has become common knowledge now. But between then and now, people were using computers in completely the wrong way -- as a digital analogue to pen-and-paper technology. People are still using computers in the wrong way, but people are slow learners.

Its like giving a primitive man a hunting rifle. The fact that it can shoot bullets is amusing and he understands that, theoretically, shooting bullets may be useful to him, but he would rather use it as a club to kill his pig for dinner.

Of course, technology doesn't stop at social networking. Several technologies are poised to become the next world-changing technology. My bet is that Artificial intelligence (AI) is potentially the next big thing Another possibility is human genetic engineering: the ability for humans to change the genes of their children to be born with certain abilities -- perhaps in the future we will have people so smart, that electronic computers of any kind will be useless, no matter how fast or futuristic they become.

AI already exists, but no one really knows what it is or what it can do. Right now, AI is used for improving social networks. Like the early adopters of computer technology, they see it only as a way to improve efficiency. It will take generations, at least 30 years, before AI becomes a household utility, and at least 60 before people start to use it correctly, rather than as merely an analogue to the things they do in daily life.

Its funny to realize that the pace of technological progress could be much faster if everyone realized how important or life-changing a technology could be as soon as it were made available to them. But technology is always going to be severely limited by people's ability to understand it and how to use it, and consequently whether or not it is a profitable technology. I have to admit to myself that I didn't fully understand what computers could do until after I had started graduate school, I was also trapped in the old paradigm.

Fortunately there are the sciences which are studied for their own sake by the people who understand it most, not intended to be consumable. That's not to say scientists shouldn't make an effort to help ordinary people understand their work, they should do that. But its nice to have a branch of knowledge excused from the burdensome requirements of profitability and usefulness.

And once, finally, a science is understood well enough by non-scientists to turn it into a technology, that science will be invaluable knowledge to us then. To think, we are already 60 years after Alan Turing and John Von Neuman's earliest designs for their computers.

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