Friday, December 29, 2006

Reality Check

Reality check. I haven't heard the phrase for years. It's gone out of style in this age where politicos aver "We are creating a new reality". But now at the New Year's, it seems a good time to check reality and to make sure it's still there.

Here is a sidelong glance at two very real trends.

For the last 40 years and for the forseeable future, the cost of transistors is halving every two years. This may be the most powerful force affecting the world today.

This interesting principle is called Moore's Law. It says that today's computers can do twice as much for the money as computers did two years ago. Telephones also. It costs less and less to send data.

As the time it takes to finish a job decreases, the quantity of computing can increase. One can do more here, more there. One can do it ever more cheaply. On and on into the future.

This perpetual increase in quantity permits a continuing improvement in the quality of computing. My freeware Firefox browser, for instance, recently acquired the ability to put individual sessions in tabs. Each Firefox icon at the bottom of the screen now can have many sessions going. My computer performs ever more complex tasks.

The increase in computing quality touches us in many ways. It has given us a "mute" button for television that puts the text of what is being said on the screen. It has given us automobile maps on computer screens that know where we are. It has given us cellphone cameras that can capture police misbehavior. It has given us YouTube. It has given us wearable RFID tags.

What kind of future will this endless increase in computing quality create?

We will be known. The border to our private self will be ever more tightly defined, our secrets held ever more closely. Our public self will become our icon.

We will never know for sure what is known about us. We may make laws requiring the government to tell us anything it knows about us. We cannot guarantee that someone, somewhere, is not building his own database about us, someone terribly deranged.

Invisibility is not an option.

Governments and corporations will be allowed fewer and fewer secrets. The capabilities of the press for oversight and auditing will double every two years.

The cost of learning any particular thing will become trivial. Education will become free.

As civilization is skewered on this spike of perpetual info systems growth, it is about to be roasted in the sunstorm of global warming. Chicago will become the new Rio, Hudson's Bay will become a summer destination, and large numbers of people will die as the ocean rises.

Some island homes have already been lost.

Intercept the info trend with the labor market. People who can think well seem to make increasingly better money. Stoop labor remains oversupplied. Intercept it with romance. If you marry someone smarter than you, your kids will be better able to support you in your old age.

Intercept the info trend with government. Words like "accountability" and "transparency" begin to echo down the marble hallways. "Cost-benefit analysis" can't be far behind. Meritocracy may soon be ours.

Intercept the info trend with global warming. As it gets hotter and hotter, we will know more and more about it.

Intercept global warming with the real estate market. Buy real estate in Duluth.


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