"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Chesterton on my previous post

It’s not at all unusual for me to come up with a point that I find quite witty and profound only to recall a bit later that Chesterton made the same point a century ago.  Such is what happened with yesterday’s post concerning how the technology that seems to be just around the corner often turns out to belong to the past.

We, who have lived long enough to understand the real value of life, know perfectly well that nothing of that sort has ever come to stay.  It may do all sorts of other things; but there is one thing that it cannot do; and that is to stay.  We shall show no irritation, please God, on being repeatedly introduced to the Hat of the Future and the Umbrella of the New Age and the Goloshes of the Good Time Coming.  But the only thing we really have learnt from life is that the good time will be going as well as coming, and that, in the book of fashions, the Hat of the Future will be recorded as the Hat of the Past.  It is now the custom to condemn youth as too frivolous.  But youth is always serious; and just now it is too serious about frivolity.

– G. K. Chesterton, Come to Think of It

The past’s future

I just read an article in the New Yorker about Jaron Lanier, whose book You are Not a Gadget is making some mid-sized waves in the world of ideas.  In the interests of full disclosure, I haven’t read the book, but I have read similar things such as The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.  The point of both books is to examine how the internet is reshaping our society and our individual lives.  As you might guess from the titles, neither author is much impressed by it.  They point to a number of problems: shorter attention spans, less memory, the anti-intellectual tendencies of Wikipedia.

But while Carr is mostly intent on ticking off problems, Lanier has a multi-faceted approach.  He’s at pains to not appear anti-technology overall, and he has the credentials to back it up.  He was actually a pioneer in engineering many high-tech gadgets and gizmos.  One of these is virtual reality.

And what, I hear the under-20 set asking, is virtual reality?  Well, there’s the thing.  Back in the recent past, virtual reality was a new fad that was supposed to sweep the world in the near future.  The basic idea is that you put on a special helmet and gloves, so that from the outside you look like this:

Inside the helmet are two screens right in front of your eyes.  The helmet and the gloves both have sensors, and the purpose of it all is to let you inhabit an immersive three-dimensional world, including the possibility of you moving around in it.

When I was about eight or nine, all the kids’ science magazines were full of articles about the soon-to-arrive greatness of virtual reality.  It never arrived in a commercial viable way, and the New Yorker article explains why.  The helmet was too clunky, the sensors and the software didn’t work fast enough, and the lag time made the whole experience unconvincing.  The whole thing is just a reminder of the fact that while we love to make predictions about technology, most of them simply don’t come true.  Which of the current trends won’t play out as they’re expected?  I don’t know, but I’m betting that it’s going to be most of them.

Technology is cool

We live in a time of rapid technological change.  The fact is so obvious that many of us fail to notice it most of the time.  But even if we’re dimly aware that new technologies are becoming available all the time, we generally don’t notice the most useful and advantageous aspects of those technologies.

Case in point: if you’re twenty-five or older. you may remember these:

For the young ‘uns, let me explain.  This is a five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disk.  In the 1980’s and early 1990’s most computers did not have hard drives.  If you wanted to store your data, you stored it on one of these.  Each one held 360 kilobytes of data.  It was called a floppy disk for  a reason.  The material was not stiff, but bent easily.  If you bent it too much, you destroyed the disk and lost the data.  If you touched the film, you destroyed the disk and lost your data.  If you got it wet, or brought a magnet close to it, or let it get too hot or too cold, you lost your data.

Eventually, they were replaced by these:

Three-and-a-half inch disks were stiffer, more durable, and held 1.44 megabytes of data.  However, they could still be damaged.

Nowadays, thankfully, we have flash drives.  A flash drive holds thousands of times as much data as a floppy disk, and has other advantages as well, as I just found out this past week.  On Tuesday I carelessly left my flash drive in my pants pocket, put the pants into the dirty laundry pile, and put the pile into the wash.  The pants, with the flash drive still in the pocket, spun around the washing machine for about half an hour while being immersed in hot and then cold soapy water.  Afterwards I took the pants out and hung them up to dry.

On Thursday I suddenly noted that the flash drive was missing.  I searched frantically until I found it in my pants pockets, at which point I took it out and connected it to my laptop.  The flash drive still worked and, as far as I can tell, all of my files are intact.  Now that’s what I call advanced technology.

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