Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are We Here Yet?

If I were required to pick one overarching theme for America, I would perhaps suggest that it is the elimination of the difference between "here" and "there". The difference is not just physical, but metaphorical as well. The pathways and networks we have created have gone from canals and roads, highways, rails, and rivers, to wires and fibers, airwaves, and spectra.

We are told that these have aided the democratic process, either through enhancing our freedom of movement, or by expressing ourselves through near instantaneous communications. I'm not so sure. I've always felt that progress had a Newtonian component to it - that for each action there was an equal and opposite reaction. That for each obvious gain, there was a oftentimes subtle corresponding loss. Although usually this loss was in a sideways or lateral direction, as movements within the sphere of social direction are, but eventually it was felt and noticed, and occasionally lamented.

Take the automobile, the popular use of which is less than a century old. For all the freedom and convenience it has brought us, it has also brought congestion, pollution, urban sprawl, and possibly even a fundamental alteration of lifestyle through climate change and dependence upon oil from hostile regimes. 

Take the railroad, without which the entire system of mass production could not have occurred. There is no doubt that this system has resulted in prosperity and a more egalitarian standard of living regardless of social standing. Getting goods to market, in large quantity, to places that canals and rivers and trails could not easily reach has produced a change to our economy of near geological proportions. And yet railroads also gave us the curse of  the modern corporation, organizations so large they rivaled sovereign nations in power, and rivaled governments in terms of bureaucratic incompetence and indifference. Not to mention railroads helped to usher in the age of consumerism, mass consumption and planned obsolescence.

The telegraph, telephone, radio and television, the network of computers have shrunk the distance between individuals, strengthened the links from person to person. I am still amazed, today at what a monumental change the telegraph was. It is hard to imagine the impact. News and information which took days, weeks, even months to travel took suddenly mere seconds. The modern day equivalent would be nothing short of teleportation - to travel to any spot in the world and arrive in just moments as opposed to hours or days.

There certainly has been a  leveling of the playing field with regards to access of information. There was a time when facts and figures were held by the privileged few, jealously guarded and hoarded, and information parceled out only sparingly and miserly. Now, anyone with a smartphone and a university of google degree can look like an intellectual. 

There are moral hazards to this wired world, however. Flash traders, those companies with the fastest networks and the hottest supercomputers, with advanced financial models, can profit from a timing difference in  just milliseconds. And people may have any fact and figure to hand, but not the slightest idea of how to connect them, or how to act wisely with this information.

In short, we as individuals, despite being empowered and enhanced by space and time destroying technology, are also shackled and diminished by it. Despite the elimination of distance and duration, we are still here. 

As the saying goes "No matter where you go, there you are". I guess we need to be more mindful of that.

1 comment:

  1. You know, I have basically stopped listening to or reading the news. what good does it do me to hear about all the terrible things that happen across the globe. It's not like I can do anything about it, to help comfort those in need. Yes, yes, I know I can support international relief funds but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about my sphere of influence, my physical place in the world.