Thursday, March 03, 2011

The abandonment of technology

This article was originally posted on the O'Reilly Radar

Right now the Space Shuttle Discovery is in orbit for the last time, and docked with the International Space Station (ISS). On its return to Earth the orbiter will be decommissioned and displayed in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Just two more shuttle flights, Endeavour in mid-April, and Atlantis in late-June, are scheduled before the shuttle program is brought to and end.

Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola module of the International Space Station
Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola module of the International Space Station observing the Earth below during Expedition 24 in 2010.
(Credit: Expedition 24, NASA)

Toward the end of last year I came across an interesting post about the abandonment of technology by Cameron Locke. A couple of months later on I read an article by Kyle Munkittrick who argues that the future is behind us, or at least that our current visions of the future are outdated compared the current technology:

The year is 2010. America has been at war for the first decade of the 21st century and is recovering from the largest recession since the Great Depression. Air travel security uses full-body X-rays to detect weapons and bombs. The president, who is African-American, uses a wireless phone, which he keeps in his pocket, to communicate with his aides and cabinet members from anywhere in the world ... Video games can be controlled with nothing but gestures, voice commands and body movement. In the news, a rogue Australian cyberterrorist is wanted by world's largest governments and corporations for leaking secret information over the world wide web; spaceflight has been privatized by two major companies, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX.

I've been thinking about these two articles ever since, and Discovery's last flight brought these thoughts to the front of my mind. On the face of things the two posts espouse very different view points, however the underlying line of argument in both is very similar.

The future is already here and we may be standing at a crucial decision point in our history. Forces are pulling us in both directions. On one hand the rate of technological progress is clearly accelerating, on the other, the resources we have on hand to push that progress are diminishing at an ever-increasing rate. In a world of declining resources, and increasingly unreliable energy supply, you have to wonder whether our current deep economic recession is a sign of things to come. Will the next few decades be a time of economic contraction and an overall lower standard of living?

Big problems, unaddressed

At the 2008 Web 2.0 Expo, Tim O'Reilly argued that there are still big problems to solve and he asked people to go after the big, hard, problems.

And what are the best and the brightest working on? You have to ask yourself, are we working on the right things?

I think Tim was right, and I don't think much has changed in the last couple of years. I'm worried that we're chasing the wrong goals, we're not yet going after the big, hard, problems that Tim was talking about. Solving them might make all the difference.

While not all big problems are related to the space program by any means, the successful first launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket last December has given me some hope that some of our best and brightest aren't just throwing sheep at one another or selling plush toys.

Despite this, I see signs of a growth in pseudo-science, and an inability of even the educated middle classes to be able to tell the difference between it and more trustworthy scientific undertakings. There is also a worrying smugness, almost pride, among many people that they "just don't understand computers." While some of us are pushing the boundaries, it appears we may be leaving others behind.

We abandoned the moon, then faster flight. What's next?

The fastest westbound trans-atlantic flight from London Heathrow to New York JFK was on the 7th of February 1996, by a BA Concorde. It made the journey in just under 3 hours. Depending on conditions, the flight typically takes between 7 and 8 hours on a normal airplane. As a regular on the LHR to SFO and LAX routes, I spend a lot of time unemployed over Greenland. I do sometimes wish it was otherwise.

A few weeks ago I watched an Airbus A380 taxi toward take-off at Heathrow, and I felt a deep sense of shame that as a species we'd traded a thing of aeronautical beauty for this lumbering giant. Despite the obvious technical achievement, it feels like a step backwards.

I'm young enough, if only just, that I don't remember the Moon landings. However when I was a child my father told me about how, as a younger man, he had avidly watched the broadcast of the Moon landings, and I have a friend whose father was in Mission Control with a much closer view. In the same way I can tell my son that we once were able to cross the Atlantic in just 3 hours, and that once it was possible to arrive in New York before you left London. I do wonder if things go the wrong way — and we enter an age of declining possibilities and narrowing horizons — whether he'll believe me.


  1. So what are the "big, hard problems"? (according to you, or Tim O'Reilly?) Discuss! :-)

  2. I won't speak for Tim, as I'm sure his opinion on what are the hard problems has changed as much as mine over the last couple of years. To me the next big revolution in the way we, at least in the first world, live is ambient computing. Reducing computing interfaces down to their essential function, and moving away from general computing devices. There are problems, and opportunities, there to keep plenty of people busy.

    However personally at least what I see as the hard problems are the ones I talked about in the article, our last frontier. If we are to avoid narrowing horizons we need to push outwards, and I think we really only have the next fifty or a hundred years to do that, before not doing it means that we loose the chance entirely. It worries me, that the entire species hangs on such a slender branch as a single ball of earth.

    Although other people will have different opinions about what's important, that's just fine with me. I think what I'm trying to get across is that people should look carefully at what they're doing. If you're not attempting to solve a big problem, why aren't you? At the very least you need to be looking at interesting ones, if what you're doing isn't interesting you, you need to do something else...

  3. When he looks back at me, his eyes travel around my face the way fingers dart through the bottom of a drawer, searching for batteries in a blackout.

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