The interface time.
Back a long, long time ago, human beings—or what passed for human beings back then—communicated like many other animals with gestures and calls of one sort or another. It is important for animals that live in packs to be able to communicate with each other. In order for birds to fly in a flock, they have to communicate to each other exactly where they are going when they wheel around. The same applies to a school of fish. Primates signal to each other when predators are about. They use one kind of alarm call for eagles and another for predators such as tigers that stalk at ground level. Researchers have amused themselves for years by recording these sounds and playing them back in the wild. All the monkeys look up in unison when the eagle call is played. They all look down when they hear the call that means there is a tiger lurking about.
It is thought that for hundreds of thousands of years, early forms of humans had no more elaborate way of communicating information than by some sort of call or signal. Consequently, life was more or less unchanging over that long period of time. Think about that for a moment. Most of us think the world that we know started a few thousand years ago. It is hard for us to get our heads around the idea that modern man existed long before recorded history. But the history of our species is probably a hundred times longer than that.
It is hard to imagine how things must have been for those thousands of years and thousands of generations before language developed. Life had a sameness from one era to the next. If some individual figured out how to do something new, he could teach it to someone else, perhaps, by example, but there was no memory that extended past one or two generations. So no one learned how to do complicated things. Everyone could learn by watching someone else how to make an arrowhead or a spear, or how to start a fire, but they could not learn what had happened when someone came back from the other side of the hill with a bloody nose and a black eye. Certainly, there was no way to learn the best time to plant something—assuming they wanted to plant something, which they didn’t. Agriculture got started much later and would never have started at all if language hadn’t developed first. People could not communicate complicated things without talking to each other. Because they could not talk, they could not plan.
But then language came along. Some people think it came along slowly and some people think it came all at once. But it did come—and that made human beings different from everyone else on the planet.
Language was the first big step in the information age
Ideas could be communicated, and remembered, and improved on. People living at the edge of town could keep track of everything that went on for miles around. People learned complicated skills from their parents and other specialists—how to make pots, and houses, and wagons. People could even talk to their dogs, who decided to join up with them. Truly brilliant writers like Homer, could tell long complicated stories, even though they couldn’t write.
But most people did not have as good a memory as Homer; so they forgot certain important things. Among the very important things they tended to forget was how much money one guy owed another when he bought some land from the other person in order to plant and grow something to eat. Without written records nobody could prove anything. Some people pretended to forget, if they thought they could get away with it. So writing was invented.
Writing was the second big invention of the information age.
When writing was invented, it became possible to learn things from people you never met. And there were more and more things to learn. A really bright person could discover something, or invent something, and that information could last forever. Anyone could learn anything! If he knew how to read, and if he could find a book. It took a very long time to write things down, though, and practically no one except someone who was very rich could afford to own a book. So, people did not know where to go if they wanted to learn something. They didn’t know enough about anything to know if they wanted to know something in the first place. There were very few educated people. So mechanical printing was invented.
The printing press was the third big invention of the information age.
In the middle ages, the bible was very popular; but it took forever to copy a bible. Only a few monasteries had bibles, and they were all written in the wrong language that practically nobody could read—even if they knew how to read. But if you built a machine where you could move the same letters around, you could print an entire page all at once. And if you did it again, it looked exactly the same way—if you did it right. And now it was so inexpensive, you could print bibles in languages that lots of people could read—with the result that religious individuals got into arguments about what the bible was really saying. And there were wars. But there probably would have been wars anyway. There have always been wars.
It was possible during this time for an educated person (usually a man) to learn everything that there was to know! All you had to do was read all the books. (There were still not very many of them.) Educated people began to pop up everywhere. And the more information the more people had, the faster things began to change and get better. And it was hoped that if people learned something good about the people who lived in other faraway countries, by reading about them, there would be fewer wars. This turned out to be wrong.
Up until then, in order for somebody to learn something from someone else, you had to be in the same room talking to him, or you had to read a book he had written. But then, people learned how to communicate over long distances.
The telephone and the telegraph was the fourth big invention of the information age.
When the telephone and the telegraph were invented, there were millions of people alive. This was a coincidence; but it meant that there were more and more people willing to share information and invent things. This was the time of the industrial revolution when whole countries were covered in soot, and people started to get fat because they were sitting around instead of running after game. Also there was specialization. Someone who was a great physicist could talk to other physicists thousands of miles away. People collaborated. When they weren’t fighting wars. The amount of information in libraries and in other places was incredibly large. No one—no matter how well-educated—could learn a fraction of what there was to know. But now there were lots of small groups of people who knew everything there was to know about just a small number of things. But they really knew their stuff! Our knowledge of science advanced exponentially. Still, it has to be admitted, if one particular person wanted to learn one particular fact, he was up a tree because they was no good way of searching systematically for that fact. So the internet was invented—although the computer had to be invented first.
The internet was the fifth big invention of the information age.
The kinks are still getting worked out; but it is possible with the internet—in principle—for every person on the planet to have access to every bit (or byte) of information known to anyone, anywhere. All the books ever written are, or soon will be, accessible to anyone. You can look at a picture of any place on the planet (and also some very good pictures of other places: other planets, suns, nebulae, etc.) You can talk to anyone, even if they are walking down a street in Istanbul, or swimming in the ocean (so I am told.) But you still have to carry around a connection to the internet—a cell-phone, tricky glasses, or a bulky wrist watch. With just these few encumbrances, everyone has access to everything!
Perhaps you are one of those people who think that true progress should be measured along other dimensions: the ability to do more things with less energy– and the ability to find more and more sources of energy– or, the ability to change our environment by eliminating disease and lengthening our lives, or our ability to calculate everything faster and faster. And so on. I would suggest, though, that all such progress depends, first of all, on our ability to access more and more information.
Consider the story of Ramanujan.
Srinivasa Ramanujan was born in India in 1887. His life and mathematical work are too extraordinary to summarize in a few words. He had virtually no formal mathematical training until he was exposed to a book on trigonometry at the age of twelve. With no more stimulus than that, he became one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and contributed to our understanding of mathematics and physics too, even to this day, many years after his premature death. If one very young impoverished man can contribute so much to our understanding of the world with so little information at his disposal, how much more can the millions of Indians who are just now being exposed to the world of mathematics—contribute with the far greater information now available to each and every one of them? And to everyone else in the world? How quickly can we expect civilization to advance now that we have experienced this fifth big invention of the information age?
But there is still at least one more invention of the information age to come. We now have access to tremendous amounts of information—but not everything, and not with the prompt access that we want—and need. These are some of the things yet to come:
The interface will be the next big invention of the information age.
The interface, which is on the verge of being invented, is a bunch of sensors and signalers that can be placed in or on the body that will connect to the cloud so quickly, that it will seem that you already know everything you learn through the interface.
For example, right now if you want to visit a foreign country and communicate with some of the foreigners who live there, you can use a little box that will tell you the best way (more or less) to translate everything you want to say. Once you are hooked up to the interface, though, the words will resonate inside your head so fast you will think you can now speak that foreign language. And you can! Everybody will be able to communicate to everyone else in their own language.
Also, no one will lose anything anymore. If you lose your keys, you could just replay the last few hours, or few days—or few years—from the cloud where it has been stored. You can watch yourself leaving the keys on the side of the sink.
Also, you can have a fake eye put in the back of your head, so you can get 360 degrees of information all the time. The signal from the fake eye can be set to signal to your real eye or to a patch of skin that you are not using, and it will seem to you like you are looking out of the back of your head! If you attach yourself to special sensors, you can learn to appreciate subtle smells, like the smell of wallpaper or of what your dog ate a few minutes ago (turning the tables on your dog.) You can hear what the dog hears.
Also, your memory will get worse, but better too. I used to know what the date was before I got used to looking at the date on my watch. Now, I never know what the date is, except I look at my watch, so I always know what the date is. The same thing will happen with lots of things you have to memorize now, including the names of your friends. When you look at them through the interface, their name will light up discretely behind them. So, you will never bother to learn their names; but you will always know their names.
People will still be neurotic—but more so. A hypochondriac will not have to settle for taking his pulse or blood pressure every few minutes. He will be able to look inside his lungs and lymph nodes and get a feel for how the inside of his fingers are doing.
As usual, there will be a lot of things that will happen that no one can anticipate now. We will all know each other much better. But I think there will still be wars. (c) Fredric Neuman 2013