I’ve wanted to get some serious and hopefully thoughtful posts done and somehow just haven’t gotten to it yet so at least I’ll reveal my plan for a plan.
By sheer coincidence the very day I decide to get serious about writing I happen to see the Frontline, digital_nation. Since I have a personal connection to some of this it caught my attention. It’s not like this is a novel issue for me, having been involved with computers for 56 years (kiddies, bet you didn’t even know they went back that far, didn’t it just start with iPhone?, or the Mac? invented by Bill Gates and Steve Jobs?). But, seeing digital_nation talk about fast pace of technology and simultaneous talk of Blackberries just struck me as terribly amusing, how old was this show!? (about 2 years, apparently electrons slow down as they enter flyover states). That got me doing a little background.
One of the people frequently interviewed in the program was Dr. Sherry Turkle, using the term ‘teacher’ at MIT (I never recall anyone calling themselves ‘teacher’ in the 60s, perhaps a more gentile age, so that tickled my curiosity). Probably everyone, who discusses this topic, except me knows Dr. Turkle, at least from TED and elsewhere, so as I often do, just as described in digital_nation as one of the wired phenomenon I’m off on a instant hunt to see what I can learn about her and her ideas.
Entirely coincidentally I’m trying to figure out some technoissue in WordPress and I stumble across a blog and get introduced to another scientist, Dr. Tracy Dennis, who is also asking some of the same questions and somewhat delicately suggested that while Dr. Turkle has many interesting idea, some actual experimental data could be useful to raise the ideas from insightful opinion to actual provable conclusions, something as a skeptic I highly endorse.
I’m sure there is lots of other discussion about this topic I have stumbled across but I find it an interesting coincidence this is where I would happen to start my writing. And by start, I really mean an up-to-date examination, since this bigger question, impact of computers (or technology), good and bad, has been something I have been around and actively involved in for nearly 60 years. But the impact of computers and the impact of wired are way different. Now ‘wired’ is not exactly new to me since I did a term paper in 1972! on the Arpanet, but I don’t think anyone then could have imagined what wired would be in 2012. The single biggest unexpected thing is not the technology (ever heard of Dynabook, finally Apple built it 40 years after it was conceived, so iPhone doesn’t knock my socks off), but the widespread proliferation. Even though decrease in price was (somewhat) predictable such massive adoption was not, that even three year old kids would be connected.
Which is why what these two scientists are talking about is much different than this same general discussion I’ve had many times in the past. They’re talking about how the technology, now ominpresent and available to even the youngest human beings, still growing, is actually changing the brains of human beings themselves, during development, not just another tool to go faster or get more power, but actually biologically changing our synapses. Now that’s interesting!
Of course I know nothing about this (other some basic neurology, a little neurochemisty, and a tiny and confused bit of psychology) but that won’t stop me from putting in my two cents since the joy of my blog is that no one reads it and therefore I won’t look like a fool when someone who really knows what they’re talking about sees the mistakes I make.
In closing (and for me, if you haven’t seen by now, my closing means five more paragraphs) I actually want to record something I experienced.
There was a bit of an urban legend that some peoples of the Los Alamos team thought the first test nuke might incinerate the atmosphere. Since killing all of life on this planet is a serious enough mistake to make the idea was explored a bit and a upper bound probability was placed on this event. Later when the Arpanet was first being considered, given that it actually used some of the same physical phone lines as our defense systems did (it really was ARPA then, not DARPA as now, but still the same DoD), some people evaluated the “safety” of the Arpanet as to whether some software bug could somehow cross-connect into other DoD systems and launch a nuclear attack (later the source idea of several movies). And the third bit I lived through a quite interesting debate where the U.S. declined to enter the race to build SST (Super Sonic Transport) and given the demise of the Concorde we seem to have made the right decision.
The SST debate overwhelmed Congress, primarily because they heard scientists, instead of unified, on all sides of the debate. Back then, Congress had some intellectual integrity and so it thought it needed expert help to get all the information, sift through it, and give an honest unbiased assessment, the consequence of which was the idea of, OTA, The Office of Technology Assessment (I don’t think this exists anymore and right now don’t want to do yet another digression and go look it up). So a friend of mine, a grad student at Stanford and another recent Cambridge-to-Palo Alto refugee, had some contract work with some larger group where the first job of the OTA was to assess itself, asking the basic question, “Is Technology Assessment Even Possible?” I have no idea what the outcome was (lost touch with that friend) but I thought the question, hopefully answered in the affirmative, and then the OTA would exist (useful instead of some money-wasting new bunch of grants to consultants).
The basic sense I have about the questions Dr. Turkle and Dr. Dennis are asking is there are exactly what that OTA was supposed to do. Before we go out and try something that might have huge and possibly seriously awful consequences let’s ask ourselves if we should do it, as best we can. We can’t be Luddites and just oppose any new technology, but a reasonable person will also recognize that not every new technology has worked out so well (e.g. nuclear power, now even using fossil fuels). But Apple’s shareholders were way too impatient for that (plus as a developer myself I know how eager the team was, to push as fast as they could to change the world). So we launch a potentially huge impact new technology with hardly any thought other than: what is the marketing plan and how can Steve do his famous “one more thing”. (And yes, I know it’s not just about the iPhone, yes, Blackberry preceded it, but I’d still pin the “start” of this new era on the iPhone, since it is what brought this to the masses and with Jobs’ flair caught the public’s imagination)
So to conclude, when my friend was doing his assessment of technology assessment itself, they chose a simple historical precedent. They posed the hypothetical question, using the tools and methods they expected to use in OTA: how well would these have done on a historical technology, namely, the discovery of distillation of alcohol. Now alcohol goes back very far in history, but the low concentrations in naturally produced beverages plus the relatively high cost kept alcohol abuse to a low level. But cheap and concentrated alcohol from distillation technology was a whole different thing. Until distilled spirits, amazingly, people only sorta understood about getting altered by alcohol and suddenly drunkenness, and all its adverse consequences (even without yet having encountered habitual alcoholism) was wrecking a lot of society. The conclusion, IIRC, was that an OTA could not have predicted many, maybe even any, of the adverse effects of distilled alcohol.
If I hadn’t actually seen the Frontline, then done my preliminary scans of the usual data sources, and accidentally discovered Dr. Dennis’ blog, I might have just passed over this issue, thinking it was just the same as the complaint my mother had when I took a job with the first-ever, for-profit Net company whose goal was to put news on the Net (not the goal to kill newspapers, but actually make them more money with another channel of distribution). My mother complained she liked the feel of newsprint and the smell of ink and I was going to ruin that and I dismissed that as the usual oldster anti-technology. I didn’t predict that “free” news (i.e. ad stuff) would, in fact, blow up my paid-news company, and later the newspapers themselves. The consequence of that is not some quaint nostalgia for old technology, or lost profits in a dying industry; the consequence is now anything passes for news: fact, fiction, pure made-up lies, campaign pitches by Fox. Without some sort of professional gatekeepers (i.e. actual journalists with actual degrees, you know, one of those “elites” everyone hates today) all news becomes equal which means most news is false, no one really gets informed, everyone makes decisions out of ignorance. And the effect of that is profound! And if a bunch of children end up with differently wired brains as a consequence of this technology, that is profound and certainly worthy of study and attention.
So I hope to think about his so more and write from the one perspective I do claim, some historical sense of impact of digital technology, while the real professionals, Drs. Turkle and Dennis, hopefully, will do the real heavy lifting of some serious science.