Sunday, June 10, 2012

Garbage in - Garbage Out

iSoleThe next 'step'?  
Because of my age (late forties), I am comfortable with being an owner and end user of technology.  But because of my age (yes, still late forties) I am also all-too-aware how amazing this modern technology actually is.  I do not take it for granted.  Those of my age group can easily hearken back to staring goggle eyed at their first colour TV and remember their indescribable delight at something revolutionary called ‘Cablevision’, where you could see programs ‘from the States’.  Those who grew up on farms will nostalgically describe the sense of luxury they experienced when their first dedicated phone line was installed, replacing the now archaic and baffling ‘party line’.  For young readers, a party line broadcast everyone’s conversations through a multi-home circuit – but you only picked up when you heard your unique ring, for example two short rings followed by one long one.  If you wished to place a call but your neighbour was already on the blower you would hear his conversation, and have to wait your turn to make a call.  Is it any wonder that phone calls were short, made only if absolutely necessary, performed with caution and discretion -- and anyone under the age of 14 had to ask permission to make one?  If your Grandparents show impatience with your incessant texting please take this information into account before rolling your eyes at them.

There also was a time when a youngster who professed an interest in or knowledge of so-called ‘computers’ was considered very bright.  Automatically.  Most parents shook their heads in wonder and most peers whispered things like, ‘Wow….Kevin is very smart…’  Computers had that kind of cachet in the 60s & 70s.  As far as most adults were concerned computers were a mystical implement, towering and awesome, simultaneously dehumanizing and utopian, possessing of unknown powers, with unlimited potential for both good and evil.  They often spoke darkly of its evil aspects, or at least its most frustrating ones.   

I recall the absurdly over-optimistic predictions that ‘by 1984 every home will have a robot.’  I also remember my Dad’s snort when I reported this little nugget.  He would have been happy simply to have a kid who got his nerdy nose out of a book to mow the damn lawn once & a while. 

Ron Evans with DSKY - Apollo 17 -- 1972
But this nerd, not interested in the programming nuts & bolts of ‘Nouns & Verbs on the DSKY’, was nevertheless highly impressed with the idea that the aforementioned DSKY could master the complexities of rocket launch, orbital insertion & mechanics, celestial navigation, lunar landing and a safe return home.  These amazing feats of science and technology were accomplished through use of the first integrated circuits (ICs), without which Apollo’s moon landings, beginning in July 1969, would not have been possible.  These ICs were, by 1976, commercially available as the brain that powered the amazing Texas Instruments TI-30 scientific calculator -- a cheap but very effective plastic gadget that single-handedly put the slide rule out to pasture.  Though it could do remarkable things like square roots and trigonometry it was most often employed at my Junior High School to generate words like ‘SHELLOIL’ if you punched in ‘71077345’ and turned the display upside down.  We kids just saw them as great toys rather than remarkable scientific tools; we were too young and too easily amused to understand that computer programmers with Ph.Ds expended vast amounts of sweat and spent their entire careers trying to build a better, more useful gadget mostly by ferreting out useless, redundant or glitchy code.  All this so that we could, in turn, spell stupid words with their life's work. 

As we learn from ‘’, Scientist and Educator Michio Kaku writes that a singing birthday card that you buy at the drugstore has more computing power in its cheap, disposable chip than all the Allied Forces could muster in 1945.  Your teenager’s iPhone contains more computing power than everything NASA had in 1969.  This to me is utterly mind-boggling and maddening especially when we see what mundane uses our remarkable technological instruments are used for today, by ourselves and our kids…Very suddenly, I begin to feel like a crusty old curmudgeon.  Am I alone here?  I did a bit of research and found others who hold similar opinions, people like the aforementioned’s Dylan Tweney, who wrote a brilliant article on this and other tech issues and was one of the inspirations for this essay.  ( ) 

I quote him here:
“….Of course, the Allied forces used their computing power to decrypt Enigma and defeat the Nazis, while your greeting card is playing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” And in 1969 NASA was using its computers to put a man on the effing moon, while your smartphone gets used primarily to post updates to Twitter..." 

Television to this day holds the potential to educate and inspire humanity yet still manages to focus mostly on subjects like the dim-witted travails of the Kardashians; in a similar way computer technology often falls short.  Yes, we have CT Scans but we also have millions of people playing Angry Birds when they could be having a constructive conversation. 
CT Scanner, not USS Enterprise
Perhaps that conversation could be about how we might make do without our gadgets should there be a flood, a power failure, an earthquake or god forbid a war.  Yes, I am guilty of spelling SHELLOIL on a TI-30 when I should have been doing Trig, but I am not so dependent on my mobile phone that I can't remember my parents' phone number without speed dial.  At the risk of sounding depressingly old fashioned, we would all do well to consider our remarkable tech gadgets not as our ‘handheld brains’ but rather as tools to augment the power of the one we were born with. 



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