Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Pavlov Was A Piker

Technology has always been a shape-shifter, beginning in one form and morphing into something entirely unexpected. This is not necessarily evil—but new technologies do not always turn out as initially conceived by their inventors. Or as perceived by their users. Here are some prominent examples:

Johannes Gutenberg said of his printing press, “Through it, God will spread His Word. A spring of truth shall flow from it: like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine amongst men.”

Some ten years after the invention of the telephone, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (set in 2000) predicted a future where that device would provide homes access to music 24-hours a day. He wasn’t that original: in Europe, early telephones were sold as a means to listen to distant live performances, such as opera.

One of Edison’s most successful inventions was the phonograph, and he had some good suggestions for it: dictation, books for the blind, recording family members for posterity, and even a telephone answering machine.

Radio started out as wireless telegraphy. In a few decades, thanks to dozens of technological improvements, it was broadcasting voice and music. The wireless personal telegram became the public airwaves.

David Sarnoff, the pioneer of commercial television, said, “It is probable that television drama of high caliber and produced by first-rate artists will materially raise the level of dramatic taste of the nation.”

The military computers of World War II grew into the huge commercial computers of the 1950s. One leader in this nascent technology thought the world’s computer needs could be met with only five computers.

The first widespread network, invented by DARPA, connected the Department of Defense’s three main computers. The inventors of today’s Internet (a network of networks) thought it would connect distant university researchers, greatly enhancing collaborative science and scholarship. At the time, there were no personal computers.

The power and pervasiveness of our connected computers, and the rush to provide immeasurably more—so they can sell more—has succeeded beyond the dreams of any computer maker (or scientist or programmer). But there is a personal cost when we connect: our time. That use of our time, our very lives, is now interrupt-driven (a term from computing). The kingdom of the computer calls and we not only respond, we are conditioned to respond. And the result? Life interrupted.


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