Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

The Unforeseen


Sixty years ago, no one saw this day coming. I know because I read all the science-fiction of that day. For the first ten years, computers were ridiculously huge, mind-numbingly slow, and incredibly expensive. By the new millenium, they were tiny, fast, and affordable. And ten years later, we throw away more computing power every day than existed in those first ten years.

The other unforeseen thing was the Internet. For the first twenty years, they were trying to connect computers but it was mostly experimental (and government supported). Today, average kids use smart phones to send text and photos to their friends—any where in the world—through the Internet. Back then, such a world was unimaginable.

The third thing that no one—not even Bucky Fuller who gave it a name: emphemeralization (look it up on Wikipedia)—saw was how fast it was coming. Sixty years sounds like (and is) a long time, but if you were watching, the speed at which it happened was unbelievable. It was even, as Vizzini said in The Princess Bride, inconceivable.

Where are these unforeseen events going? We, here in the US, think that because the smart phone and its worldwide connections appear ubiquitous, they must be everywhere, in the hands of everyone. Not so. First, such devices require high-speed connections but broadband access is less than 20% of the population worldwide. Second, even the cheapest smart phone is too expensive for many poor people. (Have you ever seen a homeless person with one? And homeless in America is still better off than being poor in a poor country.)

Where is all this headed? Clearly the cost of capable computer communication (like a smart phone or tablet), while dropping in price, will never be as cheap as, say, pencil and paper. And even if a country provided free cell phones (and service) to all its citizens, such devices would be minimal. So, even in that unlikely case, in that unlikely country, there would be still two classes of computer-connected citizens: the well-connected and the not-so-well-connected.

The answer to where it’s going is, where it’s always been. In computers and communication, as in our overall economic world, the middle-class is being pushed down into the lower class. The unmistakable trend—as it has been throughout most of human history—is for just two classes: those who have and those who have not. And it’s happening faster than anyone can foresee.

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