Wednesday, October 05, 2005

On the Singularity and progress:

Over at Crooked Timber, John Quiggen notes:

This is part of a more general paradox, only partially recognised by the prophets of the Singularity. Those of us whose lives are centred on computers and the Internet have experienced recent decades as periods of unprecedently rapid technological advance. Yet outside this narrow sector the pace of technological change has slowed to a crawl, in some cases failing even to keep pace with growth in population. The average American spends more time in the car, just to cover the basic tasks of shopping and getting to work, than was needed a generation ago, and in many cases, travels more slowly.
Now, to be fair, this is partially due to other advances and changes; the average American spends more time in the car because she's travelling farther because she lives farther from the urban (or even suburban) core and/or shops at big box stores on the city outskirts.

That said, this is still largely true, and surprises the hell out of me. He's absolutely right: put aside computers' advancement for a moment, and the pace of progress has been surprisingly slow. While the computers may be baffling, much of what we do nowadays would be readily understandable to someone who lived thirty-to-forty years ago, whereas the changes between them and those who lived forty years before THEM were enormous.

(In fact, stretch it out to fifty years and it isn't much different- there are more continuities between our lives and those of people who lived in the 1950's than between those who lived in 1955 and those who lived in 1905.)

Economically, this can be a problem, as he also points out:

In the first case, the contribution of computer technology to economic growth gradually declines to zero, as computing services become an effectively free good, and the rest of the economy continues as usual. Since productivity growth outside the sectors affected by computers has been slowing down for decades, the likely outcome is something close to a stationary equilibrium for the economy as a whole.
He acknowledges that there may be additional economic benefits to "going digital" in sectors that aren't currently, but that just raises the question: which ones? what isn't digital now that could conceivably be and still mean anything? I mean, sure, we could have digital sink faucets and digital door openers or whatever, but I'm not convinced that we wouldn't see diminishing returns anyway, and it already feels like we've hit that point.

And, in fact, the best argument in favor of the "first case" mentioned above is cellularization: that is, the slow migration of computer functions to cell phones. A cell phone with some sort of keyboard-like interface is the logical end-point of modern consumer computing, and miniaturization is an inevitable goal when increasing consumer computing power is also facing diminishing returns; as attested to by the slowing progression of productivity applications and the migration of home computing to a terminal for downloading and playing back media, whether pirated or otherwise. When the "big things" right now are BitTorrent and iTunes, who needs a processor upgrade?

So what's the endpoint of this process? It's cell phones with the computing power of modern PCs (and not much more than that, because nobody seems to need it) Woo. Even the Internet boom seems to have petered out; blogs are (and always were) just personal webpages employing relatively simple automation tools. Other than the lack of annoying frames, there isn't that much difference between a webpage of 1998 and a blog of 2005. We've got better video compression methods and distribution tools; hardly a revolution.

Indeed, considering the tendency of uber-blogs like Daily Kos to turn into enormous discussion communities via endless "open threads", the difference grows smaller by the day.

The comment is made within the context of a review of Kurzweil's The Singularity, and the review is interesting, but I'm disappointed that Quiggan didn't go into why everything seems to have bogged down, because the question of "why" looms large here. There are lots of suspects: the decline of pure research and experimentation in favor of directed (and privatized) research that borders on simple engineering; the tyranny of bullshit patents bought up by companies with no intention to allow competition; the lack of wide-scope governmental technological innovation (and the attendant spinoff technologies) with the decline of NASA and the end of the cold war-although the latter is hardly a bad thing overall; even the pervasive lack of interest in the possibilities of science and technology in popular culture may have an impact.

I honestly don't know why the hell things have gone this way, but I do have to admit to a little bit of shame at having to look back on the dreams of the past about the present.

I keep thinking: is this it? Is this all? What the hell happened to us?

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