McLuhan, 100 years ago…Friday, July 20th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco
I spent the morning in an event closing the 100 years since the birth of Mc Luhan (he was born on July 21st, 1911) and I presented some thoughts on the impact of technology in our life. I wish to share them on this blog as well.
Technology has become a sort of metronome pacing the rhythm of our life and shaping our habits. In a way it has always been the case but in these last hundred years its continuous and quick evolution has influenced even more social changes and emphasized even more the gap among generations.
It has been estimated that the amount of information produced by human kind since Homo Habilis over a million hers ago and 2003 could be stored in 5EB, 5 billion billion bytes. Well, in 2010, we have produced 5EB every 2 days and the forecast is that next year, in 2013, we will be producing 5EB every 10 minutes.
This is made possible by technology but it really happens because each of us has internalized technology that now has become a sort of prosthetics for our communication capabilities. These EB are by far the result of the production and communications of each one of us, taken all together. The magic of Internet is the capability to transform that individual local communications into a global communications.
All of this happens in background. As a matter of fact each of us think to perceive technology but we perceive technology evolution, sometimes with awe sometimes with concern. Most of the time we use technology without perceiving it. And this is the technology that really impacts our Society and our life because it has become entrenched in our way of living, is an integral part of our context.
That is why technologies like the conversion of the voice in electrical signals, the telephone, that at their birth were strangers to us became over time part of our world, and we absorb them completely as the way of life. Hence, when in the 70ies a new technology allowed video communication through the phone people did not like it at all. Communications was something that go through the handset, not through a video. This latter felt weird! And this in spite of the fact that our animal communications is visual as well as based on voice, inflections, tone, volume.
For the youngster, that were born with multimedia communications this latter is to be the “natural” one.
What does technology offer? It offers the possibility to create a correspondence between the physical world mad of atoms with the virtual world made of bits. This correspondence is achieved through sensors, like videocamera, accelerometers, microphone,…All of them can capture our communications, our wandering on the web, images of ourselves and our social networks, our experiences and our emotions. And our cell phone is probably one of the most important tool for creating this correspondence.
These technologies are on the way towards disappearance from our perception and hence they start to affect our way of perceiving reality and the way we interact with it.
There are new technologies appearing but they too will follow the path towards disappearance: augmented reality, tactile interaction both physical and virtual (this latter refers to the possibility of mimicking texture on a vibrating screen), the aggregation of social networks on a point in space, on an object or on a point in time…
They are still in research labs but within a few years they will get out to become curiosity and gadgets and later on part of them will become part of reality.
Technology, however, really changes the world because it decreases cost and free our time.
Buying a banana today means paying 20-50c, in spite of the fact that such banana in our hand is the result of a value chain started by a farmer who tilled the tree, harvest the banana and loaded it on a truck. The truck took it to a ship that traveled thousands of miles to deliver it to another truck for delivering it to a grocery store where somebody placed it on a shelf for us to pick it up. And all of that is part of the 20-50c price! This magic happens because of the huge amount of technology, including information and communications technologies.
Technologies frees our time from chores. Lighting a room for one hour in Babilonia required sesame oil in a lamp and that implied over 50 hours of work. Lighting a room for a hour in the seventeen century with a tallow candle required 6 hours of work but lighting a room with a kerosene lamp in the XIX century required only 15 minutes of work. And today? Lighting a room or a hour with a light bulb requires about 0,5 seconds of work.
It is clear that the availability of a huge set of affordable goods and the availability of more time to dedicate to other activities expand our possibility to live in a digital world. And this is a virtuous circle. As more people connects to the digital world, the more market for that digital world will expand its capabilities and decrease it cost making it affordable to more and more people.
The digitalization of the “person” falls into this framework and today we have already moved beyond the imagination of McLuhan futures. We already have services that create a partial clone of a person in the digital world (if you think about it the gramophone was in a way a first example of extending the life of a singer by recording his voice and playing it beyond his physical life). Artificial intelligence is now brushing close to the Turing challenge and it is bound to beat it soon, thus resulting in a digital person that can live its own life departing from the one that mirrored at the time it was created. Read the book “Mind’s I” to see what I mean.
Do we want these evolutions? Surely NO. We live, culturally, in the past. However, the new generation, the young people 10 years old, are living in what, for us, is the future but for them it is the present, it is every day life.
Sure, they will get older and will look with some concern at the future, but for them too there will be a new generation more than willing to live such a future.