Tag Archives: technology

How to save a week in a day

ClockAt a conservative estimate, I’ve saved around 4 hours today. Yesterday, it was more like 7. The day before, I saved more than a week in a day – possibly the closest thing to time travel I’ll ever get.

My time-saving frame of reference is my usual followthehumming period of 28 years. Back then, according to my diary, I was developing photos through a complex process based on visits to a high street chemist. Then I was taking my printed photos and sending them to friends and family in small physical packages transported by a network of government-owned couriers.

When I wasn’t doing this, I was waiting around for friends with no notion of where they were, how long it would be before they arrived, or even whether I was in the right place.

Then of course there were the times I was trying to find my way somewhere, having forgotten to bring along my unfeasibly large and unfoldable map.

Given that we now do all this and more with a quick finger swipe, we’re surely saving oodles of time as a species…so the question is, what are we doing with it all?

Fortunately we do have one place that might just give us an idea. Google’s annual list of most popular searches is a decent place to get a sense of what the collective consciousness is thinking about when it isn’t watching cute cat videos on YouTube.

Here in the UK last year, we were most concerned with how to draw, kiss, crotchet, meditate, knit, twerk, squat, shuffle, revise and wallpaper – in that order. Our favourite cake recipe was chocolate and our preferred holiday destination was Paris. We were curious in particular about Banksy, Frenchy and Dappy, and what Ebola, ALS, fracking and love were.

Globally, we searched more for the departed Robin Williams than anyone else, and also wondered mightily about flappy bird, the ice bucket challenge, and Eurovision’s Conchita Wurst. And the world’s most searched YouTube video wasn’t actually a cat, but a slightly disturbing mutant giant spider dog.

So it turns out that we’re actually using any time we may have saved to do more of what we’ve always done – gossip, communicate, have fun, discover the world, work, get stuff done, learn new things, and find out what the hell is going on around here anyway.

It’s a case of more (and more) of the same.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. These fundamental interests and activities – and in particular the opportunity to gossip – are exactly what Yuval Noah Harari describes in his excellent history of humankind, as the winning cards in homo sapiens’ powerful evolutionary hand. 

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Say hello to Life in the Future

Life in the Future - Delphic Study

I’d like to introduce you to Life in the Future, one of my all-time favourite books, which got a passing mention in my diary on 26th July 1986, 28 years ago today. It was published in 1976 and still graces my bookshelf.

My favourite bit of the book has always been the double-page spread above, illustrating a Delphic Study from the mid-60s in which a host of experts were asked when they thought specific technologies might become available. Their answers were collated and plotted on a timeline (starting in the 1970s and finishing with ‘Never’), with markers to show when 50% and 90% of them agreed a particular technology would be in use.

Life in the FutureThe predicted dates were only part of the fun for me. What really interested me was which technologies had been chosen. My favourites – truly children of their time – were:

  • Two-way communication with extra-terrestrials (50% of the experts were expecting this by about 2025, while the rest pessimistically chose ‘Never.’)
  • Automated language translators (should have been done and dusted by the early 70s if you believe the study)
  • Effective, simple and inexpensive fertility control (predicted to be available by 1985)
  • Economic regional weather control (1990-ish)
  • The widely accepted use of non-narcotic drugs for changing personality characteristics (somewhere between the 80s and 90s)

Re-read rather ironically from my vantage point here in the far future – some way past the previously mythical 2000 AD – the book as a whole provides a fascinating insight into 70s thinking.  The influence of the  preceding few years is obvious: the new liberalism and free thinking of the 60s, the 70s energy crisis and the expansion of nuclear power (the accident at Three-Mile Island was just a few years away), the rise of the environmental movement, significant improvements in medical technology  (the first heart transplant was already old news by this point), the development and early use of packet switching telecommunications networks, and so on.

Longer-term hopes featured in the study included the feasibility of education by direct information-recording on the brain, the breeding of intelligent animals as a low-grade labour force, the control of gravity by modifying gravitational fields and economic ocean farming to produce at least 20% of the world’s food. Wonderful stuff.

Despite the boundless technological optimism on show, the experts had to draw the line somewhere. They baulked both at the use of telepathy and ESP in communications, and at the idea of induced long-term comas used as a form of time travel.

Before long, I’ll be reading Life in the Future on a date beyond the end point of the study, which was around 2020. Compiling a list of likely technological change over the next 60 years would be just as difficult today as it was back in the 60s – but it might be fun to try (suggestions below please!).

Finally, it’s worth noting that while the study was busying itself with telepathy, controlling gravity and alien contact, it missed a few rather important developments that we take for granted today:

  • Instant access to a worldwide network of connected computers – from a device you hold in your hand
  • A system allowing you to search all the world’s knowledge – anytime you want, and from pretty much anywhere
  • In-vehicle video and audio navigation systems controlled by a global satellite network

…to name but three!

If you were taking part in a similar study in 2014, I’d love to know what key technology breakthroughs you’d expect between now and 2080. Who knows, if we compile a big enough list, the Internet could help us run a Delphic study of our own!Futuristic capes

*Life in the Future was written by Michael Ross-Macdonald, Michael Hassell and Stuart McNeill. I can’t remember how I came by it (I wasn’t keeping a diary back then!), but it’s essentially a broad and very readable look at predicting the future and how people affect it by the way they organise themselves and live their lives. I realised as I got older that  it was written with a clear environmental slant which was very new at the time. I owe it a lot.

Atomkraft? Nein danke!

Smiling sun: Atomkraft? Nein danke.Diary date: 18th May, 1986

My diary for this period 28 years ago makes a series of slightly concerned references to an ‘apparently quite serious’ nuclear accident in ‘a place called Chernobyl‘ – a previously unheralded town in the then Soviet republic of Ukraine.*  With typical reluctance, the Soviet authorities only agreed that an accident had taken place after the radiation alarms went off at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden – over 1,000 kilometres away.

‘Apparently quite serious’ turned out to be a significant understatement. Chernobyl remains the worst nuclear power plant accident in history (in terms of cost and lives lost) and is one of only two to reach the maximum classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale – along with the Fukushima Daiichi tsunami-related meltdown in 2011. Its effects continue to be felt to this day.

A decade earlier, the accident at Three Mile Island had thrown doubt on the future of nuclear power, but Chernobyl cast an even longer shadow. It quickly became impossible to imagine a completely ‘safe’ nuclear plant, many countries began scaling back their nuclear ambitions, and 70’s-style ‘Nuclear power? No thanks!‘ (or more frequently, ‘Atomkraft? Nein danke!’) stickers began to proliferate once again.

Yet despite all this, the industry survived and eventually began to thrive. In many ways, the longer-term impact of Chernobyl was to promote the international nuclear cooperation which has resulted in today’s more robust global safety regime.

Nuclear remains controversial for obvious reasons, but with the end of fossil fuel supplies in sight and global warming an increasing threat, many countries – the UK included – are returning to it as the possible answer both to longer-term energy independence and challenging climate change targets. Even some of the early environmentalists who were instinctively anti-nuclear – such as Whole Earth Catalogue author Stewart Brand – have begun suggesting we should revise our thinking. Brand now sees nuclear as the cleanest current form of reliable, grid-scale energy generation, and believes there are practical ways of dealing with related issues such as reprocessing, waste storage and weaponisation.

Remembering how I felt watching events in Russia unfold, it’s hard to believe that the push for ‘green’ energy is yet to yield a resounding winner. And if the post-Chernobyl nuclear makeover continues, it may be some time yet before the incentives to develop clean renewables are quite as strong again.

*These sorts of national boundary changes are nothing new to followthehumming – and current events in Ukraine suggest more may be on the way before too long.

This was a bookshelf

Diary date: 20th March, 1986Bookshelf

This was a bookshelf. It contained books, in which individual pieces of paper were bound together into a coherent whole. As a visitor to my house, my bookshelves told you a little about me, and what I thought was important and worthwhile. They gave you something to look at and to talk about. They helped you guess whether we were likely to get on, or had interests in common. Their arrangement gave you a sense of how I thought. Their coloured spines brought the room to life.

Today, my Kindle e-reader holds more books than all the bookshelves I’ve ever owned. But when you see it sitting on my kitchen table, it tells you nothing about me, my life, how I think, or what I might believe. It speaks only to me.

On the wall of my home, I used to keep silver discs piled one on top of the other, filled with songs and stories. Without you asking, they told you what lifted my spirit and spoke to my heart. Their covers brightened the room. Their number and nature told you part of my story.

Today, my iPod music player holds more songs than seems logically possible – you have one of your own that looks almost the same. But when you enter my house, my iPod tells you nothing about me. My music is a closed book unless we decide to open it together.

Next to my bookshelves, I kept jumbled stacks of films I’d enjoyed enough to want to own. When you looked at them, you guessed what made me laugh or cry, what thrilled or excited me. You compared my collection to yours, and made a note of films you thought you might like.

Today, the films I love are hidden from view, neatly stored and hermetically sealed in the cloud. Tours are available only on request.

Technology has created new spaces and new ways for you to learn about me through my likes and dislikes, and through what I keep, buy, show and share online. But in its headlong forward rush, it’s forgotten to take care of the world much closer to home. If I invite you to visit, I’d like you to know a little of me without either of us having to try.

Is stupidity making us Google?

is google making us stupid - Google SearchDiary date: 12th September, 1985

My working stay in Sweden lasts around six to eight weeks. It was a real eye-opener at the time, but reading back through my 28-year old diary, the whole period feels distinctly analogue.

A lot of the time, I don’t really know what’s going on and frankly seem to have very little way of finding out. I write longhand messages to friends and family on pieces of paper which are then carefully transported to them over a period of several days by a series of paid messengers. I lose track of what’s happening elsewhere in the world, and seem to struggle even to find out what’s going on in the immediate vicinity. I collect maps by the armful to help me get around. When I finally leave Gothenburg by train, I have no way of letting my family in Munich know that I’m two hours late, so they have to hang around the station just hoping I’ll turn up.

But taken as a whole, one thing stands out more than anything else in those innocent, analogue days – the tremendous effort I put into trying to know stuff.

And when I say know, I really mean know.

For certain.

You used to need to know stuff. Back then, it seemed really important. These days, you just need to feel reasonably sure that the stuff you’re concerned with is knowable, and that if and when it’s needed, you’ll be able to find it.

In other words, we’ve slowly but surely begun outsourcing the knowledge that we used to carry around with us – principally of course to the Internet and our friends at Google, but also to phones, satnavs, e-readers, tablets, MP3 players and lots of other devices.

So what are we doing with all the spare mental capacity that our outsourcing policy has presumably produced? Is it really all being spent on Angry Birds and watching cat videos on YouTube? Perhaps we’ve now got the potential to know a great deal more than we ever did before – albeit by proxy. Or maybe we’ve got surplus brainspace available to know and store more and more interesting/useful/esoteric/ephemeral stuff – leaving all the dull, heavy-lifting to the magic of the Internet.

Neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield for one has her doubts. She’s argued frequently and publicly that the human brain’s incredible ability to adapt may well mean that life online and our obsession with the “yuck! and wow!” of the Web will result in lasting and not necessarily desirable changes to how we interact, think and manage knowledge. She’s occasionally been criticised for her views, but she’s far from being alone. Even Google’s ex-CEO Eric Schmidt sounds concerned that we’re losing the ability to think deeply enough to retain genuine and profound knowledge.

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking.

Celebrated technology writer Nicolas Carr – asker of the original question, Is Google Making us Stupid? – has written along similar lines, suggesting that the Internet may represent a Faustian pact that will trade ‘deeper’ thought for something more superficial:

For most of the past 500 years, the ideal mind was the contemplative mind. The loss of that ideal, and that mind, may be the price we pay for the Web’s glittering treasure.

Outsourcing both knowledge and storage is nothing new. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years as evidenced by everything from the Pyramids to the Rosetta Stone. But the sheer power, speed and ubiquity of the Internet may well mean that unlike the mechanisms we’ve used in the past, this one has the potential to fundamentally change the nature of the minds that created it.

The death of a time and a place for everything

Diary date: 12th May, 1985

Amazon LockerI did two utterly unremarkable things this week in 1985, but they were exactly the kind of things I started followthehumming to help me spot.

First off, I went to the university library twice to do some research on Swedish canals (sounds odd I know, but don’t be alarmed, I’ve written before about how this forms part of my secret superpower). The library itself was about three miles away, so going there wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly, eating as it did into valuable drinking time.

Secondly, I waited at home all evening for a phone call that never came (don’t worry, I’m over her now – or at least I was until I started re-reading my diaries!).

What on earth was I thinking? Why didn’t I just turn on my tablet, connect to the nearest wi-fi and do my research sitting in Starbucks? Or just put my mobile on vibrate and head to the nearest bar to drown my sorrows in anticipation of what was about to happen?

Clearly the fact that the technology involved was a distant dream at the time didn’t help, but what these stories really bring to life is the very different relationship we had with ‘place’ in the 80’s.

Back then, place sat high on the list of stuff you needed to keep an eye on. If you agreed to meet someone somewhere at a certain time, the arrangement was locked and loaded. Once things were under way, you couldn’t alter your plans without leaving someone stranded. Today, we don’t even agree to meet up, we just agree to agree to meet up later, details to be confirmed – with at least the one consequent benefit of it now being very hard to be late for anything.

Activities happened in predictable places. Phone calls were taken wherever the phone was  plugged in – a draughty hall in my case. Watching TV happened in the living-room with everyone crowded round, rather than in isolated pockets of the house and on lots of different devices. Books were browsed and bought in a bookshop. ‘Computing’ happened three feet in front of the television into which you’d plugged your ZX-81. Video games were played in a seedy arcade. Listening to your music library happened wherever your parents had set up their ‘Music Centre’ – the enormous record-and-cassette-tape-playing monster that has now been replaced by the ubiquitous iPod. Even living itself was location-specific, and took place either in the kitchen or the living-room, probably the only two rooms where your mum and dad thought it was acceptable to turn on the central heating.

Place continues to evolve. With Amazon Locker, the world’s largest online retailer has decided that even the home is not sacrosanct. The items you’ve bought from them can now simply be delivered to you as an individual – wherever you are.

As technology changes, so the idea of place is gradually becoming more fluid and more personal.

Place feels less and less like something external with which we interact.

Instead, it has started travelling with us.