Sunday, April 11, 2010

Three New Superpowers! Good or Bad? Please Comment.

My first entry at Zyzmog Galactic Headquarters talked about the conflict between my fascination for, and my rejection of, new technology. I'm often heard to exclaim, "I love living in this century!" There is a lot of exciting stuff going on, and I enjoy being both a spectator and a participant in the onrush of technology.

At this point in the 21st Century, technology has granted us three superpowers that didn't exist a short time ago. Many high school students can remember the days when they didn't have these superpowers. Let me list them for you.

The three superpowers in the early 21st Century are:
1. Infinite mobility.
2. Infinite access to information.
3. Infinite connectivity.

Infinite mobility means the ability to go anywhere in the world -- and even into orbit. If you have enough time (and money), you can travel anywhere you want. In the pages of Outside, National Geographic Explorer, Men's Journal and other magazines, you can read about fantastic voyages made, not by diplomats, politicians, soldiers or spies, but by ordinary people like you and me. You can watch TV stories about those voyages on the Travel, Discovery, and National Geographic channels.

Infinite mobility probably reached its peak in August 2001. It's still possible to travel anywhere; it's just more difficult now. Okay, North Korea is still next to impossible to visit. And some places are dangerous to travel to, but this superpower gives you the ability to travel there and get into trouble if you're stupid enough.

Infinite access to information means that nearly the entire assembled body of human knowledge is now at our fingertips. The popularization of the Internet, followed by the invention of the World Wide Web, and finally the introduction of search engines like Google and knowledge bases like Wikipedia, have done for modern man what Gutenberg's printing press did for mankind in 1440. For one thing, they have fundamentally changed the way I conduct both business and research. Even in closed societies like China and Iran, anybody with enough desire can get access to this universal fount of information. The One Laptop Per Child initiative is an effort to make this power not just infinite, but universal.

At first, we were worried that this infinite access to information would lead to infinite dissemination of falsehoods and lies. Granted, there's a lot of that out there, and there always will be, and now it's even more accessible than when its dissemination was confined to mimeographs and backwater printing houses. But the social experiment that is Wikipedia shows us that a public knowledge base can be self-correcting and self-policing, over time.

Some oppressive governments, pseudo-religious groups, and other entities that live on power and paranoia may try to squelch this infinite access to information, but they have not succeeded yet, and they will not succeed. The genie is out of the bottle.

Infinite connectivity: I'm certain there are still people on this planet without an email address. You're not one of them! Even more ubiquitous than an email address is a cellular phone. In some families, even children as young as 8 or 10 have a cellphone with all the, um, bells and whistles (sorry). In countries that cannot afford the infrastructure and costs associated with what we now call "land lines," it seems as if everyone has a cellular phone.

Last year, the new computer buzzword was cloud computing, and its herald was the netbook, a minimalist computer that keeps all of its programs and data in the "cloud" instead of on a local hard disk. The trend towards cloud computing continues this year.

Then there's the phenomenon known as social networking. One day social networking, though out of style, will define this decade the way shag carpet defined the 1970s and sideways ponytails defined the 1990s. Today, though, social networking provides an important service by allowing people to maintain and to renew social and family connections. Facebook was not the first social network, but it is currently the biggest fish in the pond. The pocket-sized social network known as Twitter was hot for a while in 2008-2010, but it seems to be fading fast, a flash in the fad pan. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

This infinite connectivity does have a dark side, though: people will always know where you are. Your cellular service provider can track your location, either through your phone's built-in GPS, or through triangulation of your phone's position relative to two or three nearby cellular towers. The GPS capability in the newest phones can be remotely activated without the user's knowledge. Radio navigation, or triangulation, has been used by sailors and aviators for 100 years.

Another facet of this dark side: in this digital age, the right software and the right Internet connections can allow anyone to track your every move in cyberspace. By assembling all of your comments on Facebook and on blogs, all of your private (or so you thought) emails, and all of your search patterns, they can write a story of your life so detailed, so graphic, and so honest that it will scare you. All of this increased connectivity means that if you're not careful, your words and your deeds, good or evil, can (and will) be shouted from the rooftops. In some ways, this infinite connectivity leads swiftly downhill to complete and total loss of privacy.


So I want to know: what do you think? Does your having these three superpowers make your life better, or worse? Alternatively, does humanity's possession of these three superpowers make the world better, or worse? Please tell me what you think, and why.

All comments on this blog are still subject to moderation. This is just to keep the kooks out. Most comments will be approved instantly, and the rest (as long as they don't sound like they're from kooks) will be approved within 24 hours. Please avoid foul language and personal attacks, and stick to the subject at hand.

Political extremism and lengthy partisan diatribes are frowned upon and may also be rejected by the moderator. (Whew! Have I become one of those "power and paranoia" entities? I hope not. I just want to encourage a civil and rational dialogue.)

E' il mio gioco; le regole, le faccio io.


Kellie said...

Does having these three superpowers make my life better, or worse?

I can't imagine life without them! I think it makes my life better. I think it makes it easier for me to be more connected, informed, and more globally minded. It definitely has its downsides, but I try to control those.

Sarah Elkins said...

For the most part I think that these super powers makes my life better...but as a parent and a business owner I am very aware that what I say and do has far reaching effects! I want my kids to be able to see what I have to say and to make sure that it has a positive effect on my business as well.

Jamie said...

I think its both good and bad. Mostly good, as long as you are smart. I have found some of my best friends online, and without it, I would never have met them. At the same time, however, I have come across a few not so great people. I try to teach my kids that altho the internet can be a fun place, there are scary things that can happen there, just like in the real world. Like always, it just takes a few jerks to wreck a good thing.