The great human transition of the twentieth century

Part 1

What transition? you might be asking. In case you missed it, or are too young to have been around, or have not looked back, the human race has actually gone through, and is still going through a massive paradigm shift or transition that has never been equaled before in history. The speed of this transition is nothing sort of phenomenal. So fast and so massive is the transition, that mankind is not able to keep up—although, we like to think we are the ones that are phenomenal. What I am talking about is change.

There is no shortage of documentation looking at all the changes that have taken place over the past one hundred or one hundred and fifty years of our history. I could write volumes too. Yet, we don’t seem to be taking seriously one special aspect of change that began with the computer. The computer is in fact a paradox. On the one hand it is marveled as a way to get things done in a speedy fashion. On the other hand, it comes nowhere close to equaling the human brain. The computer presents mankind with a problem. In order to interface with the computer, humans need to use some comparatively awkward and cumbersome input and output devices. Once an interfacing has occurred, the results are rather quick. I often wonder if a computer could actually think, and one day they may come close, it might get perturbed at the sluggishness of the human interface. There may be some improvements, but, in general, there will probably always exist this communications chasm of one sort or another. Unless, of course, humans somehow transfer to become computers.

But, wait!!! The human brain is a computer—the greatest of all computers. So, why are we wasting our time on such a convoluted endeavor? Somehow, we have become absolutely infatuated with the idea of having a device that will do something that seems to make our live easier and better. Could we be simply chasing a dream thinking that we are making progress?

Now, there is a term worth looking at. Let me look at it with you by describing my situation. I was born nearly smack dab in the middle of the twentieth century. There had been two world wars and a huge devastating depression. Much of the world was in some sort of recovery. All this took place amid unprecedented change. The world woke up to realize that they were moving into the future and a new notion began to seep into the thoughts and activities of most of the non-third world societies. People began to trust in the technological advancements as being able to solve all the world problems and make life easier to live. It became a dream. There was a sense that utopia was just around the corner and that life would be full of leisure time.

I grew up in this huge bubble of thinking that if we just made a few more technological leaps and worked just a bit harder, it would all happen, just as the futurists were predicting. I don’t hear the same sort of rhetoric that was so prevalent in my days of the past. However, if I look around, we do seem to be living in the future, with amazing technologies and abilities. We can do so many things that were unthinkable when I was growing up. But, there has been a price. Not all the predictions and dreams have come true.

As a human race, we are racing. But, to where? As we solve problems and create newer and better ways of doing things, we encounter even more hurdles to happiness. Perhaps, we are no better off. Has the human race truly progressed as expected.

Our lives are hurling along at an uncontrollable velocity. Our relationships, although many, are superficial. Health, while better in some ways, is failing from old and new diseases at epidemic levels. Social ills have grown. We face a plethora of instantaneous news reports of all the problems in the world for us to worry about, but, we so often feel numb and don’t seem to react, just listen or watch and then on to the next item. We are drowning in a sea of information and data that we have no time to consume completely and digest.

Technological advancements are happening so fast that we have no choice but to throw out the old, often only months old, to grab the new. All this while worrying about our environment and the waste from our consumption. Can technology still save us?

Computer technologies present another huge problem to humans. Computers are digital and we are analog. We can’t deal with any information that is digital. Some think this problem may diminish as the new generation, brought up in a digital world, replaces the older generation. This is the new generation gap. Nevertheless, this is a problem that will never be solved unless man becomes a computer or computers become human, in which case they may get tired of us and eliminate us completely. Some think one of these is the inevitable future of humans. Where would humanity be?

Is it really possible that humans could migrate into a digital world? Would we let that happen? Perhaps even more pervasive to mankind’s dilemma than just the computer is the Internet. The Internet was invented at a time when humans had developed such destructive power, that one group of people could annihilate another group without even meeting them for battle. When the United States and Russia both had the atomic and hydrogen bombs, a new kind of war developed. This is an unexpected aspect of technology. Of course the bomb was not to remain the sole weapon of the U.S. There always has to be tension and the unexpected. Thus, both sides had their finger on the button, so to speak, waiting for the other to attack. Since this was not, face to face, it was called the cold war and hung the world on the verge of panic. So, this was how the world moved on from two world wars and a depression. Living with modern household technologies promising an amazing future, but, living under the threat of doom. The cold war would end with a new kind of unexpected war—terrorism. That I shall leave for later. Back to the Internet.

During the cold war, and I am expounding with some detail on all this for a reason, it became evident that an attack on the U.S. would cripple what had now become so important to society, the communications system. And so it was that, in a coffee shop, on a napkin, one person devised a computer communications system that would always be able to deliver a message instantaneously. It could not be unplugged and it could not be destroyed.

As the cold war drew to a close, the Internet was used to connect universities for the purpose of sharing information. Later, during the latter years of the twentieth century, the Internet was opened to the world. So, now I come to the place where I can reveal the importance of the Internet to this writing.

The Internet, or the net, has become more than a communications system for sending information. Great chunks of the lives of humans are being stored all over the world for everyone to access. Well, great lengths have been taken to make private information safe, however, the unexpected in this situation is cyber terrorism. For example, hackers break into government databases and bank systems where they steal million instantaneously. Other threatened areas include city infrastructures such as the electric grid which have links to the Internet.

As whole libraries are transfered to the net along with other data areas of our society, the new push is to store personal and business information in what is being called cloud computing. Keep all your data on huge storage systems so you can have access at any time from anywhere. Going further, social networks ensure that you can actually have your own place—a footprint with a persona that may actually differ from your real persona. Is it possible to impersonate someone else’s persona? You bet.

I have heard warnings that one should watch what they say in the cyber world. That employers are now checking online to learn more about a potential employee. The Internet is increasingly becoming a representation of our lives, who we are, how we live, what we do, what we like, along with much more of our personal information than we would ever have remotely considered allowing say ten years ago. It only takes a short time for people to adopt the new technologies and drop their inhibitions. To speed things up a bit, often some incentives can be introduced, such as charging more for the old way, making it cheaper, providing more online, etc. Have you ever been convinced or even coerced into adopting a new technology?

I don’t know if technology is evil, our enemy or not. The consensus seems to be that it is neutral. It’s how one uses it that makes it good or bad. Now, I shall take a bold step and reveal a thought I had one day. The Internet, if it were alive, is learning about us, gaining access to our lives. Growing like one of those sci-fi monsters in the movies I grew up with. If there were a sinister entity in the Internet, we are certainly cooperating in letting it take over our lives. That’s all I will say about that idea for now.

I ask, is technology helping us to know more about who we are, is it making us more human? Can we now conclude that an aspect of our lives, individually and collectively, is to live on the Internet?

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