Where This Meets That
As I write this, I’m sitting comfortably on the Korean KTX “bullet train” barreling 200 miles per hour toward Seoul, South Korea. Little more than a century ago, this 4-hour round trip would have required days. I would have been forced to plan stops to eat and sleep and for space to bring along clothes and a plethora of required documentation that is now conveniently stored in my notebook computer. And to say nothing of the impracticality of even being in Korea to begin with!
Technological advance drives the history of our species. Nothing was quick or easy for our most primitive ancestors. Their sole purpose was survival, and survival took up all their time. Over generations, they improved upon their understandings and processes and were able to do more with less and in less time. Better weapons made faster kills, and better flames faster meals. They fashioned clothing, planted crops, and grew ever more adept at shaping their environments.
The twentieth century took our progress to a whole new level, giving us cars and superhighways, wings to round the globe in a day, and new mediums of communication to do it in mere instants. Einstein taught us that the faster we travel the more we contract time. Here, I propose a technological spin on this theory, that we contract time also through technological advance.
When I was a kid reading a comic book in the 1970’s, I loved the ads for Sea Monkeys. It looked so quick and easy to brew up my own batch of the cute little critters in the comfort of my own room. Of course, I first had to cut out the order form, then (convince my mom to) write a check, mail it in, and wait 6-8 weeks for delivery. Today, if I don’t want to buy them at a local novelty store, I can place an order in mere mouse clicks and have those babies brewing tomorrow.
A silly example, but it illustrates how we can expedite elements of the future through contraction of time via advancing technology. Life is shaped by experience, and so in this example, Sea Monkeys have shaped my life “6-8 weeks” sooner than they would have decades ago.
Another example: most modern written communications are electronic and are delivered instantaneously. Generally speaking, we have progressed in long distance written communication from personal delivery to courier messenger to organized mail service to telegraph to fax to email, each improving on the former in time of transmission. We can see an interesting example of what this means in the Battle of New Orleans, which started two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed, because the combatants had not received word of the treaty’s signing. Had the news instead arrived to then-General Andrew Jackson’s Android phone, lives would have been saved, and recovery would have begun much sooner.
Now, the mind-blowing point to ponder here is, what if technological advance did not slow down time? Imagine that the time lapse between our discovery of how to spark a fire and our ability to harness that fire in an oven (probably hundreds of thousands of years) also applied to our understanding of wave technologies as we moved from radio to television. Now imagine what it would mean for the same concept to have applied to every single technological advance in our history.
If technological advance only made things easier and not also faster, I would just as likely be writing this blog entry in the year 200,010 as here in 2010! Furthermore, many technologies today are being specifically used for expediting technological advance. For example, Moore’s Law states that our computing power grows exponentially, doubling every two years. Given our modern reliance on the computer, that basically means that we are racing toward the future faster than ever before, and with ever increasing speed!
Let me take a step back for a moment to qualify my assertion that time is also relative to technology, in addition to mass and acceleration. Einstein’s theory is empirical, with a number of recorded experiments successfully indicating that time, as measured by atomic clocks, is altered by varying speeds and masses.
I don’t expect that my theory is measurable by clocks as much as by consequences. We are accelerating headlong into a future of instantaneity. Communication methods will be increasingly manifold and services increasingly automated. We will eventually have no cords to plug in, no need to keep our eyes on the road while we travel, and so on. Whereas the lives of our early ancestors were dedicated fully to survival alone, the lives of our descendants will, barring unforeseen global catastrophe, be totally distracted from it.
Internet infrastructures are on the verge of allowing an individual to download data sets equivalent to the entire Library of Congress in mere seconds. Nanotechnology will be developing swiftly over the next decade or two, which could carry everything from significantly increased life-expectancy to paints and dyes that will allow us to completely change the color schemes of our cars and clothes nearly as quickly as the urge strikes us to. Today’s youth are learning to multi-task practically from the cradle, mastering modern modes of electronic communication as soon as their parents will let them. Textbooks will soon drown in a rising tide of e-readers that expose users to unprecedented amounts of information, and interpersonal communication will easily take place anywhere and any time.
Our rate of advance today is truly difficult to comprehend, and it feels like the future that was once just science fiction is suddenly upon us. Is it possible for us to achieve such a pervasive state of immediacy in all possible choices that we actually render the future obsolete?
Certainly makes me wonder.