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Sublime Oblivion

Overoptimistic. A poor peasant is not going to be spending his (little) spare time browsing through MIT's open courseware. I fail to see how the Internet could be used to teach literacy. Greater efficiency in distribution will be a real advantage (though the improvement will certainly not be by "several orders of magnitude"), but will probably be trumped by things like fertilizer prices and the state of the soil.

Geoman

Sublime O - Yes of course. Giving millions of people unlimited access to information will no doubt have little impact on their society or the broader economy. I doubt that poverty, death, and starvation would be much of a motivator to acquire information from the net, or learn to read for that matter. I remember desperate Haitians stitching together rafts and sailing across shark infested water to an uncertain future. But heck, learning to read is hard. I'm sure they won't bother with that.

"Trumped by fertilizer prices or the state of the soil" And solving those problems would have nothing to do with improved information and communications, right? I mean, they couldn't possibly shop around for cheaper fertilizer, or buy the fertilizer when the price was low, or start a fertilizer business themselves. They couldn't possibly look up information on how to improve the soil, or better farming techniques, or long term weather forecasts. Why would they do that? Learning to read is such a chore after all. Easier to simply starve to death.

All it takes is one person to become literate, and take advantage of the information available. After that there will be a virtual tsunami as people try to escape their dire circumstances. Best of all, information access will kindle desire. They will see, often and frequently, how much better life could be, should be.


Sublime Oblivion

No need to be so scathing. I'm just not as big a techno-optimist as you (or would that be more like techno-utopian?). ;)

You are thinking from the perspective of an American. In many of the regions of the world you're talking about, traditional village relations (characterized by a greater degree of egalitarianism, social conservatism, etc) predominate over the profit motive. Some societies have gradually broken free of them and started to develop, starting with Western Europe and later spreading to Eastern Europe and East Asia, and developed without the help of any information technology. Do you really believe mobile broadband is what will finally revolutionize places like Afghanistan or Sudan?

What these regions need is first a social transformation, not a technological one. Your Haitian example is germane, though not in the way you intended - things are so desperate there (state collapse, environmental destruction, very poor basic education) that rather than stay there, the most enterprising try to leave. How exactly will mobile broadband help those left behind?

Oh and yes - learning to read is extremely hard for illiterate adults even with tuition. There's an account of Charlemagne (the Frankish king) trying to ardently for years on end, but not succeeding. Peasants who need to scrape around all day to provide subsistence for themselves will learn to read via teh internets during the evenings? Fuggedaboutit.

GK

Sublime Oblivion,

Overoptimistic. A poor peasant is not going to be spending his (little) spare time browsing through MIT's open courseware.

Why restrict it to MIT courseware? What about lower-tier general material?

I fail to see how the Internet could be used to teach literacy.

In a place with no prior books? You can't be serious. Literacy would be almost automatic with handheld web access.

but will probably be trumped by things like fertilizer prices and the state of the soil.

You have no idea how much agricultural spoilage has been reduced by new roads in India, where there were none before.

GK

Geoman consistently 'gets it' to a degree greater than most, I must say.

Zyndryl

The thing is: Reading (and writing) is on the way out, folks. This is backed up by quite a few linguistics experts and futurists who have done studies.

As voice capability improves, there will be less and less need for 'reading'. Think the same impact calculators have had on math instruction only think how much more of an 'crutch' software that reads for you will be. A crutch that will allow more and more people to get away without having to learn to read. Learning to read is hard, even for kids.

Look how popular both books on tape and graphic novels have become. They are displacing traditional books more and more each year.

I see it already happening with writing when I ask for more written details (like a white paper) after a content-poor Power Point presentation is slapped up on the projector for me to be 'dazzled' by. You should see the look on the face of the marketing dweeb when I insist on something other than the powerpoint. One actually said to me, "Oh, you must be one of those engineers...". I replied, "No, I just expect someone with a degree like yours to be able to write something meaningful for others to read."

My boss had a discussion with me afterwards about my 'attitude'.

The trend is already underway folks: Reading & writing are dying.

Which means when the poor, illiterate Haitian uses his n+1G superphone in the year 2020, it will read to him after searching for stuff he's interested in...like fertilizer prices. Actual voice calls and txt calls being 'read' will blur in distinction only over time. That information read to him will be backed up with nifty animations as well.

Of course, his richer neighbor will be able to afford the holographic projector addition and charge people to watch cell phone porn in the back of the local bar.

So Sublime O, you need to think out of of the present and its static reference points of thought. Technology WILL trump all in most cases simply because of the exponential improvement of it in such a short period of time.

Geoman

Sorry to be scathing to Sublime O, but the frequent use of the word "peasants" is a tad grating.

Let me posit this. The world is hardware. Our culture is the software we have developed to deal with the world. Over millenia, culture has adapted to the world, not visa versa.

Now do we create hardware to match software or the other way around? Does Microsoft write an operating system, then Intel builds the processor? Of course not. Hardware always drives software development. The potential always preceded the usage.

As a corollary, I would say the usage always rises to the maximum of the potential. Software always bloats up to fill whatever available processor speed and memory you have available. Culture does the same - it bloats to the ability of the environment to contain it. For example, we don't have languages with 10 billion words, or religions with 10 billion rituals. The environment (the human brain, and the free time to memorize all that religious stuff) is not large enough to contain that. But what we do have fills all the niches.

What does this mean? It means culture will extend into all people and all situations that are available for it to be expressed.

So if the world is hardware, and culture software, and software always follows hardware, and software inevitably grows to the maximum potential of the hardware, what do you suppose happens when the hardware changes, say by the introduction of instant low cost unlimited information around the globe?

Cultures destroy and consume on another. A more prosperous culture will soon be available at the touch of a button. Either the local culture will change, adapt and grow, or it will be consumed and subsumed into those that do. There are no alternatives.

The annihilation of various cultures has been the theme of the 20th and 21st centuries. Currently 10 languages become extinct every year. By the end of this century, 50 to 90% of the remaining languages on Earth will no longer be spoken. This is a demograhic certainty. Is language not culture?

Religeons are disappearing fast. Thousands of religons have been extinguished, and many more are soon to follow. What is culture if not religeon?

Our cultural software in the west is being rapidly rewritten. This can and will occur in the third world, but at digital speeds.

JAM

> You have no idea how much agricultural spoilage has been reduced by new roads in India, where there were none before.

GK - do you have a cite? I've wondered about this from time to time, but haven't found a decent source.

Sublime Oblivion

1. What else to use other than peasants? "Third Worlders"? - a bit obsolete, and their elites are well-off. "The world destitute"? - a bit of a mouthful, though it has the advantage of incorporating poor slum dwellers as well as "peasants". What do you suggest I use?

2. Carrying on with your hardware-software analogy, the big problem is that poor nations have very little hardware - and hence only a limited space for large amounts of or complex software. IT can certainly benefit them, but it's real impact will be much less in a place without regular electricity, roads / modern transport infrastructure, communication cables, etc, than it would be in industrialized nations.

3. "Cultures destroy and consume on another. A more prosperous culture will soon be available at the touch of a button. Either the local culture will change, adapt and grow, or it will be consumed and subsumed into those that do. There are no alternatives."

It can also rebel. The idea that everyone wants to be like the West is quite delusional, IMHO.

4. "In a place with no prior books? You can't be serious. Literacy would be almost automatic with handheld web access." - GK

How much do basic books cost? 4$ ? Even the very poor can afford that. The problem is not that they don't have access to texts, it's the fact that you need teachers, and for that you need a comprehensive education system. Few people possess the capability for independent learning.

5. "So Sublime O, you need to think out of of the present and its static reference points of thought. Technology WILL trump all in most cases simply because of the exponential improvement of it in such a short period of time." - Zyndryl

I'm not denying that technology is a powerful force and it's progress in IT / genetics is highly exponential (not in other areas, though). I acknowledge the possibility of a singularity some time this century. However, Malthusian forces are perfectly capable of cancelling these things out - remember the 2008 food riots?

Geoman

1) I'd prefer under developed. And why not incorporate poor slum dwellers?

2) Er. You are still not getting it. Poor farmers in East Africa have cell phones. Now. Today. Cell phone usage is rapidly increasing across the world, including the poorest nations on Earth. The phones are cheap mass produced items from China charged with solar cells. Given that the cell phone can easily double or triple income, they are becoming a widespread necessity even for the poorest. They are technologically leapfrogging the need for electricity, roads, and wires.

For example from MSNBC: "KABUL, Afghanistan - About 150,000 people subscribe to cell phone service each month in Afghanistan and there's "no end in sight" to the growth... the telecommunications and information technology sector will be the engine of growth for Afghanistan."

This is freaken' Afghanistan! A few years ago the number of cell phones was essentially zero. What do you think is occurring in every other undeveloped nation on Earth? There are literally dozens of similar articles on the net that can be found with little effort.

3) They also rebel, too true. Of course, all such rebellions against modernity ultimately fail, at least they all have for the last several hundred years. They are structurally doomed to failure.

But you miss the point again. I don't assume they want to emulate the west. I assume they want to cling to whatever culture they have, for as long as it is viable. What I am assuming is the majority of people in any country will always vote with their feet, arms, hands, and heads for food, wealth and safety, as they have throughout human history. That fundamental desire will force them to emulate the west. There is no other viable path forward to get the things they want. Improved communications will send that desire into overdrive. It is a coming worldwide cult of cargo. They will see, they will know, they will want, and they will change. Those that oppose modernity will get crushed. Those that ignore modernity will get overrun.

The coming changes are like gravity - you can be opposed to gravity, you can ignore gravity, but gravity never, ever ignores you.

By the way, you're point # 4 really explains your lack of understanding. Hand a child who can't read a book and ask him to learn to read it. Very few could accomplish this task. And what would be the point? Now you have one book and one person who can read it.

Hand a child who can't read a cell phone and ask them to master it. Most will be able to accomplish this task to varying degrees. In addition, once mastered, the cell phone is the teacher, the comprehensive education system, and the library, and a means to further disseminate the information all rolled into one package! Once one person learns to use a cell phone, all people in that village will know how in very short order.

GK

S.O wrote :

The problem is not that they don't have access to texts, it's the fact that you need teachers,

You would be surprised how much an inquisitive child can learn from Youtube videos. Also note how quickly eReaders like the Kindle have proliferated. You also fail to consider that if all the kids he plays with have access to phones, and some of them can read, there is peer pressure for all of them to read.

By 2020, virtually all the world's age 6-15 children will be functionally literate. That is not a tough prediction to make.

Think of how many brilliant talents and intellects are going to waste due to being born in destitution. A mobile broadband connection could make it easier for such talents to be discovered by the right people.

The prediction, that 4 billion people in 2020 (out of a 7.5 billion population at the time) will have 100 Mbps wireless Internet access, is pretty modest, actually. I could up it to 5 billion and still will probably not overshoot.

Keep in mind that one of the MAJOR factors in my legendary May 2006 prediction of victory in Iraq by 2008 was the diffusion of cellphones. That turned out to be spectacularly correct. Cellphones with photo/digicam capabilities played a major role in the Iran situation last summer too.

GK

JAM,

I have a much more important question for you to consider :

Did you get a pre-nup? Please tell me you aren't pressured by 'Indians' who blithely believe that 'Indian values' can prevail over the very real and destructive incentives that the US divorce industry grants married women.

Geoman

Interesting sidebar - about 2% of the people in the U.S. are considered to be geniuses based on how you set that criteria (usually an IQ above 140). Only about 900 million people in the world live in what are considered fully developed countries, giving the world currently around 18 to 20 million geniuses.

About 3 billion people live on less than $1 per day. Statistically speaking amongst this group, we would expect there to be approximately 60 million potential geniuses. Given proper development, nutrition, and education we could easily quadruple the number of genius level intellects in the world.

What is happening is not all about processing times or communications. Simple human development will push things forward as much as anything else.

Matt Collins

GK, Geoman,

You guys really 'get it', i mean really get it. Technology really will/is changing the world and sweeping everything up in it's exponential path.

Since i really agree with what you guys have said above i am not going to repeat or reinforce anything but i do want to ask you a question.

Why do people consider technology's power to change as over optimistic?

Take this statement from sublime for example:

"What these regions need is first a social transformation, not a technological one."

The internet is enabling the social change, take things like youtube, facebook and twitter. These sites link people together and as a result we are seeing massive social revolutions and it's all due to technology.

I just don't understand how people are still denying the fact that technology is changing the world, even when it stares them in the face. Is it fear? Fear of what?

Are these people in fact stopping the revolution? By not being optimistic are they in fact stopping progress because they constantly underestimate what is happening?

I guess we have to hope that the optimistic people outweigh the pessimistic. At the end of the day if technology can't ave us then what will? These people put arguments against technology but offer no other solutions.

This is not some sort of attack at sublime I am just think his view represents a portion of society.

Cheers,

Matt

Matt Collins

You may already be aware of this but a new high speed fibre cable has been laid connecting Africa to the net.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/click_online/8261098.stm

I appreciate that prices are still too high for the average person to afford but the point is the infrastructure is now there. The next few years could see increased competition and prices should fall. If you couple this with the fact that the hardware (PC's, netbooks etc) is getting cheaper and cheaper then this ,may well be the turning point.

Cheers,

Matt

Geoman

Matt,

Well...

Hmmmm.

I'd say that there are a group of people standing around waiting for their personal jet packs. That is to say there was a wonderful world promised in science fiction that was just around the corner - ray guns, easy space travel, jet packs, etc. It never arrived.

Look at the book/movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Written in 1968, it seemed at least plausible that it could occur by 2001. How close are we now to that future? Moon bases? A mission to Jupiter? Intelligent computers? Rotating space stations? Hah! Maybe in 20 or 50 years. Many people therefore think that technology is going to over promise and under deliver. This has happened many times in the past. It is a logical argument based on solid data points.

The point GK makes is that people need to be made "acceleration aware", that is to say that change is not linear but exponential. In the beginning, linear and exponential change vary little in outcome. It is very easy to confuse the two. But if GK is right (and I think he is) there should be a rapid divergence. An inflection point. That should occur soon.

The natural tendency for people is to look over the course of their lives and mark out how much progress has occurred. Projecting forward your expectation is more of the same. People have a hard time conceptualizing change as occurring faster than before, or change becoming decoupled from human cultural processing speeds.

By the by - I think the reason technology has over promised and under delivered is mostly because science writers like to add the tag "within your lifetime" to everything. So when they write about intelligent computers, fusion power, or whatever they always like to put it 20 to 30 years in the future, even if that is highly improbable. Novels set in the year 3200 are inherently less interesting than novels set in 2029. They are also much harder to write.

I'd also add - almost everything predicted in 2001 could be built with today's technology. People often confuse the lack of commonality with inability to do something. They forget to include other considerations (practicality, cost, political will, etc.). HAL is the only thing I can think of in the 2001 world that we cannot do...yet. We could have all the rest if we really wanted it. Jet packs and flying cars do exist - they just cost more than the average consumer is willing to pay, and don't provide as big a benefit as we had at first supposed.

While I believe that exponential growth could occur, there may be a natural limit to how much growth and change our culture can withstand before tearing itself to bits. I made the water in a pipe analogy on another thread - I think it still holds. There is an optimal flow velocity for water in a pipe. At higher speeds turbulent flow actually slows the output of water. At high enough pressure the pipe actually breaks.

Regarding the singularity - as the rate of change increases exponentially it may create turbulent flow in the pipe, or stop progress altogether for some period of time.

I really don't know the answer - this is my first singularity ;)


GK

Look at the book/movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Written in 1968, it seemed at least plausible that it could occur by 2001. How close are we now to that future? Moon bases? A mission to Jupiter? Intelligent computers? Rotating space stations? Hah! Maybe in 20 or 50 years.

In the 1960s, the NASA budget was 4.4% of the Federal budget. Today it is one-fifth of that. If the NASA budget was sustained at that level through today, we might have those things.

That being said, a manned mission to Mars today would cost a smaller percentage of GDP than the Moon landing cost in 1969. The Voyager I and II spacecraft were the size of cars when launched in the 1970s, but today could be the size of sparrows, and much cheaper. So technological advancements are manifesting in the form of lower costs.

there may be a natural limit to how much growth and change our culture can withstand before tearing itself to bits.

This is a problem. Everything from Al-Qaeda to the transformation of China to the rise (and imminent fall by 2020) of radical feminism in the US are due to rapid technological changes.

Even though the real Singularity will be in 2060-65, post 2025, many people will find it hard to keep up with the rate of change. This will be balanced by a general prosperity level that is high enough to at least provide basic necessities to most people.

Matt Collins

Geoman,

I too agree with exponential growth and it is undeniable that it is occurring but my question was why do you think people have such a problem with it?

I agree with your point that people have been promised stuff in the past but i just think its a shame that their spirits are so low. I guess the only thing that will convince people is when it really starts to take off. Its starting to take off now but i think the next ten years will be really interesting.

As for the water in the pipe analogy, i saw you post that before and i really enjoyed it (i even used it on friends!!). Do you think a solution for keeping up with change will come from people being directly linked to their smart devices. The internet will be an always on kinda thing and we will have devices like the iPhone(but better or even in us) to keep up with such changes.

At the moment I'm content with the knowledge that I'm not alone :)

GK,

Your comment about feminism intrigues me. What do you mean by it falling in 2020. Have you posted an article about it?

On a side note I think you should do a time line for nanotechnology. I know it's an unwieldy subject but i would like to see your views on where its heading.

Thanks,

Matt

Geoman

I thought I answered that. But pick a response:

1) People have a problem conceptualizing exponential growth. The rice grain and the chess board problem.

2) The singularity is unique. Science doesn't like unique events.

3) People have become ho-hum about scientific advancement. We discovered 30 additional alien worlds this week. Oh well. I already knew about that from Star Trek. Which one is Vulcan?

4) People have been disappointed by technology before.

5) The singularity has apocalyptic religious overtones. It is not nicknamed "rapture of the nerds" for nothing. Religious people don't like the intrusion, and the non-religious are suspicious.

6) The bizarre nature of what will happen. What if I told you that your mind will be removed from your body, your children will be immortal, and don't bother saving for retirement because we'll all be fabulously wealthy whether we want to or not? Yet these are the predictions of the singularity.

7) We are walking around with a sign saying the end is near. Hard to be taken seriously even if this time the end REALLY is NEAR.

The singularity is scary, weird, different, exciting, wonderful, depending on how you view it. I suspect we'll pause for some time on the event horizon before fully plunging in.

Charly

The science stuff on Voyager would be much smaller but the radio link requires a certain level of energy and with it a certain size of battery. In short it would be closer in size to a car than a swallow.

Erica Orange

This is such a huge issue, and this is a great and very thorough post. I thought you may be interested in a piece I recently wrote, on a similar subject: http://weineredrichbrown.com/2010/04/21/attention-distraction/. It also links to a new study by the Pew Research Center on text messaging and mobile phone use....especially among the youth.

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