Although the term technology has become closely bound to science, even the word science itself has its roots in a time long before the scientific method was formalized. Basically, it means the search for knowledge. Technology is the application of that knowledge, presumably to one’s advantage.
So technology can be legitimately applied to any endeavor that converts knowledge to practical use. In ancient times, something as simple as using one’s knowledge of the behaviors and characteristics of animals for tracking and hunting food was a technology. Nowadays it applies equally, of course, to computers and bioengineering. We use technology to improve life’s quality as well as its quantity.
Another way of looking at technology is as a means of gaining an advantage over the objects and events in our lives.
I prefer to view it as a form of intimacy. The more thoroughly and intimately we understand the true nature of anything, the more we can interact with it effectively. By that definition, omniscience is the ultimate technology.
I recently joined a large group of Internet users in a project called SETI@home. This project is under the auspices of SETI–the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence. SETI gathers radio and x-ray emissions from throughout the Universe and analyzes them, looking for patterns that are unlikely to be of a strictly natural origin. The problem is that they can gather this data far faster than they can analyze it.
SETI@home is an attempt to enlist the help of individuals in cutting the backlog of unanalyzed data down to size. To that end, the people at SETI created a computer program that allows anyone with Internet access to help process that raw data. The program is a screensaver that downloads packages of data and applies mathematical tools to identify probable intelligent sources. When one batch of data is completed, the program sends the results back to SETI and downloads a new batch. Depending on the computer and the amount of time available for the program to do its magic, it may take from a few hours to days, or even weeks, to complete a data set. In my case, I have been giving it about 18 hours a day for over two months. The really cool thing aboutSETI@home is that if you happen to be the one whose computer actually identifies an intelligent source of emissions, you will go down in history as a co-discoverer of the first extraterrestrial intelligent beings! How could I not get involved?
The other day I found myself wondering just how much work my computer is actually doing for SETI. I got out my handy spreadsheet program and started doing some calculations of my own. The results amazed even me. Here is the best way I discovered to express what I found. If a human being could do one calculation per second involving two numbers between 0 and 4 million, it would take one person over 48 million years to do what my machine has done in 60 days. Now of course, few if any of us could do such calculations at that speed, let alone every second for a lifetime, much less for millions of years. Another way of viewing the same thing would be for every adult male in the U.S. to spent a year doing nothing but these same calculations. It would take every living soul in North America to keep up with my computer in real time.
I further computed that a mere 500 computers like mine could in 60 days do as many calculations as a single person could have done if they started at the instant of the Big Bang! This is almost unimaginable. SETI@home was downloaded by 250,000 people the first day it was available! There are over half a billion computers online with millions more going online every day.
To make things even more astounding, Moore’s Law states that the computing power of digital machines will double every 18 months. This has been proven to be true for decades and still is. So in about 18 months, my computer will be able to do the same work in four weeks. Three years later, it will only take one week, and by the end of a decade, a single day.
My reason for mentioning all of this is simply to illustrate the power technology makes available to us, one and all. This, and to lay the groundwork for a view I have held for a couple of decades. More on that presently.
This information is readily accessible to anyone who wants it. Few, if any, care to look. Even fewer put the boundless pieces of simple, raw information together in certain combinations that paint a particular picture. It is not unlike having a jigsaw puzzle, but without a picture of what it’s supposed to look like when it’s fully assembled.
Another example quickly comes to mind, one I realized many years ago. Everything needed to build a computer, a space shuttle, or any other contrivance you choose, has been here and readily available since long before mammals walked on the good Earth. What took us so long to get around to putting all the pieces together effectively was a lack of collective knowledge. It would not be a distortion to say that we, humankind, have spent a long time in school. Of course, the materials needed to create time machines, or transporters, or replicators—a la Star Trek—are all here right now and have been all along. We just haven’t figured out how to put it all together yet.
Another astounding revelation that occurred to me lately is equally simple. It is not a matter of if we find intelligent life elsewhere in this Universe of ours: it’s only a matter of when! It may be later today, or it may take many years, but it is virtually inevitable. The same goes for all the other magical dreams man has had. People dreamed of walking on the moon for millennia before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin finally did it for us in 1969. But they did. Now it’s a fait accompli.
The popular saying, “What the mind of man can imagine, it can create” is not the most accurate take on the subject. I now see a better version as, “What the mind of man can imagine, it will create.” For it is the imagined itself that drives us to create. The moment we imagine, we lock ourselves into a process that must culminate in creation. This is far more a part of human nature than our alleged “predatory instincts.”
Arthur C. Clark, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey has said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Yesterday’s magic is today’s technology, and today’s magic is tomorrow’s technology.
Pulling it all together, technology is just one face of our evolutionary adventure. We create what we need to continue playing the game, and we create it at the moment we need it. In fact, what we create and when we do so offer great clues to our true purposes. The history of technology provides a flowchart of our progress toward our ultimate purposes. We do not waste time creating things that do not further our ends. Even the ugly or seemingly insane has a role to play in our ultimate success, though those roles are not always readily apparent. Or is it that we simply don’t lay the right pieces of the puzzle next to each other?
Take a look at the technologies we create and the problems they bring up. For example, for thousands of years, our beliefs about life and death could be handled well enough by some children’s fairytales invented by camel herders in an ancient culture. Not much had changed. But now, we have created technologies that put too great a strain on those feeble and antiquated beliefs. The birth control pill, advanced medical technology, genetic engineering, euthanasia, abortion, and many more innovations leave us little choice but to reexamine some of our most cherished, though not particularly well-thought-out, beliefs about ourselves and life itself. Only a fool would see these concerted developments as accidental. They are coming tied with the same bow because they are just different facets of the same jewel.
I have long loved the phrase, “You have gone as far as you can go without going further.” Well, we have reached that point in a huge variety of ways, with new ones being added daily. Ultimately, it will leave us no choice but to do just what we most need to: reexamine the views that have served our forebears well for millennia, but are now reaching the end of their usefulness.
And, as is our custom, we have divided up into camps (e.g., conservative and liberal) to debate and even do battle to determine whether to stick with the old ways, or find and develop new ones. This is one of the chief reasons for the upsurge of religions fundamentalism, not just in America, but in the world at large. These are people who are desperately hanging onto the past, hoping to die before they have to give it up and learn a whole new way of living in a fundamentally different world.
Make no mistake; even the most rabid progressive is counting on the conservatives to slow the wagon on its relentlessly accelerating ride down the hill of time. And the conservatives are likewise counting on the liberals to find ways to move us ahead without upsetting the whole shebang. What is sad is that we cannot seem to muster enough integrity to do so openly, honesty, right out in front of God and everybody. Instead, we insist on clinging desperately to dogma, enmity, and rancor rather than truth, cooperation, and brotherhood. Perhaps that too will respond to the message of the Internet, the first and only working anarchy in the history of our race. Perhaps that will be its greatest and most valuable contribution to our lives and evolution.
To find these answers we have little choice but to stick around and see what happens next. Tomorrow is, after all, another day.