postheadericon ECS: Is Tech Making Our Lives Easier?

When my ECS editor first posed this topic: “Is technology making our lives easier?” I had to laugh out loud, and sure was glad that our communications are exclusively done through email - as not to embarrass. It’s not that the topic is silly; on the contrary, it’s not, but I had just spent the better part of the morning getting my email to work while on the road. I had some sort of SMTP setting wrong on my IMAP server...

Huh?

This, and problems just like this, often make me wonder if technology is indeed making our lives easier - or just frenetically more frustrating.

So I skyped my wife and asked her, “Has technology made your life easier?”

“Silly boy, of course it has,” she skyped back with a smiley face. “I can’t imagine anything easier then shopping online.”

Point taken. But while shoe shoppers on Zappos.com may find shopping for new boots easier, what about the Zapppos.com employee and DHL delivery person that must make multiple deliveries before that one shoe sale is finally completed? For example, the last time I shopped Zappos, I returned a pair of Reeboks FOUR times before I was happy. That surely must have frustrated someone...

But what I find more interesting about this question is that Technology, easy or hard, good or evil, maybe required for us to continue surviving as a species. In other words, even if we hate technology, find it difficult, wish for the olden days, etc., we absolutely need technology to carry on, as without it, we would all be in deep doo doo.

I got to thinking about this just yesterday while over at newscientist.com, where I found an interesting article about llama dung, corn and the Incas. According to research done by Alex Chepstow-Lusty, scientists have concluded that the “seed change” for the Incas (and the empire that they built) was rooted in a single new technology of the time: organic fertilizer. That’s right, llama poop allowed the Incas to switch from hunting and gathering to maize production. Once the storehouses were full of this portable, high-energy food source, the Incas had more leisure time to devote to more advanced activities, like metal weapons production and subsequent pillaging & plundering.

So goes the role of technology throughout history. Gunpowder for the Chinese, Romans and their roads, Britain and the blast furnace, America and its Manhattan Project, are all examples following along this vein. And the 21st century seed change is arguably electronics, and what they have brought about: quantum (and personal) computers, nanotechnology, biotechnology, green technologies, and space travel.

Today’s explosion of electronic devices has set off others of interest as well (besides exploding iPods and imploding nuclear reactors), and that’s the “data explosion.” Just 8 years ago it was estimated that the total amount of data online was 5 exabytes. To put that into perspective, 5 exabytes is the amount of computer storage needed to hold every single word ever uttered by a human being. Today, it is estimated that over 21 exabytes of data flow over the Internet each and every month, and that number continues to climb.

But the “amount of data” is not the only number exploding exponentially. The number of users of data is exploding as well, along with the revenue streams that all these numbers ultimately translate into. 500 million Facebook users, who click an estimated 3 billion LIKE buttons per day. 200 million Twitter users, whose base is growing at a rate of 1400% a year. 2 million Google searches each and every minute, with Google’s net worth now estimated to be over $190 billion USD. These numbers are unprecedented in anything we can find in human history.

But the real question boils back to where we began: is any of this going to help us as individuals, or better yet, as a species?

Well, let’s consider the printing press (a seed change of sorts from the middle ages) and compare that to printing and reading today. Out of the 32 million titles catalogued by the Library of Congress, 3 million of those books are now available online, and can be freely read using your mobile phone or other e-reader. There are also over 4 million online newspapers, with the average Internet user (all 2 billion or so of them) visiting at least one newspaper every time they get connected.

Unprecedented. But where is this all going?

Enough energy (in time) is spent online using Farmville and Cityville in a single day to feed and house the entire planet (if only these virtual crops hosted on Zynga could be translated into real food and shelter for the masses). But has world hunger lessened one bit since the introduction of the Internet? No.

I often have to sit back and laugh at technology (perhaps to keep from crying). I can remember a time when the remote control for a TV set was new technology, and a bit of a struggle to use. Now, I simply can’t find it. I can remember a time when I had to manually type in a table of contents for a report that I was writing; now, I can do that automatically, but only after installing the lasted version of Microsoft Word, rebooting my computer, and then scanning for virus infections for about an hour or two. I can also remember a time when I did everything without the use of a personal computer, but now I can’t do anything at all without one...

My wrists hurt (Carpel Tunnel Syndrome), my eyes are weaker (Computer Vision Syndrome) and my back pains all the time (Musculoskeletal Degeneration) - all from using a computer for the past 25 years. And while I can find out anything about everything online, I can’t seem to remember anything about anything offline.

I am sure that technology is making my life easier (somehow), but at what cost, and at what benefit to others? Perhaps it’s too early to begin looking for those answers, besides, they’re not in Google yet.

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Jiggy Gaton
lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.
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