Waking Up in Time

Information - The Currency of Culture


To get to know each other on a world-wide scale is the human race’s most urgent need today

Arnold Toynbee

The most rapidly growing technologies today are information technologies. Often called the “new technology”, technologies that assist us in the processing of information are far from new. In fact, they are some of our oldest technologies.

Our first information technology was writing. Limited to speech alone ideas could not travel far without distortion or loss. Writing enabled us to make more permanent records of our experiences.

Initially we recorded our ideas on slabs of stone, but these were difficult to transport. The development of the pen and of papyrus overcame this handicap. Our learnings could then be shared with others in distant lands.

Convenient as they were, manuscripts had to be copied by hand -- a process that was both slow and prone to error. This drawback was overcome with the invention of the printing press, 550 years ago. Over the next half-century eight million books were produced. The philosophies of the Greeks and Romans were distributed, the Bible became widely accessible, and through various “how to” books the skills of many crafts were disseminated, paving the way to the Renaissance.

The development of the telegraph in the early 1800s made it possible for the written word to be sent across vast distances. This was followed fifty years later by the telephone, linking people through the spoken word. The time to convey a message across the world had dropped from months to seconds.

Twenty-five years later the “wireless” freed people from the need to be linked by cable in order to communicate. Information could be made available to multitudes simultaneously.

Then came the phonograph, television, tape recording and photocopying; each amplifying further our ability to circulate information.

Today computers have brought another breakthrough in information processing. More data than any human brain could ever entertain can be scanned, analyzed, evaluated, selected, and distributed—and in seconds.

This enhanced processing capacity has had a positive feedback on material technology. It enabled us to design and build larger and more complex items—bridges, aircraft, dams, buildings, tunnels, boats, space vehicles—and to guide and control the processes of production, leading to increased automation in almost every area of life.

Moreover, the more that our technology advanced, the more did our ability to gather and process information. Progress fed back on itself in an ever-tightening spiral, increasing the pace at every turn.



Not only are we doing more, we are doing it with less and less -- a process that Buckminster Fuller called “ephemeralization.” The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome -- the largest of its time -- took 5,000 tons of stone and forty years to build. Today we can build a carbon-fiber geodesic dome weighing only a few tons, and erect it in less than a week.

Similar changes have occurred in communication. A quarter-ton satellite can relay more information between Europe and North America than 175,000 tons of copper cable -- and using a fraction of the energy. One optic fiber has the potential for 25 gigahertz of information -- which is about the volume of information that flows over all the telephone lines in the U.S.A. during the peak moment on Mother's Day, or about 1,000 times more information than all the radio frequencies combined. All that on one thread of glass the width of a human hair.

As successive generations of computers moved from the switching of relays to the switching of vacuum tubes to the switching of crystals (and soon, possibly, to the switching of molecules, or even atoms), so computers have very rapidly decreased in size, and equally rapidly increased in power. A laptop of the 1990s has more memory, more flexibility, more functions, more versatility, and is far faster than any computer in existence in 1960, which would have required 2,000 square-feet of space just to house it.

The exponential increase in computer memory is reflected in Moore’s Law which claims that memory capacity doubles every eighteen months. Computer speed follows a similar pattern. Ten years ago a 10 megahertz chip was the norm; five years ago it was 100 megahertz. As I write the first 1,000 megahertz (1 gigahertz) chips have been announced, allowing real time speech recognition, simultaneous translation and a host of other capabilities that were science fiction only a few years back.

As the power-to-size ratio of computers has exploded so have their numbers. When the first computers were built in the mid-1940s, Thomas Watson, the founder and chairman of the company International Business Machines, said “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”, and decided the business was too small to be worth exploring. Twenty years later the company had shortened its name to IBM, and become the largest computer company in the world. Today 200,000 computers are being manufactured each day. And that is just the computers we see. Three to four times that number are produced to be embedded in cars, printers, televisions and cameras, all of them geared to increasing our efficiency -- and hence to pushing the pace of life faster and faster.


Global Interconnection

The communications revolution has also furthered humanity’s integration into a single learning system. The potential to exchange ideas and experiences that began with the emergence of language is now worldwide. Artificial satellites, fiber optics, digital coding, computerized switching, faxes, video links and other advances in telecommunications have woven an ever-thickening web of information flowing around the world -- billions of messages shuttling back and forth at the speed of light. We, the billions of minds of this huge “global brain” are being linked together by the “fibers” of our telecommunications systems in much the same way as are the billions of cells in our own brain.

Through this rapidly growing network of light we can share ideas and experiences not just with those around us, but with anyone, anywhere on the planet. We are moving beyond civilization in its literal sense of “making into towns” -- into globalization. We are moving into a world without walls where distance is no separation. Today I can call up a friend on another continent and have as close a conversation as I could with someone in the same room -- so close in fact that I can easily forget that our bodies are separated by thousands of miles.

The most obvious example of this global integration is the Internet. Originally intended for military use, it was quickly adopted by scientists as a means of exchanging ideas and research. Then came the Worldwide Web. When it was first launched, just eight years ago, it was intended only for text. Shortly afterwards it was decided to exploit its image capabilities, developing the graphical interface we know so well. Then came audio and video-streaming, opening the door to broadcast possibilities. As I write “push” technologies are bringing new revolutions to business on the Internet. Who knows where it will be in another two years? Indeed the pace of change is now so fast that possibly no one knows. Right now there are probably thousands of software developers burning the midnight oil creating some new Internet tool. When it hits our screens in another six months or year, it may trigger others to see novel applications that could radically change the way we think about and use the Internet. As ever, creativity breeds creativity, driving the spiral of development faster and faster.

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Date created: 3-Oct-03