“But Aaron,” you think skeptically, “each new generation thinks it is living through a time of unprecedented change.”
OK. You’ve got a good point. But, what if every new generation — despite the human tendency to behave like drama queens — is actually correct?
In terms of the technologies that shape the way we communicate, analyze, manipulate, and store information, each new generation truly is living in the time of the great and most momentous change in all of history.
Don’t believe me? Think about your grandparents. How many of today’s communication technologies were available when they were born? Were there highways? What about TVs?
Think about your own lifespan. How many new technologies have arrived on the scene since you entered elementary school?
Did you know that we’ve almost completely sequenced the human genome? That researchers have made it possible for monkeys to control robotic arms over thousands of miles using nothing but their thoughts? That this technology is already being tested on human beings with FDA approval? Have you heard about the ampakine drugs that enhance human memory and make it possible to get by with two hours of sleep a night?
What? OK. Go ahead and Google the monkey thing. I know you don’t believe me. I’ll wait.
Back? Great. There’s much, much more, but we can hold off for now. The human brain can only handle so much new information at once. Let’s talk about something more familiar to most of us: computers and the internet.
For the better part of four decades, computer processing power has been doubling every two years. This is sometimes referred to as Moore’s Law (though it is really just an observation), and experts predict that the trend will continue for the next two decades before running into physical limits.
Imagine that you won the lottery and could choose between two types of prizes. In the first option, you would receive $1 million instantly. In the second option, you would start with a very small stake — say one penny — that doubles with each new day of the month. One penny on the first day, two pennies on the next, four pennies the day after that, and so on. Which would you choose, and why?
If you’ve heard the riddle before, you know that the second option is better. By the end of the month, your payout would be $2.7 million. And that assumes that you won the lottery in February. If you won the lottery in a month with 31 days, you would be looking at a payout of $21.4 million.
This same trend of exponential growth is happening with computers (and biotechnology). The blistering speed — the accelerating rate of change — is transforming human culture and politics in unthinkable ways. And today’s internet has evolved far beyond the clunky tool that we were using during the dot.com boom.
New, free, internet-enabled applications include virtual worlds, social-networking software, web logs, mind-mapping tools, syndicated-news feeds, collaborative tagging, and geographic information systems such as Google Earth. Already, many of these applications are enabling the creation of transnational businesses (big and small) and activist groups that leverage the brainpower of ordinary people across national boundaries.
Video games are crucial as well, for their innovative interfaces will soon be folded into standard productivity applications (e.g. word processing, project management, and spreadsheets) in the workplace.
If you are able to follow the chain of reasoning in this column, you are smart enough to use these technologies. If you can afford to pay $20 a month for internet connection, you have access to this software.
So, you need to ask yourself a very simple question: “Am I willing to learn new things?” And, if so, “Am I willing to continue learning new things for the rest of my life?”
And, please don’t kid yourself into thinking that you’re too old to become a global netizen. The myth that technological literacy is the exclusive domain of youth is dangerous and inaccurate. In fact, many college and high-school students share the same anxieties that are flitting through your mind right now.
Only one thing matters: Your willingness to learn.
There are plenty of respectable reasons to “just say no.” Perhaps you think that the world needs to slow down. Perhaps you want to draw a line in the sand and celebrate a non-digital world full of smells, sounds, and the spray of fresh water on your face. Perhaps, at an intuitive and spiritual level, you believe this has all gone much too far, much too fast.
Technological abstinence is a reasonable decision, and one that more people will be making in the near future. But don’t trick yourself into thinking that you’re not capable of learning new things. As a college professor and technology trainer who has worked with ages 4 to 90, I can say unequivocally that you can do this.
You can and must understand technology now.
Find more Aaron Delwiche at Del-wiche.livejournal.com and Sacurrent.com.