Friday, July 1, 2011

Stopping to Smell the Technological Roses

Interesting times. Here it comes again. Another cheezy "ain't life awesome?" moment from Neal. You've been warned...continue at your own risk.

I'm sitting on a plane writing this post using the brand new Motorola XOOM I just got recently, while listening to Andrew Bird's latest album in CD quality stereo. I spent an hour or so scribbling some design notes for the next big feature to be implemented in TelemetryWeb, and just got done watching a couple of TED Talk videos in HD that I downloaded before the flight. I'm doing all this while travelling hundreds of miles per hour, 30,000 feet above the surface of the planet, in total comfort. Sure, I'm flying coach. But it sure beats trying to go from Atlanta to Minneapolis in a stagecoach on a dirt road.

As a technologist, these are my favorite moments. Those times when the power and potential of everything the human race is building crashes over you like a giant wave.

One of the TED Talks was by Ed Boyden. He showed how his team is beaming rays of light directly into a mouse's brain cells to alleviate problems ranging from depression to blindness. I like to think that I'm working on some pretty bleeding-edge stuff, but his technology is just plain nutty.

I dare anyone to watch a few TED talks and NOT feel good about all the smart people doing amazing things out there in the intersection between technology and society. Most of the technology we interact with simply didn't exist 150 years ago. Air conditioning. Internal combustion engines. Recorded sound and video. Computers. Airplanes. Space travel. The percentage of people globally who own a cell phone is staggering...even in some of the poorest parts of Africa.

Sure, there's a lot of bad stuff going on too. Sony's PlayStation Network got hacked. Heroku was under a DDoS attack. Amazon's cloud went down. Credit card information is being stolen from someone as we speak. An exploit kit for SCADA networks has been published to the wild. And the government still sucks at cyber security and protecting privacy. I'm not even going to start talking about recent wars and nuclear disasters.

It is true: the more we build, the more problems we create for ourselves. And maybe someday we'll create a problem so big that it will be the end of us all. But so far technology has an outstanding track record for fixing more problems than it makes. Our lives today are longer and more comfortable overall than any previous time in history, by just about any measure you can judge. The planet's capacity for producing food 100 years ago couldn't possibly support the world's population today, yet the majority of humans worry less today about finding their next meal than ever before.

We're going to have to double our capacity again by 2050 to support the world's population growth, and figure out how to do it all with the same amount of water that we have today. These are BIG problems to solve.

But take a step back and appreciate where we are, how far we've come, and how rapidly innovation and technology is accelerating. Give yourself just a moment to believe that we will find solutions for these problems. It'll make you feel least until you turn on the 5 o'clock news.

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