Thursday, September 08, 2011

Tech Noir

This might end up being a "tl;dr" essay, so please forgive me in advance. I'll try to be brief, but some of the concepts need exploring.
I woke up this morning at 3AM to the sound of garbage cans being emptied by the sanitation collectors. I couldn't get back to sleep, partly from the startle, partly because I just don't sleep so well anymore.
Mostly, because I started to think about Glenn Beck.
Well, sort of. His name came up in the monologue.
See, I started to think about the past twenty years of hatred and intolerance...really, fifty years, but liberal thought had managed to mask the undercurrent in American society and like mushrooms in a dank basement, hated took root and spored.
It's not that hatred is a new concept in America. Ask a turn-of-the-century Italian, or Catholic. Ask any black man from any era, frankly. Ask a woman. Ask someone gay.
It's that hatred has become mainstream. That's a novel situation in America, to be honest. Yes, there have been strands of hatred that seemed mainstream, but they've been beaten back and repudiated. I'm not sure that can happen this time, at least not for a while. Let me get into why.
To sum it up in a word: technology.
Human history suggests that advances in technology have mostly paced human development. I think that's because technology has been accessible to the layperson almost right away. (There are exceptions, and I'm getting to that.)
Some caveman smacked a flint rock and started a fire. It's not an unlikely scenario to suggest that happened on more than one occasion accidentally. The technology of fire rarely needed to be transferred or communicated. Another sharpened a rock into a knife. Similarly, it seems like an event that transcended special knowledge.
Smelting metal, hammering brass, working with iron and steel, all seem to be accessible technologies. Even if you couldn't figure it out for yourself, once it was taught to you, it wasn't hard to replicate. You could study it, adapt it, improve it. Moreover, you understood the dynamics, even if the underlying physics or chemistry was completely unknown to you. Fire hot, rock melt, glowing stuff hammer: sword.
Naturally, with technology came applications. Nothing is invented in a vacuum because inventions come about through need. Or opportunity. Usually, the first applications of any technology, from rock knives to fire to swords to gun powder and so on, is warfare.
Whether it's killing your neighbor or wiping out the next kingdom, you're going to use the latest technology because either your opponent doesn't have it, or more, because he does. Rare is the occurence where a lighter-technology overcomes a more advanced technology, and usually that comes down to incompetent application of the more advanced technology.
Side note: You might think 9/11 was such a case, but spot on, you'd be wrong. I'll demonstrate momentarily.
Even as late as the invention of the automobile, we obtained a technology that the average educated person could fathom. I mean, really, think about it: you turn a key or press a button, which completes an electrical circuit that sends an impulse down a wire that jumps a gap that's in a closed cylinder filled with explosive vapor that creates a pressure wave forcing a piston downward, which is connected to and impels motion in a wheel.
That's your basic car engine, in a nutshell. And among the first widespread uses of the automobile was warfare. It allowed information...key word move faster, weaponry to be deployed farther and faster, and troops to be repositioned.
Ultimately, however, technology becomes deployed for more benign purposes to the general population. Fire becomes cooking, knives become utensils, swords become...well, letter openers, gunpowder becomes fireworks, guns get used for hunting food, and engines become the family station wagon.
The 20th century saw a phenomenon unheard of in past milennia. We started to see the rise of technology that was limited in access to the general population. Airplanes, for example. Yes, the physics of flight is fairly simple: you have to generate lift that overcomes the weight of an object. How many people have driver's licenses versus how many have pilot's licenses?
There's a reason for that: piloting a plane requires a mastery of three dimensional thinking, a specialized training that, because of the hazards and conditions, is not available to everyone who walks up to a plane. Indeed, we pay good money (and often, pretty lousy money) to people with that special knowledge to get us from point A to point B safely. How many of us have chauffeurs, tho?
You can go down the list of technologies invented in the 20th century and find any number of instances where technology has exceeded human ken and evolution. Biotechnologies, genetic engineering, computers, atomic energy.
Software. And here's where we start to get into the rant.
Now, let me preface this by saying I'm no Luddite. I've studied computer science with experts. I can program in BASIC, Fortran, COBOL, and compile assembly code. I've used PCs since the early 80s. Even today, I can still crack my knuckles and write a simple Visual BASIC program for Excel or a macro for Word.
When I learned to use computers, we had to write our own programming. Conditional commands, root calls, subroutines...we understood by looking what a program was supposed to do-- usually because we were scratching our heads trying to figure out why it wasn't working. We got our hands dirty from start to finish. I've written ten punch card programs to add two numbers and print the answer out.
There was a time when MicroSoft held the patent for the most complex single piece of human engineering in history: Windows NT. Software had become so complex that no one person would ever again write a complete program. If you needed to splice in the time into a program, you could buy an off-the-shelf piece of component software. You'd work on one small part of a program, while a group of programmers were dedicated to melding your facet into the larger whole, comprised of hundreds of other facets and calls.
It became a religious ritual, frankly. A scriptorium of monks from the Middle Ages would feel at home, as each worked on a separate page of the Bible, illuminating passages, scribing chapters and verses. 
And like those religious rituals, it was shrouded in mystery from hoi polloi. 
Do you understand how blogging software works? Could you explain it in a sentence? And that's relatively simple word-processing/database management stuff! Imagine a CAD program. 
But wait, there's more to this analogy.
Information from the Bible was passed along in ritual fashion, designed primarily to manipulate the populace through propaganda, and a faith in the purveyors of that information: the priests, the bishops, the Pope. Similarly, in this great information age, where nominally anything should be available to anyone, we are so inundated with data that we rely on others to sort it all out for us (myself included, and by reading this, you too.)
Now...marry the two concepts in your head for a moment: technology is used first and foremost in warfare, and information is shrouded in mystery and parceled out in easily digestible bits and bytes.
And now you know why I was awake at three AM, thinking of Glenn Beck. The right wing, the folks who own much of the infrastructure-- radio networks, computer software companies, internet providers, media firms-- to declare technowar on the world, have declared war not on Iran or Al Qaeda (altho they too have been targeted) but on the American people.
That's the bummer. The good news is...well, anyone know how the church lost its stranglehold on the Bible?
That's right: someone common invented the printing press and a new way for information to be distributed came of age.