A Time of Transition/The Human Connection

Published on Wednesday, April 16, 01997  •  27 years ago
Written by Danny Hillis for Association for Computing Machinery

You can tell that something unusual is going on these days by the way we draw our graphs. In normal times, we would use a linear scale to plot progress. The height of our graph would be proportional to the measure of progress. But we live at a remarkable moment in history, when progress is so rapid that we plot it on a logarithmic scale.

In the field of computing we have become accustomed to measures that double every few years: processor speeds, communication bandwidths, the number of sites on the Internet, so we plot them on a scale that shows each order of magnitude as an equal step. By plotting on a log-labeled scale (1,10,100,1000) we can imagine progress as a straight line, moving steady upwards with the advance of time. This gives us a comfortable illusion of predictability.

Of course, if we used a linear scale to plot these same curves, they would not look so tame. They would be exponentials, shooting uncontrollably off the page. They would make it look as if everything that has happened so far is an insignificant prelude to what will happen next. On a linear scale, the exponents look unpredictable. The curves approach vertical, converging on a singularity, where the rules break down and something different begins.

The two ways of plotting progress correspond to different attitudes about technological change. I see the merits in both. As an engineer, I am an extrapolator. I am a believer in, and a participant in, the march of progress. As an engineer, I like semi-log scales. But I am also a parent, a citizen, a teacher and a student. I am an object, not just an agent of change. As an object and as an observer, I can see clearly that there is something extraordinary going on. The explosion of the exponentials reveals a truth: We are alive at a special and important moment. We are becoming something else.

This century, fifty years back and fifty forward, is one of those rare times in history when humanity transforms from one type of human society to another. To use a physical analogy, we are in the mist of a phase transition, when the configuration of the system is switching between two locally stable states. In this transition technology is the catalyst. It is a self-amplifying agent of change, in the sense that each improvement tends to increase its capacity to improve. Better machines enable us to build even better machines. Faster computers let us design faster computers, faster.

Change was not always like this. For most of human history, parents could expect their grandchildren to grow up in a world much like their own. For most of human history, parents knew what they needed to know to teach their children. Planning for the future was easier then. Architects designed cathedrals that would take centuries to complete. Farmers planted acorns to shade their descendants with oaks. Today, starting a project that would not be completed for century or two would seem odd. Today, any plan more than a year is "long-term".

Why have we become so short sighted? We have no less goodwill than our ancestors. Our problem is that, literally, we cannot imagine the future. The pace of technological change is so great that we cannot know what type of world we are leaving for our children. If we plant acorns, we cannot reasonably expect that our children will sit under the oaks trees. Or that they will even want to. The world is changing too fast for that. People move. Needs change. Much of our generation is employed at jobs which our parents never imagined. Entire industries, indeed entire nations, can whither in the blink of an eye.

All of this confusion becomes understandable, even expected, if we accept the premise that we are in a time of transition from one type of society to another. We should no more expect to understand the occupations of our grandchildren than a hunter-gatherer would understand the life of a farmer, or no more than a pre-industrial farmer would understand the life of a factory worker. All we can really expect to understand is the good in what we leave behind.

So what are we humans becoming? What ever it is, is more connected, more interdependent. Few individuals today could survive outside the fabric of society. No city could stand alone with being continuously fed from the outside by networks of power, water, food and information. Few nations could maintain their lifestyles without trade. The web of our technology weaves us together, simultaneously enabling us and forcing us to depend more on one another.

As we are becoming more deeply connected to each other, we are simultaneously becoming more connected with our creations. Each time I watch a worker on an assembly line, a violinist with a violin, or a child with a computer, I am struck by how intimate we have become with our technology. Already, our contact lenses and our pacemakers are as much a part of us as our hair and teeth. With recombinant biotechnology we will blur the final boundary between artifacts and ourselves.

In 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, "Is it a fact - or have I dreamed it - that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence!" Now, more than a century later, we can see the signs of his vision. The collective intelligence of the world's minds, biological and electronic, already make many of our economic decisions. The prices of commodities and the rates of global growth are determined by this network of people and machines in ways that surpass the understanding of any single human mind. The phone system and the Internet have short-circuited distance, literally "vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time".

There are other, subtler signs, that we are becoming a part of a symbiotic whole. It is obvious that we have become more narrowly specialized in our professions, but we are also becoming more specialized in the activities of our daily lives.

Increasingly we fragment our activities into pure components. We either work or play, exercise or relax, teach or learn. We divide our art, our science, our politics and our religion into carefully separated spheres. There was an older kind of human that kept these things together, a kind a person who worked and played and taught and learned all at the same time. That kind of person is becoming obsolete. Integration demands standardization. Just as a single cell in our body is adapted to a specific function and a specific time, we too must focus our roles. An earlier kind of cell could sense, move, digest, and reproduce continuously, but such a self-sufficient unit cannot function as a part of a complex whole.

I cannot help but feel ambivalent at the prospect of this brave new world, in which I will be a small part of a symbiotic organism that I can barely comprehend. But then, I am a product of another kind of society, one that celebrates the individual. My sense of identity, my very sense of survival, is based on a resistance to becoming something else. Just as one of my hunting-gathering ancestors would surely reject my modern city life, so do I feel myself rebelling at this metamorphosis. This is natural. I imagine that caterpillars are skeptical of butterflies.

As frightened as I am by the prospect of this change, I am also thrilled by it. I love what we are, yet I cannot help but hope that we are capable of turning into something better. We humans can be selfish, foolish, shortsighted, even cruel. Just as I can imagine these weaknesses as vestiges of our (almost) discarded animal past, I can imagine our best traits -- our kindness, our creativity, our capacity to love -- as hints of our future. This the basis for my hope.

I know I am a relic. I am a pre-symbiotic kind of person, born during the time of our transition. Yet, I feel lucky to have been given a glimpse of our promise. I am overwhelmed when I think of it... by the sweet sad love of what we were, and by the frightening beauty of what we might become.

Hawthorne quote is as quoted in Darwin Among the Machines, by George Dyson (Addison-Wesley-Longman)

First published in Communications of the ACM in 01997.

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