Those Annoying Paradigm Shifts
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The other day I went hunting for paradigm shifts, you know: basic changes in the human landscape. Naturally, I followed the geeks. You see, geeks invent things: steam engines, television sets, nuclear fission, MP3 players, online dating.
For the last 150 years, they've altered the underlying structure of society regularly and casually, almost as a kind of hobby. Already people are talking about B.G. and A.G.--"Before Google" and "After Google."
Next week, who knows?
Someone told me that the hottest new paradigms will be wireless, so I followed the geeks to Orlando, where they were holding a mobile technology show.
Inside, I wandered glittering booths showing new smartphones offering streaming TV, GPS, and mobile MySpace. Sure enough, I saw many clever works of the human mind, but always I was thinking…which of these might suddenly remake the world as I know it?
And will I like my new life?
Unfortunately, despite the wording on their press releases, geeks don’t always know what paradigm shift they’re about to create. Often they can’t picture the genii hiding in the bottle.
For example, when Gottlieb Daimler perfected the internal combustion engine and hooked it to a horseless carriage in 1885, I’m sure he had no idea he would launch the first of two world wars less than 30 years later. Yes, that’s right, plenty of historians agree that world wars one and two were probably the inevitable result of jeeps, tanks and airplanes.
Motion pictures were invented by folks who wanted to make a few bucks on a carnival sideshow. They never intended to remake the entire world in the image of Hollywood.
I do think that when Carl Djerassi invented the birth control pill, he knew it might launch a sexual revolution. But when Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, he probabily failed to imagine middle-aged businessmen being hauled to jail for downloading child pornography.
And certainly the guy who invented plastic explosives didn’t realize he was making it possible for two or three fanatics to destablize the nation-state.
All in all, little progress has been made on predicting the actual results of progress. Which is why, this afternoon, the Urban Man walks the wireless show with some fear.
For example, I find the president of Visa promoting a cell phone that doubles as a credit card. You can just waive it at a point-of-sale terminal or send money to your friends as a text message. Sounds great, but who knows, someone may use it to shift the very economy of our lives. Through a chain of unknowable events, we may all end up working for some bank in Argentina.
And here’s a product that lets your phone do video webcasting, so hundreds of friends can join you live at any location. Great fun, and you need never be alone again. But who knows, someday it may overturn the jury system or the two-party system or by some mysterious process, NATO.
At last I come to a guy showing software that tracks other people’s cell phones as little blinking dots on an aerial projection. At first I think, how charming! Just like Harry Potter with his "marauder’s map"--only better, because it covers the whole world. Bosses can now track their employees and wives can track their husbands with a click of the mouse.
The nice man assures me this product has been out since last summer, and it has not yet shifted the human landscape. Still I get a slight chill. I think, "Is this just one more clever improvement from a lovable geek? Or will it eventually lead to the dissolution of the family? Pound the final nail in the union movement?
At last, the Urban Man asks: "Excuse me, but do you warrant your technology against unforeseen consequences?"
For a moment we both smile…but neither of us laughs.
Copyright © 2007 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
Image Credit: Mike & Jodie Coston
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