by January 1, 2000 0 comments

A wonderful thing happens with technology. More often than not, evolution of an end product over time makes it an artifact, a remnant of nostalgic value or sometimes, a spillover of legacy. But the wonder of technology is not in looking back with amusement at the abacus of 3000 BC, or getting overawed by the sheer size of a mainframe. It’s in its continual advance from one generation to the other, in how successive generations carry over the products of technology like able-handed athletes passing on the baton in a relay race. And just like racers, tech generations run on the same track, though on different stretches. But there’s only one difference in this relay race analogy–there’s no finishing line for technology.

It’s sometimes necessary to stop for a moment and take stock of how technology–especially information technology–has evolved and made an impact on our lives, and ponder over how it’ll do so in future. That way, one can see the method in the madness and know where one is going. The past is the easy part. You can count what many call the disruptive technologies–those that revolutionized everything in their wake–on your fingers–railroads, telephone, internal combustion engine, printing press, electricity, radio, television, plastic, jet travel, and microchip. The future, however, is elusive though exciting, and the deliberations can be infinite. A few attributes might make it easy to appreciate the infotech phenomena underpinning the way we go about pursuing our everyday lives.

The way we travel
The first big leap in the way we travel was the invention of the steam engine. An entire railroad industry emerged worldwide in the early nineteenth century, and the iron tracks it laid sewed up the planet like never before. Then came the internal combustion engine and engendered the mammoth automobile industry, arguably the biggest in size and impact, in the entire industrial revolution. People got their personal toys to travel in–anywhere they liked, anytime they wanted. Enabled by technologies like computer-aided designing and engineering, most carmakers today roll out millions of cars within weeks. The kind of equipment these automobiles are loaded with makes the journey ever more easier, faster, and enjoyable for commuters. Today, you don’t just drive the car, you catch the morning news and receive business calls while at the wheel. Tomorrow, who knows you might be conducting half your business while driving with a combination of hands-free gizmos that operate as you verbally instruct them.

The way we work
From the agrarian to the industrial to the information economy of today, work culture has undergone tremendous change. As technology progressed, it gave people more tools to work with, more machines to work on, and more technical know-how to categorize them even more finely. The plain blue-collar/white-collar classification doesn’t help much–specialization has become imperative for workers in either category. And it’s not just the classification that’s changed. The way you work has got transformed–from writing letters to sending telegraphic messages to e-mail. The long hand is long gone and the typewriter’s been subsumed by the personal computer. You no longer have to run to the printer to get some urgent invites done, you just take them out on your network printer. With powerful software, you can control the entire network of your organization at one console. In future, you may not even have to do that–companies are working on developing self-healing networks that’ll auto-detect and rectify the snags. Don’t worry, by that time, you’ll have found something else to do!

The way we communicate
The way people communicate has been greatly influenced by several path-breaking advances in communication technology. We’ve come a long way from the rickety telex machines to zippy-smooth digital exchanges, which are increasingly being connected by fiber optic cables. This has made communication faster and more reliable. We’re now moving towards a convergence of voice, data, and video. Earlier, people either got text messages or communicated sound over phone lines, but now they can connect their PCs and simultaneously carry whatever they want to convey in all three modes. Videophones are already being sold in some parts of the world. The recent telecom meet in Geneva saw the release of a wireless specification that’ll enable access to the Internet through cell phones and other information appliances. New technology paradigms are evolving in how people across the world communicate and what they want to communicate. And the more we’re getting connected—wire or no wire—the more we’re communicating. As and when the promise of convergence comes true, a whole new range of devices will emerge that’ll make multi-modal communication possible in real time. The Internet is fast coming up as an alternative to the plain old telephone system. With broadband services being available to consumers and televisions too getting connected to the Net, the future of communications will, at best, be a wild, wild guess.

The way we live
Of all the things technology has produced so far, nothing’s got consumers so hooked on as the World Wide Web. Previous major inventions like electricity or the telephone impacted the average person’s life tremendously, but gradually. The Web, in contrast, is weaving its way into everything human on a similar scale, and at a much faster pace. People worldwide are increasingly logging the virtual world into their lives—and logging some part of the real world out. So much so that we now hear of cyber dating and marriages. We know how people exchange recipes on the Net, play games off the banner, or chat fervently about the possibility of Third World War. They use the Net as the world’s largest library, the largest message exchange, the largest shopping mall, the largest community center, the largest…It looks like we’re witnessing a rapid transition of a large chunk of the physical world to a vast wilderness of cyberspace. With over 15 billion microchips sitting inside an entire gamut of appliances—from computers to microwave ovens to washing machines to digital cameras—the world’s getting more and more connected into a digital continuum. Without doubt, this enormous connectivity has the potential to turn every single aspect of our personal lives on its head.

In the first century of this new millennium, technology will undergo the toughest test of its promise—is it really making a difference to our lives? As the hype about what IT can do continues to build up, people across the planet are somehow looking up to IT, especially the Internet, as some sort of a savior, an equalizer, a great leveler. The big question is—have we reached anything like a threshold where we can make some really big promises? If one looks at the kind of research underway in laboratories around the world in fields such as genetic engineering, biotechnology, and
nanotechnology, among others, the answer is hard to come by. In all probability, Arthur C Clarke’s famous quote —“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”—will continue to hold charm throughout this century and well into the millennium.

And that’s another wonderful thing that happens with technology.

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