TT: Speeding into the Future

JANE: Last week you said – and provided a lovely example from Lost in Space – how the expectation of a thing being done faster and more efficiently has long been integral to how we imagine technology will change the future.

But how far should we take those expectations? Recently you e-mailed me apologies because you hadn’t responded to an e-mail of mine within a very few hours – and yet you live on the other side of the world! I remember a friend of

Past into Future

Past into Future

mine grumping 20 years ago about the people who expected her to e-mail back immediately “And I have real letters from real friends I haven’t answered yet.”

ALAN: Excuse me being frivolous for a moment, but this puts me in mind of a very old SF story by (I think) A. E. Van Vogt. The protagonist is an inveterate letter writer who notices that the post office sometimes takes weeks to deliver a letter from him to the house just across the street, but takes only a few days to deliver a letter to the other side of town. A letter to the other side of the country can sometimes be delivered within a day! He makes the not unreasonable deduction that the further away the final destination, the quicker the letter will be delivered. To test his hypothesis, he writes a letter to the Galactic Overlord at Alpha Centauri. Two seconds after he posts the letter, the alien invasion fleet appears in sky…

JANE: I like that – and I don’t find it frivolous at all.

ALAN: Oh good! Although the story long pre-dates the internet, I think it is an excellent illustration of just how the expectation of instant gratification that the internet has given us means that the so-called “tyranny of distance” is becoming less and less important. And, speaking as someone who lives in one of the most physically isolated countries on the planet, I can only see this as a good thing.

JANE: I agree, especially since I’ve enjoyed being able to “talk” with you on a daily basis.  Still, I find myself wondering if this speeding up is all for the good.

Another example of a cultural shift caused by the instant availability of information is a move toward “sound bite” politics.   Would anyone today listen to FDR’s longer “fireside chats” or Churchill’s inspirational speeches?

I honestly don’t know.

ALAN: The habit of listening to sound bites (and in some cases preferring them to longer and deeper pieces) is a very real phenomenon. Anecdotal evidence suggests that attention spans are indeed getting shorter and there is a distinct disinclination to spend time coming to grips with things. Again and again I find (sometimes quite complex) articles that have a precis attached to them for the sake of the people who can’t be bothered to read the whole thing. It’s become so much of an accepted approach that there’s even a bit of internet slang for the precis – TL;DR which stands for “Too Long; Didn’t Read”.

Mind you, it’s not really a new phenomenon. Time and again in my working life I’ve prepared detailed reports and design documents which had to be submitted with a “Management Summary” because, of course, the people who have asked for the information in the first place are far too important and far too busy to read the whole thing.

Excuse me, I think my cynicism is showing…

JANE: And for a good reason.  When I was teaching college, I’d encounter students who claimed to have read an article, but had clearly gone no further than the abstract.  I guess “TL;DR” is a modern expression for something that has been going on for a long time.  We can’t blame modern technology for it!

Another cultural shift – no less important but not as often discussed – is that achieving this instant gratification is a matter of having money.

There is a growing gap between those who can buy the internet connectivity device of their choice, the service that enables connectivity, pay the overnight shipping fees, and all the rest.  People who cannot afford this are forced to spend time actually going to shopping centers, libraries, and all the rest.

In addition to the “haves” and “have nots,” which human cultures have always had to some extent or another, we now have the “nows” and the “must waits.”

ALAN: I don’t know what it’s like in America, but there is a movement here to regard internet access as a basic living requirement – something that every house should have, in much the same way that the house must have access to water and electricity. Of course, that doesn’t negate your point. People will still have to find the money to pay their internet bills, just as they have to pay their power bills. But presumably allowances can be made for that, and those people unable to afford the charges would be able to get help from the same social security services that help them with their power bills now.

JANE: I’m sure there are people here making similar arguments, but I don’t know how seriously anyone is considering implementing such a project.  I do know that public libraries now are routinely furnished with computer terminals as a definite attempt to bridge the availability gap.

Especially since so many companies advertise new jobs on-line and even have applications on-line, this is a service someone without a job – and therefore with the need to cut back on expenses – is perceived as needing.

It sounds as if much more is being done in New Zealand.

ALAN: There’s a huge investment being made in infrastructure here, the idea being to bring ultra-fast broadband (UFB) access to as much of the country as possible. I recently had my house connected to the UFB network. The connection itself was free, but I still have to pay the ongoing charges for using the connection, of course. However, those charges are actually slightly cheaper than they were for the older and slower telephone connection that I used to have. So I think I’m winning…

JANE: That sounds interesting.  Progress is definitely slower here.  Many of our friends thought Jim and I were being stubbornly retro when we didn’t get a high speed internet connection but, fact of the matter was that, unless we purchased it as part of a larger cable package, we couldn’t get a higher speed connection.  Since we didn’t really want cable, we waited until DSL became available.

ALAN: My original telephone connection was DSL. The new UFB connection is through an optical fibre cable and it’s three times faster than DSL was. For an extra $10 a month I could have had a connection that was ten times faster – but I couldn’t think what to do with something that fast, so I didn’t bother. Maybe next year…

JANE: So it seems we’re right in suggesting that, by definition, as technology progresses, the faster everything becomes… if you’re willing to pay!

ALAN: I’ll drink to that!

JANE:  Ah, that reminds me of something I meant to bring up weeks ago.  I’ll save it for next time!


10 Responses to “TT: Speeding into the Future”

  1. James M. Six Says:

    I want to read that van Vogt story. Any idea what its title was?

  2. Paul Dellinger Says:

    I had to look up “TL;DR” (I’m out of touch in many ways) and I know about shorter attention spans, and yet books seem to be getting bigger (I’m reading a 400+paperback now from the 1980s). Maybe readers tend to buck the general trend?

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    Just remember, hacking is now a global phenomenon too. If you’re careless about security, someone can hack into your internet-enabled car, your internet-enabled house, your internet-enabled baby monitor, not to mention your laptop (with that camera that’s looking at you right now), your school records, your hospital, your power-plant…

    But the internet is just so gosh darn convenient, isn’t it?

    If you want to know a bit more about computer security, I recommend regularly reading Bruce Schneier’s blog.

  4. Alex Says:

    In New Zealand, access to the internet is considered so important that WINZ (the NZ social welfare) will loan beneficiaries money to buy smart phones and then deduct a small amount off their benefits each week to pay back the loan. Smartphones are available for as little as $50 and there are many pay as you go plans for them.

  5. henrietta abeyta Says:

    Still you can be careful and wisely speed up your personal future events. For Guidance And Balance It’s Quite True Trust Your Instincts And Have Acceptance.

    It was three books together that quickly lit up what trusting your instincts mainly means, an Aesop fable book, the 9th book of Ga Hoole and FIREKEEPER’S 5th book altogether.

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