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A few years ago, the Irish National Archives digitised  the census documents of 1911 and put them all on the Internet for us to see. Long-forgotten grandparents and great-grandparents were suddenly transformed into young fathers and mothers, small children and teenagers. New names were introduced to us. We were given a feeling for their occupations, their family circumstances and their positions in society. Limited though the census documents were, these people who lived a hundred years ago came to life in front of our eyes. This was the Internet at its best, providing us with a window into history.

I’m reminded of this because Google Inc. recently opened Street View to the country of Ireland. Almost every road and boreen has been mapped and it all now comes to us in full 360 degree panoramas, each image no more than 10 metres apart, covering 80,000 kilometres of roadway; terabytes upon terabytes of information freezing the Ireland of 2009 and 2010 in perpetuity.

What a treasure trove of information for the future historian. It is now possible for our children’s children to see Ireland exactly as it was during this time. They will see our dress, our cars, our gardens, our farms and our workplaces. They will witness history in the making as the Irish boom economy shuddered to a dramatic halt: the newly constructed motorways and bridges alongside the empty buildings and ghost estates; the Polish and Lithuanian shops that signified a new era of multiculturalism and the wind turbines making their appearance over the landscape as we began the painful process of weaning ourselves off the seductions of fossil fuel.

Presumably these Street View images will be updated regularly, so not only will it be possible to see Ireland as it once was, but also how our country changes gradually throughout the century. I’m assuming, of course, that all these records will not be erased; a reasonable assumption should Moore’s Law continue to hold sway over the coming years.

If there is a snag, it is that all this data is the property of a successful private company whose primary interests do not necessarily coincide with those of the citizens of a sovereign state. Although there is no sign that Google are carrying out this mapping effort with anything other than the best of motives, whether they will continue to act benevolently and responsibility with such information is a difficult question to answer. A hundred years is a long time – long enough for industries to grow and disappear and for companies to change utterly from what they once were, if they exist at all. Public information – photos of many the roadways throughout the world – has been privatised. Governments should now be thinking about how that information should be placed, eventually, back into public hands.

With Street View, Google have created a resource of unimaginable value for future historians. Here’s hoping it’s there for all to see in the years to come.

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Cheney passes into history

I was originally going to post a snarky message comparing the ex-VP to Peter Seller’s comic creation, but then I saw this photo and realised that what I was trying to do wasn’t really that funny.  What I see instead is pathetic and rather sad.

Here is a man whom history has already judged. Over the coming years, as the threat of censure fades, as the files documenting the Bush Presidency get released, the judgement of future generations is destined to get much, much harsher.

For Dick Cheney, there will be no kind epitaphs. No entry into the pantheon of the American Greats. No statues or streets named after him outside of his home state. Merely whispers, rumours and that background radiation of anger that accompanies the memory of someone who did so much to spread misery and resentment during his time in the limelight.

singularity

Evidence has come to light over the past few decades that the ancestors of modern man spent, not a few years, but hundreds of millennia fashioning very primitive tools out of stone in the Olduvai Gorge in Kenya. Throughout that time almost no change in style took place. Sons and daughers simply learned the craft from their parents without, it seems, adding or enhancing the technology. Technological development had reached a plateau.

Now let’s move the clock forward to 200,000 years ago, to the beginning of anatomically modern humans. The tools had changed and social organisation had advanced to the point that humans were able to spread around the world, dominating and sometimes defeating those species that stood in our way. But nevertheless, the technologies throughout this time remained relatively primitive. For much of the last 200,000 years, people lived in small hunter-gatherer communities, surviving from day to day. No great works. No monuments. Despite our slow spread around the globe, change was severely limited by the scarcity of important resources such as food.

Then, only 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, we discovered agriculture. Towns, cities, kings and queens came into existence. Professions and trades were born. Laws and religions developed. Writing was discovered and men went to war in large numbers. Great monuments grew out of the deserts and the jungles. But nevertheless, there was a lot we did not understand. We didn’t have the tools or technology to allow us to fly, or understand the universe, or even to cure the simplest of diseases. It was as if again we had reached a limit in terms of our understanding of the world.

Then along came Science. In the last 400 years, human beings have begun to systematically understand ourselves and our surroundings, to put aside our magical fantasies and to discover what really works. We learned how to put things together to make better things; how to take the properties of the physical realm to beam pictures and ideas around the world; how to put people into outer space; how to cure and prevent the worst afflictions such as Typhoid and Smallpox and how to lay waste an entire nation at the press of a button.  

Even during this decade this progress has continued unabated. We have put probes on Mars, unravelled the human genome and spotted planets revolving around distant stars. You can store the entire contents of the Library of Congress in a few small boxes beside your desk. You can search for and find the information you need, from anywhere in the world, in mere seconds. Faster and faster and faster and faster. As if this progress were approaching an asymptote, a singularity.

It makes you wonder, where will all this progress lead to?

Will we reach a point where this seemingly exponential rise in technology will continue unabated, or will things level off as we reach the limits of our abilities, as yet undefined? Are we living through a short transition point between an early agricultural and an advanced technological civilisation? Will we reach a new plateau, and what might that plateau look like?

A few scenarios come to light, some bad, some good.

The gloomiest and yet more probable of scenarios suggests that our recent advances will end in tears, with humanity blowing itself apart or enacting such a huge price from the environment that the planet seeks revenge, taking us and a large section of our fellow travelling species into oblivion.

A less gloomy scenario suggests that, while not destroying our species, humanity is reset back to the dark ages, or into hunter gathering mode, perhaps to rise again in a few millennia, only to meet a similar eventual fate in due course. A periodic rise/ collapse cycle fluctuating in tune with future Ice Ages perhaps.

Or perhaps we will find some way to live sustainably, in concert with the planet, while not sacrificing our technological knowledge in the process. Could it be that we will look at technology in the same way as we look at door-knobs, napkins and salt-cellars nowadays: where there is little scope for development apart from the vagaries of modern fashions? In this scenario, generations will pass and fads will change, but the overall technology framework will remain roughly constant, just like those humanoids in the Olduvai Gorge so many years ago. 

Maybe indeed all this talk of technological progress is a mirage. Instead, the big events in human society: war, disease, over-population, ideology and catastrophe, drive technology over the longer term as opposed to the prevailing view that technology is in the driving seat.  Perhaps we are simply too close to events to note how technology will adapt to the human story over a span of thousands and hundreds of thousands of years. We think we are driven by technology, but perhaps it is only a blip in a much bigger picture in the development of our species.

In an alternative rendition of our future, we are on a course for unending techological advance. Perhaps our curiousity and propensity to keep innovating will know no bounds? Perhaps we will keep on bending, breaking and redefining the limits of the possible? Maybe, as some suggest, we will pass on our propensity for innovation into robots, nano-machines and newly created biological forms, thus maintaining the acceleration indefinitely? 

Is it not too wild to suggest that the end game in all this is a journey to the stars? It may be that we are on course to developing the capabilities needed to cross the multi-trillion kilometer gulfs between our Sun and its neighbours? So in this case, as we board the ships to the sky, the acceleration might come to a sudden halt, to be replaced thousands of years hence by a new burst of activity, followed by further intense cycles of innovation as future generations disperse, ever so steadily, across the galaxy.

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