Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Technological Regression

An IT manager's life is circumscribed by technology. Most days, he or she takes up a position in the spectrum of technology far closer to the technophiles than the technophobes. Mind you, there are times when the language expressed in the confines of my office definitely turns the air blue.


Yesterday, for example, after having painstakingly created backups for all my work and personal data from my notebook computer for the refresh of my system and upgrade to Windows Vista, I dropped my external hard drive. Today it's not working. My only other backup is incomplete and dates to 20 days earlier. Aaaargh!


Sometimes, the pen and a pad of paper looks very appealing.


But that would be regressive, wouldn't it? And regression is bad, bad, bad...isn't it? Still, I find myself thinking about technological regression and how and why it occurs, because occur it does.


I've just finished reading a massive and highly entertaining novel by Stephen Baxter called Evolution: A Novel. And because I never read one book at a time, I am 3/4's of the way through Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. Neither book is about information technology in the early part of the 21st century. Instead the scope is about global history for the past 13,000 years for the latter, and the entire history of life on earth for the former. In both cases, technological regression not only happens, but is virtually inevitable.


It seems that human populations in isolation (Tasmania since about 10,000 years ago until 1642) not only often fail to develop new technology at all, but often lose what little technology they had. In fact, population densities of several hundred are almost guaranteed to sink back into a pre-technological backwater. Even several thousand is no guarantee that a social unit will grow beyond hunting and gathering.  Environmental factors play a huge role in whether or not societies advance technologically.


Both my novel and non-fiction reading recently have been characterized by themes of technology, evolution, social development, counterfactual history (a kind of what-if analysis), and broad, imaginative rethinking of our place in the universe. And I am humbled. But not just from reading.


My personal life for the past 20 months has been outlined in the shadow of medical technology - a diagnosis of colorectal cancer, followed by MRI's, CT scans, radiation treatment, surgery, post-surgical complications and hospitalization, chemotherapy, and regular follow-ups with oncologists. During that personal struggle, it has been easy to slip into a "why-me?" perspective and a narrowing of concern to the here-and-now. But when I break out of the stupor and think about the the long-term perspective and my place in it, I quickly recognize that the technology I use, the technology that is used for preserving my health, and the technology meant to improve our lives generally is a precarious thing at best. There are no guarantees. And here I'm not thinking simply about disaster recovery or contingency planning. I'm thinking about environmental or man-made catastrophes which undercut the very foundations of our science- and technology-driven society.


Any serious loss of electrical power, for example, and there goes information technology out the window. Sure battery backup will help for a few days, but then your computers, smart phones, and Pocket PCs will be useless. That same loss of power would mean that much of medical technology would be useless, that transportation and production of pharmaceuticals and many food products would cease within a matter of weeks. In fact much of what we take for granted as integral parts of civilization would disappear within as little as one orbit around the sun.


Of course, we can't live our lives in constant fear of societal and technological collapse, but even spending a few hours thinking about the possibilities can be a humbling counterpoint to the hubris we display with all our gadgets and always-on innovations. And occasionally, such reflection might even mean that we choose to forego "best of breed" and "best practices" objectives which are often the result of technological momentum only. Sometimes, with sober second thought, low tech and no tech is the way to go.

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