Saturday, December 31, 2011

progress, and the factors which constrain it

While the timing of the transition from one year to the next is arbitrary, an artifact of the choices made in calendar design, the passing of time is at least a persistent illusion, and the metamorphosis which accompanies it convincing. "The times, they are a-changin'", as a younger version of Bob Dylan once sang. Change has been a frequently recurring factor in the lives of myself and my contemporaries, like a stressed and agitated Earth repeatedly shifting beneath our feet, and much of it at least seemingly not for the better.

I say "at least seemingly" because for any change there will be cascading effects which are difficult to predict at the time, and these cascading effects often interact in surprising ways, so even if you find it hard to believe in "progress" you can still place hope in serendipity.

Having a basic education in biology, the way I see progress is informed by the simple rule of thumb about plant nutrition I once learned, that the growth of a plant is constrained by whatever nutrient is least available (relative to the proportions in which all nutrients are needed). Similarly, progress depends on all of the necessary conditions being in place, or at least acquirable, not just one or two of them, and resources spent on bringing the limiting factor(s) up to snuff yield the most bang for the buck.

So what is/are the limiting factor(s) hindering progress? I can think of a few.

One has been the cost of computation, but it could scarcely be called a limiting factor anymore, even though many applications remain for which the necessary processing capacity continues to be prohibitively expensive, and/or too power hungry. Much that hasn't yet been done could be done within the limits of current technology.

Another is the knowledge and experience to make good use of that computational power. This too is changing, but it's trailing behind the improvement in computing hardware. I'm referring here not only to software but to techniques for interfacing with the physical world, the sensors and actuators of robotics, and the integration of all these into working systems.

Less obviously, but perhaps more importantly, progress has been constrained by what we have (habitually) used these improving technologies to do. To riff on the old saying about when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail, we have, until quite recently, treated every new thing to come along as another kind of hammer, and measured its value in terms of how good it was at driving nails. In other words, we haven't been much interested in changing what we do, only the details of how we do it. I believe people are generally ready to climb out of this rut, if they could rely upon mutual support in doing so.

Progress has also been limited by how we organize ourselves, primarily driven by the conservatively defined interests of capital. There's been a great deal of experimentation with alternative ways of bringing people together to do creative/productive work collaboratively, much of it supported by venture capitalists, but there's still a lot of inertia in the old way of doing things and not yet enough successful counter-examples to point to, or enough general experience with participating in them.

And finally, there is a tremendous need for remedial education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, most of which will have to be conducted remotely, via self-instructional packages, video courses, or mass media. I believe this deficit to be the twin product of the counterculture's rebellion against all things technical and a resurgence of the thread of anti-intellectualism that runs through western culture, which can perhaps be traced to Celtic pride in the lack of a written language, but which in any case has been encouraged by those who find a well-informed, clear-thinking populace inconvenient.

Most of us are in a position to work on one or another of these, even if for now it's only to educate ourselves. Let's get to it!

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