Sunday, October 17, 2004

Brave New World

I think I mentioned that I wanted to repost some of the entries here from the AOL Cyber Chocolate, Jr. blog. Most of what's over there are links and comments on my day and so on, but a few entries are of more lasting interest. This is one of them and while I suppose parts of it might be more suitable for Occasional Blog, I'm posting it here.

Originally posted: 4/20/04
As I slide into my second half century, I'm amazed not just by how much things have changed in the world (and how, in too many ways, they're the same--violence and war never seem to go out of style), but by how well I've adapted. Yes, I'm talking about tech. While far from an expert, I and the rest of my generation of boomers have gone from life without computers to all manner of technological wonders such as PDAs, personal computers (and yes, that includes you Mac folks), cellphones that take pictures and do text messaging, laptops and notebooks, ebooks, etc, etc, etc.

When I was a high school senior, I took a relatively new class called Computer Math my last term. We learned how to program a device that looked like what I can only describe now as a calculator on steroids. By using simple, two-character codes, we enticed strings of mathematical functions from it, including the calculation of Fibonacci numbers.

In college, I took Fortran, the computer language of the sciences and social sciences, fitting for a psych major. I learned how to punch cards that I handed in at the college's computer center. There, my cards were read and sent zipping up to the mainframe in Albany and if I were lucky, the next day my printout would be waiting for me. And if I mis-punched one card or mis-wrote one line of code, I'd have to redo and submit the cards again. One assignment could take days to complete once I'd written the code.

And now I supervise some young people who have never known life before computers. They stare in shock as I describe life back then and they look at me in puzzlement as I explain what keypunching was. At such times, I feel a lot older than I am.

Yet here I am, happily surfing the web. I have a website I designed and created myself with Dreamweaver, and I have blogs I built with templates online through AOL, LiveJournal, and even BlogSpot. I converse over computer networks via IMs and I send and receive email. The fax machine at work is a marvel, yet I fuss when it takes more than a second to transmit or receive a document. And WiFi means I don't even have to plug in or dial up to access the internet. People with disabilities have more options today, thanks to everchanging tech, than they ever had.

I haven't used a typewriter in years, preferring to type on the computer--but I'll never call it keyboarding! I'm mostly comfortable in a world that would have seemed alien to when I was growing up and I wonder if today's 20-somethings and teens will get to see their world rocked by such dramatic change.

But every technological advance has its downside. The more we can do, the more everyone else can do. We can shop online.... identity thieves have more means at their disposal. We can chat with family across the globe for pennies.... terrorists can recruit and scheme over that same internet. And as more and more of our lives is digitized, we become more and more vulnerable to loss of privacy due to more and more ways for someone to gain access to our most private affairs such as medical or school records. How much freedom are we willing to give up for security? Is that even the question that should be asked?

I don't have answers. I suppose that's one reason I love reading science fiction--to see the possibilities played out in novels that work with those themes and settings. And perhaps, that's part of why I write.... to explore the possibilities, even if subconsciously, because I just can't seem to plan it much ahead. But before we can try to answer those questions, we need to make sure we're asking the right ones. And then we need full public debate and leaders who understand the full ramifications. Laws enacted in reaction to events, without careful thought, often do no good and can even do harm.

Previously, I mentioned a coalition that is petitioning to have the Patriot Act modified. Personally, I don't mind giving up some freedoms if I thought that would do some good. But who am I to say that would be right? And if the best the law can do is provide a false sense of security, what good is it? Letting the government gain access to library circulation records or bookstore sales records without accountability is just plain wrong to me. Worse, it ignores all the other ways terrorists can gain info--online, by paying cash, by sitting at a table and quietly reading without borrowing or purchasing.

The Patriot Act hasn't made me feel any safer. The world is a dangerous place, moreso now than ever because violence is as portable as everything else today. I didn't mean this to end on such a depressing note, just to offer up some food for thought, things that have been on my mind recently. Maybe some of them have been on yours, too.