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Friday, June 27, 2008

Where Should We Be

The final part to the series, Good vs. Evil: The Internet.

I had a real tough time trying to come up with this last post. My focus has been scattered and my brain can't process information over a few sentences long. So, you can see how writing an entire blog post about where we should be in terms of the Internet evolution can be a daunting task. In fact, my first stop on the web today was to read an article entitled, Is Google Making Us Stupid? Oddly enough, the writer complains that we, as a society, have neither the discipline nor mental capacity to absorb information if it isn't in little blurbs, yet his article is rather lengthy. Much like my blog posts.

In this case, I totally agree with the author. We are becoming dumber. Actually, let me rephrase that, we're becoming more dependent on the Internet to do everything for us. Google has positioned itself to be the 'perfect' search engine. Its ultimate goal is to predict exactly what you want when you search for something and return that result to the top of the page. That's a lofty goal. In fact, if it ever does succeed 100% of time I think we need to worry. The desire to turn Google into an artificial intelligence is exactly the thing that science fiction has predicted will cause our demise. Look at the Terminator, The Matrix, or I, Robot, movies. The back-story to those films are rooted in the desire for man to give up control of everyday banalities to machines who in turn see us a threat to them or to each other. Machines don't hate or discriminate, but they can calculate probability and foresee possible reactions. In short, they take emotion out of the equation and what's left is the logical ideal that man will decidedly destroy itself. For that, machines will calculate that a person can not logically operate a vehicle without guarantee of bodily harm and therefore, should not drive at all. You are now one step from saying that humanity can not logically exist without harming itself and therefore should not exist at all. Every little computation a computer does it a part of its sum. You can not program logic to deny itself. Sure, you can program random occurrences of illogical actions, but you are still accounting for and inserting that into the programming. Perhaps this is what we refer to as a soul. A computer will never have one and it shouldn't lest it have control over our lives.

I always follow this rule of thumb when dealing with the ideas behind science fiction, if you want ensure conflict of man vs. machine, make the humans blindly look to machines to do the most menial of labor. That's a jumping off point for disaster. It's the equivalent of cutting your nose off to spite your face. Computers are not smarter than humans. That's a little egotistical, I'll admit. However, a human built a computer. A human gave a computer the ability to do calculations. A human told a computer how to do those calculations. In other words, lest a computer be built by God or a supreme being, it's still man made and therefore subject to be no more intelligent than the smartest person. Is it quicker, more efficient, and less likely to make a mistake? Yes, but it is not smarter than a human's potential for intelligence. Yet, as we devise new ways to allow computers to do calculations for us, freeing us for other thoughts, we lose the ability to be the smarter of the two. With the Internet now controlling a lot of our calculations and processes, we have severely crimped our capacity for analytical thought.

The Internet delivers so much information, so quickly, and without interference that we have to become faster at absorbing. Long prose gets scuttled for quick sound bites. Our brain is literally being rewired to accept these changes in thought and viewing, stripping our thought process to the bare minimum. In aviation terms, its been pared down to a flying gas can. We use the internet on a daily basis for information gathering and then we forget it. We don't need to remember what the information is, we know where to look for it. The brain, like a muscle, simply does not get used the way it did and atrophies like the legs of a spinal cord injury patient dependent on a wheel chair for mobility. So, I asked the question, "Where Should We Be?" The answer is "Where We Were." Instead of giving control over to computers with an Internet connection, let's use the Internet to give us better control over our lives and our world.

The Internet and I guess computers in general need to be an improvement on a process, not just do the work for you. Phrases like, "Reinventing the wheel" and "Building a better mousetrap" are terms that state that in order to make something better, you need to identify what is wrong with a process and fix it, leaving what works. In art you get Michelangelo's thought process for David, "It’s simple. I just remove everything that doesn’t look like David.” "Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime." The same applies here. If the Internet and computers just does the work for us, we are always dependent on them for that process every time. But, if the Internet or computers simply assist us in doing that work, we still have the control and do not lose ourselves. My father-in-law is a retired technician who worked for over 30 years at Westinghouse. 10 years later, he's gone back to work doing the same kind of technical work he did before. The only difference is everything he does involves email. Something he's okay with at home on the computer, but his job uses a different program and he doesn't get it as easily. While, I sometimes tell him that it's not that hard and that it's essential to learn this system, he reminds me that, for 30 years, he did his job without it and the work was finished on time and of quality. There's a human element needed sometimes.

Web design should be clean and simple removing everything that isn't needed. However, where does that 'everything' fit into the Internet? Google. Everything you can think of adding to or piling onto a search engine is done or in the works. When I first looked at the Internet in terms of being good or evil I said, "What would make Google better? Instead of giving me little gadgets and stuff, actually take a concept and improve it." For instance, traffic patterns. Every time I figure out directions for some trip, I always laugh at the estimated time for travel, because I know for a fact that there is construction on a particular road. But guess what? Google has live traffic information on its maps. So, that being said, I really can't think of anything that could make the Internet better.

I can, however, think of several things that the Internet can do to make humanity better. For starters, let's slow it down. I don't mean speed of search or speed of connection. I mean speed of discovery. I can think of several other worthwhile things for the brain trust of this world to be working on instead of making the Internet better. We haven't fixed major issues in this world outside the realm of computers for years. What's the last disease we cured, Polio? Our best and brightest are so busy making televisions larger and computers smaller that they forget that hey people need to use them and can't if they're dead from disease. Maybe, there is a way to take what advancements we've made in communication and electronic design and apply them to realm brick and mortar problems.

Here's my proposal. The top propeller heads at Google work to make it a better search engine. How about use their abilities to make the world a better place. I'm sorry but the Internet is not going to win a Nobel Prize. But the concepts and ideas that help shape the Internet can be applied to engineering in civil settings. We spend so much energy trying to make computers free up time for us yet we are working longer hours and commuting farther in order to do so. Design city infrastructure based on concepts that make the Internet work. We have a device on our "pipeline" that shapes the traffic on our Internet connection, giving importance to business critical functions and leaves poor schmucks like me looking for the sports score to watch an hourglass. Why not figure out a way to plan roads better. Hell, we've got a sandbox right now in the Middle East to test and design theories. I may be speaking in terms of apples and oranges but there has to be a way to look as the Internet and computers as a model for making offline life more efficient. Instead of doing everything we can to use the Internet to waste time, find ways to have the Internet enhance our time.

Classroom texts can be outdated and have no value beyond a second edition or third edition. I still keep a couple of books for reference material but an Internet repository for information and knowledge about school subjects allow educators and students to keep abreast of the most current of ideas and in essence, remove paper from the system. It's Lean and Green. Perhaps government should fund a pilot program where small schools are made paperless. In other words, each student is issued a laptop or Kindle device that accesses a central repository of information in a curriculum. Lessons are assigned through the computers to the students who then complete them and workflow is established to ensure accountability and punctuality. The devices have no internet capabilities outside the classroom without VPN into the closed network of the school and each student is provided a flash card authentication to ensure no tampering. This frees up classroom time for discussion, theorizing, brainstorming. The teacher uses a smart board to put up concepts, teach the lessons, and the smart board then zaps it into the repository for student consumption. Discussion threads spark creativity among classmates and educators and we weed out a lot of minutiae. Students are actively participating as a grade requirement and their tasks assigned by the application keep track of their work towards that goal. You could even branch out globally and connect classrooms from all over the world to learn from each other. There is your beginnings of a global community. I still think that children should learn technical skills alongside analytical skills. Yes, there are people still needed to fix cars and air conditioners but at least give them the training to do both. Let's correct the mistake that our parents paid for when the factories closed down and they had to learn all new skills in computers to gain employment.

Of course, I'm probably way behind on the times and this is already in practice at some school and the world is once again, passing me by like I'm just getting the punch line to a joke from a half an hour ago. But these are just two ideas that hit me while I was in an 'executive meeting' today..... Sooner or later expect there be desktop furniture in the bathroom for people to work on their laptop while they do their business. Why not? We take the Internet wherever we go. Why not take it to the bathroom and enjoy my bullshit along with your own. Just remember to wash your hands...and your keyboard.

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