As one of those "techies" who gets to (likes to!) work with computers, much of my daily work is about solving problems - be it real, imaginary, unimportant, and even occasionally: useless. There is an considerable challenge in having to deal with a new situation each time, refining one's intuition and building up experience along the way. There is of course also the reward of making progress and winning at that game, although it is usually short-term and more often than not: predictable. It's still 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, as the saying goes.
Solving new puzzles makes every day different. Just as some people cannot - in honest amazement - see anything but boring repetition in sitting behind a computer screen, I cannot - in equally pure astonishment - understand that anything else could be more fun. The techie's dilemma, no doubt.
There are limits to what one can do, within the boundaries of living in a real world. There is a lot of history that controls how we act, and to what extent we can imagine new things. Having a teenage daughter with delightful visual and artistic talents, I often wonder just how much more we could do with our minds if growing up were less of a straight-jacket. From a child's question that made me giggle, to a mis-interpretation of a "grown-up" term, there have been so many hints that as a parent I'm not only a teacher - but also an "un-teacher": failing to help preserve some of the most valuable qualities a child has. At two, she was terrible of course, at six she was delightful, at ten she was figuring out the game we play, and at fourteen it'll probably be all out war. My daughter has always been ahead of me, I think I lagged by several years on each count - and no doubt still lag behind as a parent.
But growing up is only part of the story. Here we are, in a world where globalization is taking over. Electronic signals are totally unreal - they travel across this planet within the blink of an eye. I routinely log on to a server, from a laptop, over a wireless network, into "the net" and from there hopping across oceans and continents, with no perception of even a delay as each key-press makes a round trip to show me what I'm typing. It works great, but thinking about this is a deeply unsettling thought - the comparison to what it takes to go anywhere personally, or even to ship goods, is just plain ridiculous. I'm currently moving along on a high-speed train, responding to an urgency where someone decided that my physical presence was required, and can only conclude that the human mind - at least mine - is not wired for life of this age and time. We want to be with perhaps a handful of relatives, perhaps a dozen close friends, and perhaps we can deal with a hundred or so people on a regular basis. Ok, let's make that a thousand over a lifetime. But seeing ten cities zip by in a few hours, watching the news about a dozen hot spots on this planet, with each mentioning dozens of personal tragedies, if not many more? No way... the human mind cannot cope.
How does this affect us in the virtual world of computing? What role does the internet play? Is this just more of the same, leading to total information overload? Are there new opportunities?
Let me address each of these in turn. The computing world is an artificial one, it is entirely engineered to (try to!) meet the needs and requirements we chose. So how do we cope with overload? Simple: limit our choices. Standardize, pick tools and technologies, and then stick with them. Well, try to anyway.
The internet is harder to tame. It's too big to grasp, it changes too quickly, it's not coherent at all, and it's a huge jungle of entities competing for our attention. Again, the solution is to pick a few sites for news, a few for topical information, some reference sites, a search engine. The rest becomes as transient and volatile a browsing at a book shop or magazine stand. Just a bit more confusing, contradictory, incoherent, and widely spread out over the entire internet. There is no sense of "here". There's only a vague sense of time, because each new "surfing" experience resembles the last. Many try to establish "URL collections" - in vain, because there is no logic, no quality filtering, and most importantly: web links "break" all the time, making stored references worthless. In the end, we simply start our internet travels from just a few sites. The human mind can store immense amounts of information, yet we are lost with more than perhaps a dozen starting points. We don't have random access memory, we associate. And although we can represent such associations on the very aptly named "web", we can not easily transfer them and make them our own. Remembering something and finding it back on the web are completely disjunct activities - and experiences.
Is this overload? I don't think so. We don't need to acquire all information, we just have to be able to find and use what we need. For technical information, the web is a gold mine. It is full of reference material, organized collections, publications, and discussions. The discussions are becoming more and more valuable, given the existence of a search engine such as google.com. If there is a problem with existing technology, it is very likely that the issue has been addressed before - or at least brought up. It's usually a matter of seconds to find the relevant pages, by "googling" for it. Anywhere in the world, and it's quicker than walking over to the bookshelf - again, the mind cannot cope with this paradox that "within reach" has become detached from geographic location. The web works equally well for simple transactions: finding, choosing, and ordering CD's, books, tickets for all sorts of events, trips. the more focused you look, the better the web works. Just like the real world.
What about opportunities... well, that's worth a story in itself .
© April 2002