Technical Progress

We tend to tell (and think of) our histories as progress narratives. That is "things sucked, we changed them and now they're getting better." Taken to the next level, progress narratives force us to think about the future in terms of "how much better things are going to be," as a required part of the progress narrative itself. On the one hand, there have been a number of rather dark moments in our past; on the other, in a lot of ways the present is really as much of an elaboration on the past as it is a progression. Because the present isn't particularly rosy.

This is, you might think, an odd perspective for a science fiction writer. SF is supposed to be forward looking, and optomistic, right? Well, maybe that's the "critical" part in "critical futures."

With that in mind, I'm very wary and hesitant to accept progress narratives as being particularly indicative of an actual developmental process. But they're all around us, history, political development, medical advancement, and particularly technology are all formed as progress narratives. While there's nothing wrong per se with this approach, it constrains imagination about the future and the past. That's not a good thing.

Since information technology/computers are a relatively recent development in history, and are in such a rapid state of development, it's particularly hard to avoid the technological progress narrative. And it's true, from one perspective that technology is getting faster and more powerful with every passing year. On the other, with OS X and Ubuntu gaining at least a little bit of the operating system market (let alone the linuxen in mobile devices and netbooks), it looks like we're headed towards a greater adoption of Unix-like systems. Which despite an ongoing evolution, are remarkably similar to the kinds of systems that were the height of new technology 40 years ago. And indeed a great deal of the ongoing evolution in Unix-like systems is in response to new kinds of hardware (wireless, cameras, etc.) rather than anything paradigmatic.

Another issue in technology is the possible confusion of development with progress. It's very true that processors are getting faster, hard drives are getting bigger, and everything is getting cheaper. But is this progress?

While faster processors are better, when I bought my desktop computer about a month ago I opted to save a hundred dollars by going with a slightly slower processor. I haven't noticed, and while I'm not doing anything that might require extra performance (video editing, or even sound editing, say) most people aren't either. Same story with storage: the only real way to fill up a 500 GB or 1 TB drive is to take a lot of high-res pictures or collect video (which is hard to do legally). Even Vista--noted by some for its bloat--only takes up 15 or so gigs. The biggest technological issue for storage is power-consumption and redundancy, which aren't exactly the makings for a good progress narrative.

Netbooks also represent the failure of the technological progress narrative as they aren't so much bigger/better/faster as they are a recomercialized version of the very best of laptop technology circa 1998. This isn't to say that the march of technology hasn't made netbooks possible, because that's a terribly flawed perspective. Rather, the fact that many people have realized that a good deal of their computing tasks need not be accomplished by the bigger/better/faster hardware. In my case, editing text files is never going to get more difficult, or take more resources.

My past, and even pretty recent attempts at thinking about technology, focused on "what's next," but I think right now that's largely irrelevant. What's happening now is by far much more interesting, don't you think?

Onward and (ironically) Upward!

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