Thursday, February 24, 2005

No Business Being Invented

Several years ago i was in Cambridge, England and i was hanging out with a coworker and acquaintance named Marius. We went to dinner at a French place that's part of chain (i can't remember the name), thinking that it might be better food than the average English fare. It wasn't but at least i didn't have to feign enthusiasm for English beer or Welsh fish pie.

Marius is Romanian, the son of an opera singer who had defected in the 1980s. He had traveled all over Europe and spoke several languages. He was especially fluent in French because he had lived in Paris, and the French waitress at the restaurant was unabashedly flirting with him. For these reasons and others i was unduly impressed with Marius and i respected his opinion even though he is much younger than i.

At some point the conversation turned to computers and the Internet. Marius held the opinion that, while these were interesting and potentially useful inventions, they weren't necessary. Specifically, he felt that without these inventions the world might be a different place, but it wouldn't be a worse place. At the time i wanted to believe that this opinion was either so obvious as to be facile, or wrong; but i took it seriously because it came from Marius. It seemed that you could argue that any technological innovation, even biological evolution, was not necessary so long as you assume (as i more or less do) that there is no grand purpose to the universe. I was very hopeful at the time about the promise of better simulation technology and the historical inflection in communication wrought by the Internet. To me it seemed that computers were, at the very least, as necessary as any of the major inventions of the 20th century, like electric light, automobiles, or microwaveable popcorn.

The older i get though, the more i see his point. Like the auto industry, it would be impossible to extract the computer/software industry from the universe and not cause a lot of economic distress, because so many people have become dependent on it for their livelihood. In that sense computers are necessary: the industry is an engine for economic growth. There also have been triumphs of free expression enabled by the existence of the Internet. But i can seriously consider this question: If computers and the Internet were to suddenly disappear, would i miss them?

Since my job would disappear, i have to admit that there would be an impact. But if i make the assumption that i could still make a living at some fairly unobjectionable career (say, being a teacher like my father), i don't think i would miss computers too much. Here are some of the thing i would probably prefer not to live without:
  • E-mail. I hate telephones. I don't really enjoy talking much at all, but to converse with a disembodied voice is annoying. E-mail, or some alternate text-based, asynchronous form of communication, i would miss. The traditional post is just too slow.
  • Medical imaging. Although i've never needed it, it's hard to dismiss the value of modern imaging technology in medicine. Much of it could not exist without software and sufficient processing power.
  • ATMs. I'm just old enough to remember life before ATMs. To get cash you had to actually go to the bank during operating hours. Can you imagine?
  • Digital Photography. I'm not a camera buff, so i can't judge the relative merits of film vs. digital for image quality. But as a casual picture taker, digital photography is orders of magnitude superior to film.
None of these, with the possible of exception of medical imagining, is really crucial to a comfortable and fulfilling life on planet earth though. Both of my grandfathers were farmers (technically one of them was my mom's step-dad-- her real dad was an accountant, sort of). They and my grandmothers lived in a pre-computer,pre-Internet world though of course these things were in the works while they were alive (my mom's mom is still alive at 94). They were, i think, relatively happy people though, with apologies to Tolstoy, not happy in the same way. In many ways i think their lives were better than most people. My dad's family farm had an orchard with apple and cherry trees; and fencerows with gooseberry and currant bushes. My grandmother would make pies out of all of these that were better than anything i've ever had in a restaurant. My great-grandfather, on whose 90th birthday i was born, would sit at the kitchen table all day and people would naturally gather to him and they would talk. Not anything profound, but interesting, diverting.

I'm not going to claim that computers and the Internet have changed society for the worse, as people have done with automobiles for decades now (my title is from Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons in reference to cars). The truth is that i enjoy working with computers and maybe that's enough. But i also know that i could never use another computer for the rest of my life and be perfectly content.

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