Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Human-Built Virtual World.

Chapter 4 of Thomas Hughes Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture is titled "Technology as Systems, Controls and Information". It considers the evolution of technology over the second half of the 20th century. I suppose the examples of large scale systems may go back to the railroads and Henry Ford's automobile manufacturing system. World War II involved the mobilization of millions of men, mountains of machinery, and actions on a global scale. The Manhattan Project that built the first nuclear weapons alone was an immense undertaking requiring an exceptional amount of coordination.

The story he tells is one in which the needs created by earlier technological and social changes induce new technological innovations. On the other hand, new knowledge (e.g. of solid state physics and chemistry) opened possibilities for new devices (e.g. transistors, integrated circuits, microchips, lasers, leds) that could be applied to produce these technological innovations, leading to new industries and further social change.

The book was published in 2004 and Hughes spends much of the chapter discussing authors of earlier works. As a result the chapter seems a little dated in its failure to emphasize the importance of mobile phones, smart phones, GPS, and hand held personal computing devices and the new apps for these devices that are flooding the market and changing our lives.

In my opinion Hughes is using the chapter to introduce the thinking of some of the most thoughtful and influential thinkers on the Information Revolution. It should be recognized that it would be impossible to do full justice to their thinking in the short sections that can be allocated to single works. Still, the failures of these very smart and thoughtful people to correctly predict the technologically based future should encourage humility in us all.

I would note that as an engineering student in the 1950s it seemed clear to me that computers and information technology was the coming field of technology. So too I early recognized the coming importance of biotechnology, of personal computers and of the Internet. What I did not and could not do was predict with any accuracy where the potentials in the science and technology would take us.

Previous postings on Thomas Hughes book are:

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