Tag technology in society

Terry Gilliam's totalitarian post-apocalypse in the contemporary Internet age

Terry Gilliam's 1985 film Brazil was a groundbreaking work of dystopian social commentary. One of the names Gilliam wanted to give to the movie was actually 1984 1/2 -- a nod to both Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 and Fellini's 8 1/2. The main character is Sam Lowry, a clerk in the Ministry of Information's Records department. Like 1984's Winston Smith, love impels this forlorn everyman into the gnashing teeth of the machine.

As with Blade Runner, It is hard to date Brazil as a film over 25 years old by any means. It seems to hold a certain timeless quality. However unlike Blade Runner, a film 3 years its senior, Brazil is dark in tone and worldview instead of just visually. There is a certain crushing insanity of the crass bourgeois commercialism, whereas in Blade Runner things appear merely bleak but rational.
In one of the scenes, there is a long road into town lined with ads. Unfettered commercialism in action. I couldn't help but think of the kind of content sites that proliferate the Internet today. Just utter saturation of the mentalscape. Ad impressions for miles, and nobody really cares.
Brazil is really the logical conclusion of anti-computer ideology of movies like Desk Set from the 50's, along with its anachronisms of forms, stamps, and physical paper reports. Viewing this from our contemporary Internet-obsessed lens, it seems laughable that a future Ministry of Information would need rooms full of paper-pushing clerks next to huge printers and computer terminals, sending information about in the form of an elaborate network of pneumatic tubes.
If anything, we now know that the workplace of worker bees in the hallways of records and information probably look more like the hallowed grounds of Google or Facebook.
(Aside: Notice the common use of bicycles as instant office hipster cred. Awesome. Must use for Posterous office photos.)

The rise of the personal computer and the Internet has been moreso about freedom of information. Yet our fears for Facebook, Google, and other players in the Information Age are couched in dystopian wording and imagery. "Dreams of world domination."

Brazil's main theme is that of information control, where the state tightly controls information through bureaucracy and process. Multiple characters submit to this system and go to both banal and extreme lengths to obtain the information they need. Jill, the female lead, witnesses the arrest of an innocent father (result of a clerical error, fittingly), and selflessly fights to find out his whereabouts on behalf of the family. But she is sent from one department (Records to Information Retrieval) and back for the appropriate stamps of approval. Death by bureaucracy. Sam Lowry, the main character in Brazil, must even switch occupations entirely and transfer to a department of higher rank (Information Retrieval Dept) to get access to classified and inaccessible dossiers. All this under a specter of terrorism that never proves itself to be real.

In contrast, the ongoing battle waged by angry bloggers against Facebook around privacy is actually over the an enforced *freeing* of information by the allegedly monolithic /  Facebook. This is not a part of what the science fiction predicted.

But we don't live in works of fiction, now do we?

Is social media a fad? Social media in 2009 = Multimedia in 1993

Cynics will roll their eyes, but there are some really interesting stats in this video.

Is Social media in 2009 = Multimedia in 1993? CD-ROM's were big and new then. Siliwood, or multimedia gulch, they called San Francisco. People were going nuts about interactive video. There was real tech behind it. There were cool new user scenarios and experiences unlocked before our eyes. Interact with a movie? Tell stories in a whole new way? It was a veritable boom.

We don't talk about multimedia anymore -- but maybe that's because the boom fulfilled its promise. Here's hoping social media can overcome its hype curve as well. And we're on the front lines. Damn, it's an exciting time to be alive.

Technology is not dead. It is exponential.

Electricity greatly improved our quality of life. But I'm not going to get excited about buying a basket of utility companies. Same for the Internet. Can't live without it, but can't live with it (in my portfolio).
--James Altucher via online.wsj.com

James Altucher will eat his words. To count tech out at a local minima is absolutely absurd. Fred Wilson is right: Tech is alive and well. But there are deeper reasons than what Fred Wilson mentions.

Other than computing technology, what field can boast exponential gains? Green tech is much talked about of late, but what are the rates of improvement for battery power, photovoltaics, and clean energy? Miniscule, in the single digit percentages. We can only wish for exponential advancement in almost all fields of technology. It's just not a reality.

With computers, we are blessed by the exponential curve of Moore's Law. Ray Kurzweil plots this exponential curve:

Just look at the innovation that has happened in 40 years. Bill Gates is famed to have said in 1998: "If General Motors had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving twenty five dollar cars that got 1000 miles/gallon."

Instead, GM has gone bankrupt, and now we have one-inch-thick netbooks that we can buy for less than $300 that provide 300,000x the computing power of the ENIAC, which cost $500,000 and filled a very large room in 1946!

The exponential march of software begets the exponential march of software capability. Software has gone more and more high level. Instead of slinging machine-readable bits, we started writing assembly. Then C/C++. Then Java and Perl. Now, Ruby and Python -- each step is less efficient for the computer but more efficient for the human. In 1946 you needed a PhD to even get near a computer, and only now are we seeing the rise of the truly interconnected, paperback computer that costs next to nothing but is indispensible for everyday life -- not just for an educated elite but for every person on the planet.

The advent of the Gutenberg printing press and modern mass-produced book changed society at its core -- at its basic fabric, humanity as a whole became more educated, more equal, more enlightened, and far more human, rising out of the depths of ignorance. The rise of cheap, ubiquitous books formed the modern world. But now we have a book that is infinite in length and unbounded in capability to teach, share, educate, and think.

So we've got an exponential engine of innovation, and it is transforming society before our eyes. And we're at a such a local minima where the WSJ is calling the whole engine dead.

We're still only beginning this mad experiment of infinite and ubiquitous computing. The greatest, most earth shattering software has yet to be created. On the upslope of an exponential, you'd be insane not to go long.