In the spirit of Thanksgiving I’d like to take a few moments to recognize the technologies (information, that is) that we should be thankful for. My criteria are simple. To be considered, the technology must have had a meanful, positive impact on people’s lives and changed the world for the better. And just so the turkeys don’t feel left out I’ll mention a couple of them.
Wireless communications. No other technology has had as big an impact on individuals lives and changed the world as much as wireless technology. In some ways wireless technology is the printing press of our era. It has liberated individuals from their desks and given them the freedom to work where and when they want to. But, more importantly, it has liberated people from tyranny by providing access to uncensored information. Without radio broadcasts into closed societies and, more recently, mobile communication devices that allow people to communicate free of central control, much of the liberalization we’ve seen over the past 30+ years would not have happened. [My argument with those who would put the Internet first is that wireless technology was having an impact long before the Internet existed. Exhibit #1: The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the same year Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web and well before it was a factor in our lives.] And wireless technology is still going strong with new advances in wireless communications promising better, more timely access to information as well as increased automation of manual tasks.
Personal computers and network technology. Let me start by painting a portrait of a (frustrated) engineer as a young man. I started my engineering studies wasting many hours keypunching cards to run programs on mini-computers and, even after we had ceremoniously destroyed the last of the keypunch machines, waiting in line to use one of the limited green screen terminals. On starting my first job we had three PCs to share amongst 20 engineers…and they weren’t yet networked! A couple of years later I was in information technology heaven with my own machine and a connection to the minicomputers (DEC PDP11s) where the data resided. Around the same time I discovered Lotus 1-2-3. I was off to the data crunching/data visualization races! For those wondering, I lumped personal computers and network technology together because, by themselves, they are nothing compared to what they are together.
The Internet. Ranking the Internet third will no doubt get me lots of flack, particularly from 20 and 30 somethings. But hear me out. The Internet is still young and its impact on our lives, while significant, is a ways from peaking. And its impact would be negligible if personal computers were not as ubiquitous as they are. It will no doubt move to the top of the list over time but in the meantime we’re dealing with its growing pains including search results that don’t return what we want, the rise of spammers and their ilk, and legitimate concerns about privacy. Personally, though I’m grateful for the Internet, I sometimes see it as mixed blessing.
Flat Panel Displays. There are two aspects of information technology that often get no respect – input and output technology. And, rightly so, because there hasn’t been much change over the years. But one breakthrough that deserves mention is the emergence of low cost, high resoution flat panel displays. Without this breakthrough there would be no laptops, smartphones, and GPS systems, to name a few transformational products. And there’s still plenty of innovation to be had in the world of flat panel displays including flexible displays, black on white displays, etc. [Honorable mention in the input/output space goes to the mouse.]
And now for a couple of turkeys:
Battery technology. OK, I acknowledge it could be on the list above. There would be no mobile devices without some advances in battery technology. But progress has been so slow in coming that failure to advance battery technology fast enough has held back progress in other areas. There are signs of breakthroughs (and certainly no shortage of investment in battery technology recently) but nothing to be truly thankful for yet.
Voice recognition technology. Maybe this is simply the lament of a failed typist but it seems like we’ve been promised a breakthough in voice recognition technology for over 20 years! Personally I gave up waiting five or so years ago. I would have been better served by putting my energies into learning to type when I was younger. In the meantime, I console myself with the knowledge that on a smart phone everyone has to use two thumbs to type.
So there you have it. My short list of information technologies to be thankful for. Regardless of which technologies are on your own list, be sure to put them away tomorrow. After all, the best technologies are the ones that give you the time to do the things that you’ve always enjoyed such as eating, drinking, and being in the company of family and good friends.