Small technological wonders

Obviously, of all the technology that has come along in my lifetime (and there is an awful lot of it) the one that has had the biggest impact on my day to day life is the personal computer and all that goes with it.

The crusher, of course, is the web. While PCs changed my career path, and while I was using the Internet back when my address was …!foo!bar!blah!yowza; the ability today to get answers to virtually any question within seconds is an intellectual luxury unparalleled in history. The signal:noise ratio may be questionable, but the web used properly is one of the most powerful research and learning tools ever invented; arguably up there with movable type and speech.

That said, there have been some very nice smaller suprises, and it is these smaller, little gum-drop bits of technology that I’m interested in just at the moment. 

For example, I knew the VCR would make a big change, but I had no idea how much use we’d get out of our DVR.  The ability to put live TV on pause, to skip over commercials, to reliably and easily record shows in ways that VCRs never seemed to get right… DVRs were what VCRs wanted to be.  Now, if there were only more on that was worth recording.

Books on tape made a huge change to how I think about commuting and doing chores, but the iPod changed books on tape and I’ll never go back.  The ability to (a) have the entire book with me all the time and (b) to have more than one book with me and (c) to download the book rather than order it … these small differences add up to a very different overall experience.  The nano is fantastic; I currently have over 120 hours of unabridged books (representing 7 good sized books in all) loaded, along with a complete set of lectures on Hinduism, 10 complete CDs, a set of lectures, numerous podcasts and it isn’t even half full, it fits in my pocket and is always available when I have to do what would otherwise be an unpleasant task. Clean the dishes? No problem, time to catch up on my reading. Drive into town? Great! Finish that lecutre I was in the middle of.

Cell phones have changed my life in all sorts of ways, not least in how we feel about going out and leaving the kids at home. The knowledge that we can be reached changes everything; the fact that the Treo on my belt has more computing power than was available to the Pentagon when I was a kid is just mind boggling icing on the cake.

GPS navigation systems have changed my feelings about my teenage daughter’s driving (and my own!). I know she is an excellent driver, but the assurance a GPS provides about not getting lost, or at least the ability to find your way back makes a tremendous difference. I’d like to see us put a lot more into navigation and safety technology in cars; airplane crashes make headlines, but a hell of a lot more of us die in cars each day than in planes.

Of course, this is all consumerism. The really big news is in medicine and other fields that we don’t see every day but where technology is saving lives, making dramatic improvements in quality of life, feeding people, preventing disease and so forth.

I know that technology is a double edged sword, but while we’re worrying about our irresponsible use of technology that is endnagering our health and planet, putting us at risk and threatening our ecosystem, let’s also remember that only four centuries ago a 40 year old was considered very old and lucky to be alive, a minor cut could be fatal, most children did not survive to adulthood, women most often died in childbirth, dentistry was near torture, more people died of infection than direct wounds during war. Life was, as so often noted, nasty, brutish and short.