Hunting in technorati for something I’d mislaid, I find instead an ambitious and sweeping talk given by SF writer Charlie Stross on the long term impact of technology change. In a paper that’s (almost) impossible to summarise, he argues that the big change in the 20th century was that – somewhere between 1950 and 1970 – people redefined progress so that it was no longer described in terms of the distance that people could travel, and started being described in terms of how much information could be managed and processed.

Now extrapolate that in line with most technology trends. Tomorrow’s future is one in which we may be able to store and retrieve everything that everyone on the planet does in their entire lifetime: a planet’s worth of ‘lifelogs’.

There’s too much in the talk to be able to summarise it here. There are also some rich asides. But there are some arguments which are worth pulling out.

  1. “The cultural picture in computing today therefore looks much as it did in transportation technology in the 1930s — everything tomorrow is going to be wildly faster than it is today, let alone yesterday. And this progress has been running for long enough that it’s seeped into the public consciousness. In the 1920s, boys often wanted to grow up to be steam locomotive engineers; politicians and publicists in the 1930s talked about “air-mindedness” as the key to future prosperity. In the 1990s it was software engineers and in the current decade it’s the politics of internet governance.”. But this is actually misleading…
  2. It’s the network which makes computing radical, not the computing. Not a new thought, but worth remembering. “Which didn’t happen before, with computers. It’s like the difference between having an experimental test plane that can fly at 1000 km/h, and having thousands of Boeings and Airbuses that can fly at 1000 km/h and are used by millions of people every month. There will be social consequences, and you can’t easily predict the consequences of the mass uptake of a technology by observing the leading-edge consequences when it first arrives.”
  3. The notional end-point where present bandwidth and information processing revolutions take us to is about 25-50 years away: “as far ahead as we can see without positing real breakthroughs and new technologies, such as cheap quantum computing, pocket fusion reactors, and an artificial intelligence that is as flexible and unpredictable as ourselves.” If 10 Euros buys 1gigabyte now, it could plausibly buy 100Gb in a decade and 10 terabytes in 2 decades. And 10Tb is a big number… a megabyte for every second of the year, enough for a personal videostream. Or a lifelog.
  4. So how does the storage work? Probably on synthetic diamonds, which would become everybody’s best friends. He does the calculations in the piece.
  5. Of course, as he mentions, there are drawbacks to all of this: “it would fundamentally change our understanding of privacy, redefine the boundary between memory and public record, and be subject to new and excitingly unpleasant forms of abuse — but I suspect it’s inevitable, and rather than asking whether this technology is avoidable, I think we need to be thinking about how we’re going to live with it.”
  6. Apart from the area of privacy, where he sees the ‘digital natives’ – the under-25s – already exhibiting different behaviours from those of us who are older, the other big impact is on history.

“This century we’re going to learn a lesson about what it means to be unable to forget anything. Barring a catastrophic universal collapse of human civilization, we’re going to be laying down memories in diamond that will outlast our bones, and our civilizations, and our languages. Sixty kilograms will handily sum up the total history of the human species, up to the year 2000…

Total history — a term I’d like to coin, by analogy to total war — is something we haven’t experienced yet. I’m really not sure what its implications are, but then, I’m one of the odd primitive shadows just visible at one edge of the archive… Meet your descendants… They live in a world where history has a sharply-drawn start line, and everything they individually do or say will sooner or later be visible to everyone who comes after them, forever. They are incredibly alien to us.”

But enough paraphrase. Read the piece yourself. It’s worth it.