Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Technology Trap

The title isn't my idea, it came from a documentary I watched recently – 'Trigger Effect,' one of the 'Connections' series by James Burke that first aired in 1978 (all his shows can be watched here). I originally saw the series in mid 80's. At the time, I eagerly anticipated each show – rushing home to ensure I caught each one. Years later, I enjoyed the sequels just as much. Shows like these ones form part of the reason why I'm interested in understanding the world around me and why I chose science as my career. I like to try to know why things are the way they are (I'm not convinced it is possible to completely understand the world around us because it is so complex – which means there will always be new things to discover).

The 'Connections' shows focus on how the things that surround us in the modern world came to be, their influence on the way we are today, and their impact on how we think. Even though this show came out several decades ago, the ideas are completely relevant today – perhaps even more so.

Technology benefits us in in many ways – but I agree with the show, that technology can be a trap. The complex interconnections between everything means that a failure at one point can have cascading effects on everything. In the show, an elevator is used as an example – we hop into these boxes all the time, usually without considering what would happen if the power went out. What would we do? Since the show, even more technology has entered our everyday use. Using a GPS for navigating is now standard – so what happens when the batteries die?

Another consequence of our modern inter-connectedness is that the places left where one can be the first to explore becomes extremely limited (there still are some places). Right now I'm considering taking on a project about a remote bay in the Arctic. When I look at a map it seems so far away – yet it has a long history of exploration. I won't be the first to explore it by a long shot. It will probably take me days to travel to the location, yet I can download maps, charts and photos of the area from my home office.

I came across this quote, which sums up my thoughts about exploration (from a guest post by Gerald Zhang-Schmidt on the blog 'Time to Eat the Dogs'):

It may not be possible to go out and find something new that will make one known as the first person to have seen it. However, the exploration of blank spots of our own personal knowledge, hidden by the superficial familiarity gained from TV and internet, has become all the more important, and worthwhile – and it is a whole treasure trove of possible experiences: about other peoples, about this planet’s ecology, and often beginning with our own cities and neighborhoods. How well do you know the people and paths in your community or the species that dwell in your own backyard?

I'll consider my Arctic project as a way to fill a blank spot in my personal knowledge (there will also be some good science there), and I'll continue exploring my world closer to home – I've already started identifying the birds that live in my backyard.

As a tangent: I know how to navigate without a GPS.

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