Sunday, May 27, 2012

The magic of technology

Technology has magical properties. It exists without benefit of human effort, performs without human oversight, does not take up physical space...and it's free!  Wow!  

Last semester, when asked what might have prevented or minimized the industrial tragedy at Bhopal, one of my students wrote:
One other large mistake...was the fact that they depended on manual operations.  It is much more likely for a human to make mistakes than a machine.  All they had to do was spend a little extra money on quality technology that will make sure things are done correctly.
Just this past week, I asked a group of students why unlimited data plans had been scrutinized so carefully by service providers and why, with few exceptions, the prices for these plans have risen steeply.  The immediate and emphatic answer:  "Because they just want to make more money.  It doesn't cost them anything." 

Survey any group--whether high school students, college students, or working professionals--to define 'the cloud' and few will be able to explain the linkage of physical entities (servers, cables, routers, databases, etc.) responsible for the magic we see on our screens of choice.  And if we can't understand the physical entities required to provide the magic we call technology, we will be oblivious to the environmental impact (yes, there is one) of the very real data centers required for the existence of the invisible cloud.  

Technology cannot exist or function without human creation, human intervention, and human maintenance.  The tragedy-behind-the-tragedy at Bhopal is that there were technology safeguards in place to prevent and/or minimize the potential negative impact to people--but the human intervention required for maintenance and monitoring did not allow the technology to function as it was designed.  

Bandwidth (another magical concept) is a physical entity with a dollar cost; so, too, the 'server farms' required to deliver the computing speed to which we seem to feel entitled. I'm not bemoaning the proliferation of technology (at least not in this post) but the proliferation of illusion:
The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge. -- Stephen Hawking