"Let's suppose that back in the 1980s I had said, 'In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia and a new version of UNIX. It would have sounded utterly pathetic."
Jaron Lanier, from You are Not a Gadget
"Productivity in North America must be through the roof: The Internet is boring on Wednesday...the things that make the Internet amazing – Reddit, Wikipedia, Cheezburger, Dailywh.at – are all going to be unavailable for the day."
Andrew Steele, The Globe and Mail (see here)
My Gran was born in 1910, in the same week that the first production Model-T Ford rolled off the assembly line. The week that she died, aged 96, a spaceship, which had been launched some months earlier from earth, successfully landed a probe on one of the moons of Saturn and beamed back live pictures to the handful of spectators not too busy massaging their Facebook profiles to notice. She was born in England, to relatively affluent parents but, during her lifetime, flushing lavatories, electric lighting, telephones, cars, airplanes, space rockets, nuclear bombs, antibiotics, genetic engineering, central heating, air conditioning, washing machines, refrigeration, television, computers and, oh yes, the internet were either invented or went from being the preserve of the fabulously wealthy to facts of everyday life. Well, OK, not the nuclear bombs but she, unlike me, was alive when the first one was exploded in anger.
I'm 44. When I was a few months old, my mother held me up in front of the TV as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and fluffed the most famous punchline in human history. A few months later, I was flown to South Africa in a 'jumbo jet' - Boeing's iconic 747. All of the stuff that had transformed the lives of ordinary people since my Gran's birth already existed, except the internet and nothing has come along in the years since my birth that has unambiguously improved the lives of all whom it reached. Ask yourself - and do try to be honest - whether you'd rather give up Google or flushing lavatories. Would you put up with walking to the end of the garden in mid-winter and shitting into a stinking hole in the ground in exchange for access to a search engine that returns, in response to a search query, the Wikipedia entry least irrelevant to what you wanted to know?
'Fuck off, Grandad!' You might well be thinking if you were born after 1985 or are an unusually naive 30-something. 'We have iPads and GPS and mobile phones and Wikipedia and online shopping and texting, and...and...and lots of other cool stuff that your generation couldn't even have imagined.' True, but we did have books, maps, a global telephone system, encyclopedias written by experts, mail order catalogues, conversation, a vocabulary that didn't include the acronym LOL, a world before emoticons and hundreds upon hundreds of hours that we didn't yet realise we ought to have been filling letting our wives know that we were on the train home or re-tweeting the thoughts of some long-haired twat in recovery from sex addiction or maintaining a paranoid watch on the popularity of our online avatars.
Do you remember Space Invaders? It was a computer game that involved shooting down alien spaceships before they landed and destroyed you. How pre-teens today would snigger at the hilariously primitive graphics. These days, with a Wii or X-Box, you can play games that involve shooting down alien spaceships before they land - in colour! That's progress for you. I remember being immensely jealous of a friend, whose father was richer than mine, who had a digital watch. The watch on my wrist now still tells the time (though I have to interpret the analogue symbols to read it) but it is also water-proof to a depth of 250m. The Land Rover Defender that I drive has a top speed of 85mph. My washing machine takes about an hour to wash a load of clothes; my dishwasher takes more than two hours to wash my dirty plates. The air in my house is heated by steel vessels filled with hot water. I use a stiff-haired brush to scrape the shit that sticks to the porcelain sides of my toilet bowl, despite regular applications of Harpic's 'best-ever' toilet cleaner, which kills 99.9% of germs, leaving only approximately 1 million of the little buggers per square millimeter.
At school various teachers tried to introduce me to calculus (discovered by Newton or Leibniz, depending on whether you are German or British, 17th century), relativity (Einstein in the early 20th century), quantum mechanics (various geniuses of the early 20th century), the theory of evolution (Darwin, mid 19th century), genetics (Mendel, mid 19th century), molecular biology (Watson & Crick, mid 20th century) and various pointless disciplines such as history, foreign languages and theology. Unfortunately I never mastered the language of mathematics, my greatest intellectual regret. Had I done so, I might very well have gone the way of all nerds and gotten into computers.
The high school I attended has two famous alumni. Nigel Dempster, who went on to become a gossip columnist for the Daily Mail, and Alan Turing, who invented the computer, won the Second World War for the Allies (by decrypting the 'unbreakable' Enigma code), laid the foundations for artificial intelligence research and died by his own hand, having been offered the choice between jail or a series of hormone injections to cure his homosexuality which, let's face it, does rather overshadow his undeniable achievements. The computer that Turing used to help him decrypt Enigma was a behemoth, with valves in the place of transistors, which did not yet exist. Ever more powerful computers have been achieving ever less consequential results since then. A computer built by IBM, for example, beat the best human chess player at a game of chess, not by playing chess well but by systematically evaluating trillions of possible consequences of each move and selecting the one least likely to result in a loss, according to the rules of chess. No-one asked Deep Blue to do something really difficult, like ignite a passion for chess in a nine-year old or copy a captcha code into a website but, if they had, we would still be waiting for DB's answer, several quadrillion calculations later. It is worth noting that, whereas everyone thinks they know that Turing broke Enigma with the help of a computer, they believe it was Deep Blue, not the computer's programmers, that defeated Gary Kasparov.
Enter Gordon Moore, who famously and innocently noted in 1965 that the processing power of computers seemed to be doubling every couple of years. To everyone's initial surprise, this rule-of-thumb turned out to be a remarkably accurate predictor of future computing power. It applies to this day (48 years later) and the rule-of-thumb has become 'Moore's Law'. Moore himself is blameless in all this. He was simply pointing out an unnoticed trend and speculating that it might continue for a few years, which it has indeed done. No-one can have failed to notice that the lowliest chip in your iPhone dwarfs Turing's behemoth in raw computing power.
If you are well educated and intelligent, it is highly likely that you are also an atheist. This is generally fine and dandy but, when contemplating your own extinction, it's a bummer. One ingenious group of atheists has come up with an elegant solution - the prospect of an afterlife without god. The chief prophet of this movement currently (until he dies, which won't be long now I'm afraid Ray) is Ray Kurzweil, who believes in the approach of the Singularity, when computers will become so capable that they will not only relieve humans of the burden of work, they will make us immortal, by allowing us to upload ourselves into substrates not subject to biological death, where we shall live forever in a virtual reality far more satisfying than our messy, biological lives. I really hope this comes true and I shall be first in line for uploading.
The problem, though, is that although your dishwasher can do more calculations per second than Alan Turing did in his life, it's hard to miss the fact that it still takes a couple of hours to wash your dishes and even the most utopian of Moore-istas would probably not argue that your dishwasher could have won WWII, given half a chance. You can still fly to South Africa overnight from the UK, as you could when I was born and you can still go to the moon in a week (or you could if we still knew how, which we don't because all the engineers who did it last are dead or senile). You can still call anyone on the planet and hear their voice, you can still drive from Cairo to Cape Town, if you can get 30 separate visas and avoid being beheaded en route by Muslims irritated by the number of Predator drones overflying the Caliphate's airspace these days. And you can still take a shit, wipe your arse, flush the toilet and walk away.
Moore's flaw - again, nothing to do with the man who's name has been associated with the trend in computational power - is the absurd illusion that doing more calculations per second has anything to do with the quality of human life. Almost everything that is good about life in the 21st century is due to innovations made before anyone still working today was born. Unless we crack artificial intelligence, which is as likely to destroy us as liberate us, I cannot see anything on the horizon likely to emancipate our species from its legacy as the ape that invented plumbing.