Progress and Communication Technology

I grew up in Paris, in the 1970s. If you visit it today, 40 years later, in many ways there is zero change. Buildings look almost identical (with very little new construction, and all of that of poor quality). The streets have the same general shops and restaurants. The hotels are almost all the same — and the service has not improved — it still is awful. If you turn on the radio, you could easily imagine you were in 1975. French police, French Medicine, French Education — not a tremendous amount of change for 40 years.

With all due respect for Raymond Kurzweil, you could easily come to the conclusion that there is no progress. Or as the French say, “plus ca change et plus c’est la meme chose”.

And yet … the ONE thing that has changed completely is human communication. As a teen-ager I composed love letters in fountain pen, and sent them via La Poste to my girlfriend 1 mile away, with an average four day turnaround. There were no cell phones, or even the idea that a cell phone might somehow exist. And the idea that I could tap into a worldwide repository of knowledge…inconcievable.

Since Jules Verne, and even before humans have always tried to imagine the future. But even in the movie 2001, Stanley Kubrik did not imagine mobile phones. Frank Bowman still had to go to a phone booth to call home.

We still don’t have HAL. We have Google, which is a start in that direction, but we’re still pretty far, in my opinion from real AI. But we do have the ability now to communicate with virtually anybody on the planet instantaneously. We have the ability to archive information, like this blog post, and share it asynchronously with the world.

We’re still a bit a away from the complete digitization of our personal lives. Almost none of us have all their key information, birth certificates, passports, utility bills, list of all contacts, blood type, emergency evacuation procedures, family records, etc.. all organized and a few clicks away. But it’s pretty clear we will get there. A lot clearer than imagining the Internet or Cell Phones in 1975.

Once we do, as a species, become more organized and more digital, I am hoping that we can make more progress on the hard world of “atoms” that we live in. Hopefully, 50 years from now, the actual physical infrastructure we call “houses” will be closer in design, functionality and beauty to the iPhone rather than some horrible apartment in the Paris Suburbs. Hopefully, we can get to where all medical records are digital, health monitoring is done in real time and at all times, and where government itself is revitalized and cleaned up.

I’m optimistic.

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