Technological Acceleration: A Few Musings

A short break to think over: To be free or not to be free?

After five years of “Retrospectroscope” columns (since January 2011) covering subjects more or less related to biomedical engineering—always from a historical perspective, but also bringing a few recent viewpoints and even the hint of a future gaze—we have decided to stop briefly to look at the enormous technological acceleration currently underway. Is this, maybe, rooted in a human feeling of inner loneliness, even an attempt to run away?

Scientists have recently reported the presence of water on Mars, renewing the hope that life exists on that planet and simultaneously offering a still-distant—but closer—dream for a place to be free (or perhaps freer?). At the same time, social and demographic pressures come from many directions with many causes—deep economic and educational gaps, places lacking essential services, diseases, malnutrition, drug addiction, unemployment, racial and religious intolerance…what else?

This, unfortunately, is the reality for much of the world’s population. In the meantime, another portion of society— those in the minority, really—enjoy luxurious lives, sometimes producing nothing, even like leeches that suck the blood from the other side. Within this sad picture, global technology invades only selectively (for it does not reach everybody in every geographical region—so much so that the term “global” seems inappropriate). Millions of people use this technology, often requiring it to work productively. But it is also often applied to silly activities and to other non-sancta objectives. In all cases, however, it leads to a kind of techno addiction. Oh, the day that, for some reason, our Internet connection fails! Have you ever experienced the effects of Internet withdrawal?

In a previous column, we recalled with sadness the practical disappearance of handwritten letters, as well as those precious notes scribbled, sometimes hurriedly, by many of those who shaped world history [1]. Another column described the compression effect clearly seen in the progress of knowledge, even with increasing acceleration [2]. Sometimes, during our everyday conversation we comment, “I have barely learned how to operate this gadget, and there is already a new model replacing it!” Is there no limit to this race? How beneficial are such effects? Are there unwanted side effects? Or, perhaps, are huge economic profits pushing this phenomenon beyond a sensible line?

The phenomenon is no doubt scientific, too, producing new information in all disciplines with obvious positive advances; the part that is less certain resides in its societal reach—often restricted, by and large, to a relatively small minority. The technological side, usually associated with the scientific core, appears to exhibit a much faster development. Patents flourish, new equipment is designed, but, not infrequently, the new model has only a few novel features that barely qualify it as significant progress in that specific technology.

By means of better and more powerful technologies, with global communications, we can receive instant news (good, bad, irrelevant, nasty); we are able to travel (if we have at hand the required money); we dream, not unfoundedly, of visiting other planets or other galaxies— if not ourselves, then at least our descendants. And so we experience a sweet sensation of freedom—in stark contrast to the “poor guy,” who essentially stays home all his (or her) life.

The big philosophical question stands handsomely in front of us: What is freedom? Or, what is being free?

References

  1. M. E. Valentinuzzi, “Manuscript letters … Are they forever past?” IEEE Pulse, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 48–51, 2013.
  2. P. D. Arini, J. Bianchi, and M. E. Valentinuzzi, “Scientific discoveries and technological inventions: Their relativistic history effect,” IEEE Pulse, vol. 5, no. 4, pp. 64–68, 2014.