Friday, August 7, 2009

The Only Constant Is Change

My father recently celebrated his 90th birthday. That in itself is a phenomenal achievement, but when you consider that he suffered his first massive heart attack in 1975, you begin to understand just what kind of amazing accomplishment this is. After a quadruple bypass, implanted pacemaker/defibrillator, angioplasty, titanium hip replacement, spinal discectomy and double cataract surgery - he has had more technology put into his body than went into the Dell laptop I'm using to type this post.

My father was born in 1919. Holy time warp - think about the things that did NOT yet exist in 1919. For example, here's just a random smattering of items that do NOT include many of the really HUGE events of this time period:

And that's only the first 20 years! Senior citizens often say that "everything changes so fast now" - but I disagree - I believe the world has *always* changed, and further, it has *always* changed quickly and dramatically - at least since the industrial revolution began in the late 19th century. There is no doubt that the spread of changes around the world is much faster now - our very quick worldwide communications and transportation systems have enabled that rapid spread to occur. However, just because my father was not aware of Robert Goddard's first liquid-fueled rocket flight until several years after it occurred did not prevent that event from initiating huge changes to our society that ultimately led to Alan Shepard orbiting the Earth in a Mercury capsule in 1961. I claim that world-changing events have almost always been happening at a rapid rate - we are simply putting them into the common knowledge base much sooner now than we did in the past.

One of the great challenges of my entire adult life has been attempting to explain to my father what I do for a living. Even back in my aerospace engineering days, he really had no idea what an engineer working for a big defense contractor like Lockheed or Northrop actually did every day to earn a paycheck. My father was a farmer and lived on a farm his entire life. He once asked me "Why do you still need to come up with new things for airplanes? Hasn't everything already been invented?" Wow - that one made me pause. How could I explain the endless ways in which new requirements change yesterday's design, or how even small increments in technology could provide new capabilities that could not previously be accomplished, or made reliable, affordable, etc. But when I compare the changes between, for example, the airplane of 1919, with the airplane of 1939, I see MUCH more change than when I compare the airplane of 1989 with the airplane of 2009. In fact, many of the airplanes built in 1989 are still in service today - and the same could probably not be said in 1939 for airplanes built in 1919!

Electronics and computer technology have certainly changed the world. But, can you honestly say those technologies have changed the world MORE than the electric lightbulb or the internal combustion engine or the airplane? I claim no - computers have NOT.

Humans have an incredibly short time frame of reference. We think 100 years ago is a lifetime (and of course it is - in human lives!). But as I discussed in the previous post on our much more successful ancestor H. Habilis, we are barely a blip in the anthropological time scale - never mind the geologic or galactic time scale. But attempting to think along the scale of eons forces our human brains to eliminate the details - we are forced to abstract the timeline such that only scientists such as paleontologists, geologists, etc can do better than "time before the dinosaurs", "time during the dinosaurs" and "time after the dinosaurs". Our puny brains have a terrible time visualizing and understanding anything that can't be measured by our own 5 senses.

But, I really wasn't intending to veer off into the murky subject of our place in the cosmos. Suffice it to say that I follow the Douglas Adams view: "Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun." We should remember that when we start thinking our own pitiful few years of existence are really critically important.

*IF* I have a 90th birthday, it will be in 2051 - 42 years from now. How much will the world change in the next 42 years? Unlike most pronostigators, I will say both sides of the coin are true - the world will change hardly at all AND the world will also change dramatically. I won't try to make specific predictions. The science fiction world is littered with the evidence of the underachievement of human beings. Remember the campy TV show "Space: 1999"? How's that moon base coming along? And "2001: A Space Odyssey"? Don't even get me started. But, absolutely no one predicted a worldwide, internet-based retail ecommerce industry or even internet porn prior to the introduction of the affordable personal computer. I have no idea what the next 42 years will bring!

What I do know is that my grandchildren will think I am a fossil who simply can't comprehend the world of 2051, and they will also be unable to visualize the ancient world of 1961. At the same time, my children will see the world of 2051 as not all THAT different from their childhood in the late 1990s & early 21st century. That ongoing dichotomy is somehow comforting...

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