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Technology, but on a human scale

Technology has enabled globalization. Technology, imagined as an object, is a malleable and versatile thing. We can fashion and mould technology into almost any shape or size. In recent times, we have used technology to build systems on scales that are incomprehensible to any one person — at this point, technology goes beyond the human scale…

Technology has enabled globalization. Technology, imagined as an object, is a malleable and versatile thing. We can fashion and mould technology into almost any shape or size. In recent times, we have used technology to build systems on scales that are incomprehensible to any one person — at this point, technology goes beyond the human scale…

Thinking back to times past, such as the Dark Ages, law makers created legislation that was at the edge of a layman’s comprehension, mostly because people were illiterate. However, since we can speak, laws could be conveyed by word, so that they could understand the laws they were subject to.

At around the same time, farmers markets were (and still are) thriving agrarian hubs of commerce for many nations around the world, where farmers and traders come together to buy and sell livestock and vegetable produce — all on a scale that people could understand, even if they were illiterate.

Microsoft are, as most of you will know, a huge multinational software developer, with interests in almost all industries. The internal political and hierarchical structure of Microsoft has been variously described as Byzantine and Labyrinthine, such is the formidable and convoluted structure, which for a variety of reasons, Microsoft alter periodically.

Further to this, I suspect that no one person at Microsoft could name every item of software, product and / or service that they have in their portfolio, such is the myriad diversity, the sheer complexity of each product range — think of all of the different versions of Office and Windows, for example — and the overlapping, sprawling and conflicting areas of their business.

So as a series of examples, what I’ve managed to demonstrate is that various systems exist, from the impenetrably complex, to the benignly less cerebral.

For the purposes of my next example, we need to shift back to the months and years leading up the great Wall Street crash of 1929.

At the speed of the human mind

The conditions that precipitated the great financial crash, which began on “Black Thursday” October 24, 1929, were well known, even at the highest level of political office. Then as now, little was done in those days and weeks leading up to the Great Crash, and what remained afterwards was a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to alleviate what had transpired, which was for the most part and utter waste of human effort.

You see, as robust as people might have thought such financial institutions were at the time, they were, in fact, built upon the very fallible, brittle bones and minds of men. During those desperate hours before and after the Great Crash, people worked around the clock, manning ticker-tape machines, fighting to firstly enter and then latterly read the data being relayed between banks and brokers.

So what was the point of failure? In simple terms, the speed of human thought was a major bottleneck. But these were merely remedial actions. The true point of failure was the inability of politicians and their legislators as well as the bankers to act when they had the time to. But that’s another story.

Technology beyond comprehension

Now lets move forward to more recent times. Yet again, enough people knew of the impending financial hurricane awaiting banks not just on North America, but those all around the world. That too is also another story. So what’s changed since 1929 and 2008? The banks and their brokers had a better ticker-tape machine, in the form of the computer, one that’s immeasurably faster and can handle unimaginable amounts of financial data.

Let’s just think about that for a moment: unimaginable amounts of data. Even way back in 1929, the financial system was well beyond the comprehension of the average human, and maybe at the very cusp of the formidable intellect of any Harvard-educated economist at the time.

We’re well beyond the speed of the human mind and the systems and technologies we’ve created to manage our financial systems are of such a colossal size — bestriding nations, spanning the entire globe — no one person can ever comprehend them.

Worse still, the speed at which things happen is now so fast, the fleeting moment between thought and action can be enough to wipe billions off the share price of an international business, or to add to that same international business’s share value.

In this globalized world, we have little choice but to entrust these systems with our finances; everyone from the laymen and the farmers to the Microsoft directors and any one of their many employees.

A new Dark Age of reason on a human scale?

So was Tracer Tong right? Now, for those not in the know, Tracer Tong is a character from Deus Ex, easily the best computer game I’ve ever played in my life. Tong was a member of the Luminous Path Triad in Hong Kong, and was a man with a very distinct view of the world, one where he’d arrived at a crossroads, where society had been assimilated into technology itself, and we were all now part of a complex mechanism no one person could fully comprehend.

Tong’s plan was to plunge the world into a second Dark Age by destroying global communications and preventing any one individual, organization, cabal or group of men from maintaining control of the very systems we’d all become a part of.

While I don’t advocate such a conclusion to our present and highly repeatable problems, it’s an idea that certainly makes you think about the world around us and how truly prone and vulnerable we are, the very moment the lights go out.

We have entrusted our world to technologies that we perceive as being infallible, yet these are technologies built from the very fallible minds of men, designed to manage imperfect systems.

Do we allow ourselves to delegate our every responsibility to machines? Or do we draw in all of the nebulous and circuitous electronic threads we have created around and about ourselves in this world and delegate them to real people in real time, not machine time?

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

4 replies on “Technology, but on a human scale”

Communication is a good example of how we make ourselves slaves to the technologies that we create to make our lives easier.

When corresponding with someone meant a letter which took a few days to arrive, people not only accepted this and got on with things but also put more care into what was said.

Now that we can communicate in a variety of ways practically instantaneously, the expectation upon us is that we will do so.

As far as the financial crisis is concerned, that was brought about by simple human greed and short-sightedness.

Technology is driven by the human mind! Technology may be able to retain loads of information, calculate gross formula but it’s only as good as the guy who wrote them. I agree, that technology is not perfect because people who created them are not perfect.

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