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“Things To Celebrate, Like Dreams Of Flying Cars”: Progress In Technology Has Made Saving The World Much More Plausible

In Star Wars, Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon did the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs; in real life, all the Falcon 9 has done so far is land at Cape Canaveral without falling over or exploding. Yet I, like many nerds, was thrilled by that achievement, in part because it reinforced my growing optimism about the direction technology seems to be taking — a direction that may end up saving the world.

O.K., if you have no idea what I’m talking about, the Falcon 9 is Elon Musk’s reusable rocket, which is supposed to boost a payload into space, then return to where it can be launched again. If the concept works, it could drastically reduce the cost of putting stuff into orbit. And that successful landing was a milestone. We’re still a very long way from space colonies and zero-gravity hotels, let alone galactic empires. But space technology is moving forward after decades of stagnation.

And to my amateur eye, this seems to be part of a broader trend, which is making me more hopeful for the future than I’ve been in a while.

You see, I got my Ph.D. in 1977, the year of the first Star Wars movie, which means that I have basically spent my whole professional life in an era of technological disappointment.

Until the 1970s, almost everyone believed that advancing technology would do in the future what it had done in the past: produce rapid, unmistakable improvement in just about every aspect of life. But it didn’t. And while social factors — above all, soaring inequality — have played an important role in that disappointment, it’s also true that in most respects technology has fallen short of expectations.

The most obvious example is travel, where cars and planes are no faster than they were when I was a student, and actual travel times have gone up thanks to congestion and security lines. More generally, there has just been less progress in our command over the physical world — our ability to produce and deliver things — than almost anyone expected.

Now, there has been striking progress in our ability to process and transmit information. But while I like cat and concert videos as much as anyone, we’re still talking about a limited slice of life: We are still living in a material world, and pushing information around can do only so much. The famous gibe by the investor Peter Thiel (“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”) is unfair, but contains a large kernel of truth.

Over the past five or six years, however — or at least this is how it seems to me — technology has been getting physical again; once again, we’re making progress in the world of things, not just information. And that’s important.

Progress in rocketry is fun to watch, but the really big news is on energy, a field of truly immense disappointment until recently. For decades, unconventional energy technologies kept falling short of expectations, and it seemed as if nothing could end our dependence on oil and coal — bad news in the short run because of the prominence it gave to the Middle East; worse news in the long run because of global warming.

But now we’re witnessing a revolution on multiple fronts. The biggest effects so far have come from fracking, which has ended fears about peak oil and could, if properly regulated, be some help on climate change: Fracked gas is still fossil fuel, but burning it generates a lot less greenhouse emissions than burning coal. The bigger revolution looking forward, however, is in renewable energy, where costs of wind and especially solar have dropped incredibly fast.

Why does this matter? Everyone who isn’t ignorant or a Republican realizes that climate change is by far the biggest threat humanity faces. But how much will we have to sacrifice to meet that threat?

Well, you still hear claims, mostly from the right but also from a few people on the left, that we can’t take effective action on climate without bringing an end to economic growth. Marco Rubio, for example, insists that trying to control emissions would “destroy our economy.” This was never reasonable, but those of us asserting that protecting the environment was consistent with growth used to be somewhat vague about the details, simply asserting that given the right incentives the private sector would find a way.

But now we can see the shape of a sustainable, low-emission future quite clearly — basically an electrified economy with, yes, nuclear power playing some role, but sun and wind front and center. Of course, it doesn’t have to happen. But if it doesn’t, the problem will be politics, not technology.

True, I’m still waiting for flying cars, not to mention hyperdrive. But we have made enough progress in the technology of things that saving the world has suddenly become much more plausible. And that’s reason to celebrate.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 25, 2015

December 27, 2015 Posted by | Climate Change, Energy, Technology | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Privacy? We Gave That Away Already”: You Might Want To Rethink Your Relationship With Technology

All the President’s Men, the movie made from the book that inspired my career in journalism, was on (very) late night TV the other night. What’s strikingly anachronistic about the film is not the sideburns and bug-eye glasses, but the rudimentary journalistic tactics of the reporters who broke the Watergate story.

They weren’t on Google, searching for information that may or may not be accurate, and using a research technique that is so easily tracked that pop-up ads related to the search will begin appearing almost immediately. They didn’t drive through toll booths with a convenient electronic device on the windshield that can (and do) track their movements and the specific time of the movements. They didn’t do email interviews, cell phone interviews or even many hardline phone interviews that could leave an electronic trail.

The movie shows the real, unglamorous shoe-leather work of being a reporter. It’s one scene after another of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein driving to a neighborhood, parking blocks away to avoid detection and then knocking on people’s doors, sweet-talking their way into living rooms for interviews. It’s Woodward finding ways to meet his source, “Deep Throat” – not by thumb-typing a text, but by signals that involved the moving of a plant on a balcony. This was how the duo managed to get people to talk to them – sometimes at great personal risk – and how Woodward managed to keep Mark Felt’s identity a secret until Felt’s family disclosed his role in 2005.

Journalists are concerned at the surveillance of their phone records. And many are also jarred by the disclosure that federal authorities have been monitoring certain activity on the web and collecting phone call data. But where would anyone get the idea that any communication attached to technology and electronic’s is really private?

We have a new Facebook generation which is remarkably willing to give up its collective privacy by posting their embarrassing photos and travel plans and insignificant “status” updates on what is the biggest billboard in the cyber-sky. And yet the same people live in the delusion that no one is monitoring it? That a potential burglar isn’t tipped off by someone’s Pinterest photos of the family currently on vacation, a sign that the house is unattended? That a potential employer might see a photo of an applicant with someone doing shots off his chest and think, “maybe this isn’t someone we want working here?”

True, the idea government surveillance has a different quality to it, from both sides. We expect our government to respect our privacy. The government, meanwhile, knows it is also expected to track the bad guys. The balance of those two goals will surely be debated yet again after the recent disclosure of surveillance techniques. But in the meantime, Americans might want to rethink our relationship with technology and the privacy we lose by using it.

This applies exponentially to journalists, who might want to get back to basics – especially when reporting sensitive stories. When I was reporting in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, almost no one would be interviewed on the phone. They had just ousted a communist regime, and they were convinced, still, that their phones were being tapped. They didn’t even talk openly on the subway, so well-trained they were to be discreet. It made it harder to report, but it also promoted some better work tactics. I had to actually go meet someone somewhere and do interviews in person. I was less likely to misinterpret, and came back with more information than I would have gotten in a quick phone conversation. Woodward and Bernstein did it. So should the rest of us.

 

By: Susan Milligan, Washington Whispers, U. S. News and World Report, June 10. 2013

June 11, 2013 Posted by | Privacy, Technology | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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