Technology as a Natural Process (2/24/2007)

The parade of Boeing 757s is lining up on the taxiway awaiting departure from LAX. It seems like early afternoon is the time of day for this type of aircraft to dominate the departure schedules from Los Angeles. The 757 is really an excellent aircraft! It has a unique look – lean and mean, with a cockpit shape and nose gear that furthers the impression that it is all business. It is not just the looks that impress. The aircraft is a great performer. It can take off in a steep attitude that is very impressive, and can also weave its way in for a steep landing as if it was a stone dropping from the skies. It is quite agile for its size. It is a pity that they have discontinued production of the 757. Apparently, it just did not make business sense any more.

Yes, I am returning from LA after yet another business trip (and I will be back again next week for another one). I am settled into seat 26F of a 757 high over some dry brown countryscape (not sure if that is a real word!) just east of LA. These days, this is usually the period of time when my mind tends to become unoccupied and wanders, which perhaps may not be considered a good thing. I am getting used to these kinds of business trips. The reason it is not that much of a hassle is because I am not under much pressure and because I am relaxed during the trips. I do not have to fly at some odd time of day to avoid losing time at work, and even when I get to my destination, the people are more laid back, and the expectations are quite reasonable.

It is now wintertime in Los Angeles, which means that it rains for a couple of days (in a manner of speaking). They were joking that it rains so little in LA that it may not even make sense to try to go up on the roofs and the high ceilings of the glass foyers of the buildings to fix leaks. In fact, it might make better sense instead to just collect the leaking water in buckets when it rains! I was present when a terrific thunderstorm rolled over the airport. I got a great view from DIRECTV’s facilities, which are just beside the runways. From the 7th floor you can see the constant stream of traffic arriving and departing the busy airport. From the 7th floor you can also get a great view of downtown LA off in the distance. It was the perfect photo opportunity with the city skyline and the threatening clouds.

I am getting to that point in my life and career where it is quite interesting for me to just sit back and think about the consequences of the kind of work I am involved in, and perhaps even ponder the kind of “natural” processes that seem to guide the directions that consumer technologies seem to lead us in. I was initially hesitant to use the term “natural”, because, in the big picture of things, nothing that we do in technology is natural. We invent stuff, most often with the express purpose of doing something cool or making a profit (or both). We usually try to create a market (using the term market in its most generic sense) for our technologies. Some of this stuff takes off and people can make a lot of money. A lot of it goes nowhere. But the technologies that are successful have the ability to impact people’s behaviors, and perhaps even the cultures of the societies that we live in. (I was just reading a travelogue in the In-flight magazine about the use of cell-phones by the lamas in Lhasa. Imagine that!) I happen to be in a situation where I can see the kinds of new consumer electronics and communications technologies and applications that may be coming and are just over the horizon. I can even try to imagine the kind of impact these are going to have in the way we think and live, and ponder the processes that are going on. At this point in my life, this appears to be far more interesting than working on the technologies themselves!

One reason you could call these processes in the technology area “natural” is because they really are unpredictable and we do not control them although we think we do. But the term natural ought not to be used lightly. The truth of the matter is that human beings are inventing their own reality. Although it is a process that includes a healthy dose of probability (i.e., aspects we cannot control), we are really inventing stuff and defining the way we live on our own. We have been doing this ever since we invented the wheel. It is quite possible that intelligent creatures that live on another planet in the universe will create their own reality in a form that we cannot even imagine. At the end of the day we, as human beings, have defined the world we want to live in, and we are only seeing and comprehending things in this context. This is quite different from just letting the other forces of nature do their thing, and adapting ourselves to the circumstances without trying to control and modify our environment in some dramatic manner or the other. So, one could argue that since intelligence gives us the ability to control our reality and modify it, this reality may not be considered a natural thing. But why does it matter what we think about all of this? I think it matters because many of us tend to think in absolutes – right and wrong, black and white, when in fact nothing that we as human-beings do has an absolute basis for legitimacy. What we do may only make sense in the context of the world that has been created around us. And perhaps it is important to recognize this.

Anyway, coming back to the “reality” of the world that my career has led me to, it is interesting for me to observe, as if from a distance, the cycles that new mass-market consumer electronic technologies tend to take if they are truly successful. There is the initial phase of invention. Then somebody or some organization tries to find out if there is any interest in the practical aspects of the invention, and any money to be made. If so there is the next phase of bringing the technology to the market. You could be successful at this stage and continue to refine your technology and operate as a closed system. But if the technology really takes hold, it is quite likely to become bigger than a single person or even a single organization. You will also tend to get competition. If the technology has to work for everybody, you may even have to cooperate with your competition. Eventually you may have to get involved in some kind of standardization process. Once you do that, you lose control. Eventually whatever technology you develop is overtaken by something new and better. By some kind of process that the first generation of people working on a technology could not have even imagined, events happen, and something new takes hold. All of this eventually impacts the way we live and our so-called culture. Is this a natural process?

I hope you made it this far without condemning me to the lunatic asylum (which is a part of our own reality, and so arguably, not a natural thing). Perhaps it is the thin air at 37,000 feet that is affecting me (but then again, I am actually only experiencing the unnatural reality of the experience of a much lower altitude inside the pressurized body of a 757).

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Kuriacose Joseph

I am an engineer by training. I am exploring new horizons after having spent many years in the Industry. My interests are varied and I tend to write about what is on my mind at any particular moment in time.

One thought on “Technology as a Natural Process (2/24/2007)”

  1. Great post and keep the thoughts flowing.

    Tools/technologies are unique (to me) in that they occupy that liminal space between natural and unnatural. That is, it would seem a natural process to create tools to augment our lives and extend our senses and abilities (what is a spiderweb to a spider, but an innovation in design and resource use). But they are also not natural, in the sense that you speak, that we may use them beyond their purpose to increase our survivability. I think the word “natural” is very nuanced in its application these days.

    Liked by 1 person

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