John C. Butler
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204
By the time you read this we will know at least the initial effects of the Year Two Thousand Problem. Regardless of the Y 2 K effect(s), the challenges for the next decade or half-decade will remain. In fact, many of the challenges that will face us at the end of the first decade will not become apparent until much closer to that time. We truly live in a time of rapid changes in technology.
A few years ago I played a game that I often have students in my freshman-level physical geology course engage in. Take a time line and recast it in terms of something more familiar to the reader. I have seen, for example, the geologic time scale transformed to the length of the New York City subway system.
Citibank Professor W. Brian Arthur (1997) at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico designed a whimsical device to answer the question how fast in technology evolving?" Arthur noted that it was hard to clock something as ill defined as technology's speed of evolution but one could ask how fast would we have to speed up the natural, biological evolution of life on Earth to make it roughly match some particular technology's rate of change.
If biological evolution were speeded up by a factor of 10 million then life would have started some 360 years ago, about 1640. The Earth would have formed in about 1540, the time of planning for the great expeditions from western Europe to the so-called "new worlds". Arthur proceeds to lay the development of computing machinery, proceeding at its actual rate, along side this time line. In his time scale the appearance of humankind took place in 1991 and the Internet is the analogue.
I (Butler, 1998) expanded Arthur's construct with a focus on the Internet and selected the publication of As We May Think by Vannevar Bush in the Atlantic Monthly, July 1945 at the beginning of the time line. Bush argued:
"Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, memex will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory."
With 1945 as the beginning of the Internet time line, a speeding up of biological evolution by a factor of nearly 100 million is required -- nearly an order of magnitude greater than Arthur's model for computing technology.
During the more than two years since that construct was developed nothing has happened to cause me to change my feelings about the rapidity of technological developments.
How can this column in particular and the Journal in general, help the readership adjust to such rapid changes. This is being written in November, 1999 and will probably appear around April, 2000. On the Internet time line this delay in communication is equivalent to about 50 million years of organic evolution.
Any suggestions as to special issues or special features would be sincerely appreciated. Given the delay associated with publishing a hard copy journal, how can your interests be best served.
Arthur, W. B., 1997, How fast is technology evolving, Scientific American, number 2, 37-9.
Bush, V., 1945, As we may think, Atlantic Monthly, July 1945, 121-128.
Butler, J.C., 1998, "The internet - a catalyst for change," Special Issue of Computers & Geosciences, v. 24, no 7, 617-621.