changing the world

In a current column, technology writer Mike Elgan poses the question whether the iPad will change the world. He cites disagreement on the matter with columnist Lance Ulanoff.

Both pieces are interesting, well-written, worth reading. Mike – an old friend and fellow high school band geek – thinks the iPad’s user interface is just that revolutionary. Lance thinks it’s not. I respectfully disagree with both writers. I can’t even buy the premise. I don’t think computer technology of any kind is changing the world. Does it even have that hope? It’s debatable.

Science in general is having a hard enough time effecting real global change. Well, there are two exceptions with big potential: nuclear weapons and self-sustaining agriculture.

Computers haven’t changed the world. They’ve had an impact and a slight effect. They’ve changed the way we work and get information. But the core realities of human endeavor, meaning war, disease, hunger, peace, wellness, wealth, sufficiency, are changing incrementally as they always have.

Even television, as ubiquitous as it is, has changed only the daily entertainment habits and sleep patterns of the regions of the planet it has reached. And TV falls a close second to the Mute button as the greatest media invention of the 20th century.

You can design a house with the help of a computer, but that doesn’t build the shelter. Guys with hammers still do that. It certainly doesn’t inspire the willingness on the part of society to make that shelter available to someone in need. A computer cannot clean drinking water for a village. Information is still more efficaciously delivered to a large part of the world via radio than the Internet.

It can be said that computing is slowly changing the way doctors learn and communicate, diagnose and treat. But in this country we’re locked in a debate over whether people should have a right to be treated or permitted to suffer; a dialog which at best should be called Neanderthal. Biden says BFD, I say wait and see.

I like my computer. It’s changed the way I spend my time. But it hasn’t changed my life in a fundamental or meaningful way. It has good tools for communicating and getting stuff done, which I used to have to do with pens and paper, postage and resulting indifference. Its immediacy is exciting. But there’s a distinction between content and context, between Being and doing.

In that distinction, the world as we know it has been changed by computers only very little since Babbage’s Analytical Engine, 30 years before the Civil War. So no, the iPad will be little known nor long remembered. And how many people know the differences between Windows 95 and XP?

If we all woke up tomorrow with heads-up displays imbedded in our eyes and terrabyte drives nestled comfortably in our sinuses, it wouldn’t change a thing unless we changed something with it. Computing isn’t life, it’s just machinery.

If you want to see industry actually changing the world, keep an eye on coal , big oil, commercial meat, and —strangely still true –paper.