The Increasingly Delicate Nature of Reality [scope]

Today, we take a trip into scary territory.  Reality, as a concept, is integral to our understanding of the universe.  Philosophies that explain away reality are explaining away the very basis of existence--without it, we exist only in theory.  I'm not interested in proving what is real.  Most things I write, think, and do are based on the assumption that SOMETHING, however trivial, is real.  Surreality can substitute for reality in a pinch, as well, so that's on the table at all times.

What's interesting, though, is the nature of our present reality versus the reality of a citizen of the British Empire in the mid 1800s.  Our ideas of permanence would differ very drastically from theirs, and by association our sense of time and progress.  Let's take the example of the computing device.  In the 1850s, this would have been a slide rule at most, an abacus if you lived in the east, or simply a pen and paper.  If you were really lucky and knew a Mr. Charles Babbage, you might have gotten a glimpse of the future in the form of a "difference engine," the precursor to the modern binary processing computer.  The devices of this age were robust, easily integrated into life, and generally relied more on a person's ability to manipulate numbers rather than a device's ability to perform without error.  Thus, the computing device of the mid-1800s was relatively slow but ultimately reliable and did not require repairs on any grand scale.

Shoot forward to the 1950s.  Computers like ENIAC now exist, taking up the space of an entire room and outputting as much information as a modern 4-function calculator.  The assembly line is entrenched in society, and we see the normalization of the commodity market.  TV dinners are available, and a slew of time-saving devices (microwaves, faster cars, telephones, electric razors, etc) allow the pace of life to increase.  The effect of all this:  more and more "things" become disposable, and build quality drops a notch.

And lastly, we get to today.  It's 2010, and I have just dropped $200 for a brand new iPhone.  It is slated for planned obsolescence within 2 years by its build materials and the quality of its internal battery.  Innovation into increasing durability and lifespan of products has all but ceased.  Our reality now relies not on the quality of objects or even their power to efficiently perform a task, but rather on the speed at which a new item replaces an older, slower item.  Our pace of life has never been faster, and continues to increase exponentially  as Moore's Law continues to define the progress of the convergence of computational devices with everyday life.  At this point, almost all our commodities have integrated digital circuits, to the point where our cars, clothes, and shopping carts all need to be programmed in order to work.

Planned obsolescence does not necessarily lead to a more tenuous commercial reality, but the way in which our data is stored certainly does.  When the Library of Alexandria was burned by the Romans, much data was lost, some of it forever.  Today, that amount of data could be contained on a single hard drive in a single data center of a single company.  With the miniaturization of information and the expansion of information sharing, we have opened ourselves to a reality in which the slightest misstep could throw us into an informational dark age.  As of May 2009, world internet data was estimated at 500 billion gigabytes, or as the linked article explains, enough books to reach from here to Pluto 10 times.

Picture this:  in 1890, an electromagnetic pulse is released from a gigantic solar flare, wiping out all communications on Earth, all electrical impulses, causing beautiful auroras, screwing up compasses, and really pissing off a young Nikolai Tesla.  Business as usual continues.  Manifest Destiny continues to dominate US social policy, there is still a debate over the use of gold versus silver as the US currency-backing metal, and a few ships get lost for a couple days at sea.  Bummer.

Now picture the same pulse released today:  planes lose their navigation systems.  A few of them crash.  Cars built in the last 10 years will not turn on, and those that do suffer throttle, control, brake, and fuel efficiency issues.  The internet shuts down.  Phones built on digital transmissions fail.  Your hugging shirt stops hugging.  Your information is erased from all RAM and flash-based storage.  mechanical hard drives spin down, many of them will never spin up again.  And Willy Nelson just laughs and lights another joint.

The picture I'm painting is not one of panic, but of a changing sense of permanence.  We no longer believe that durability from the elements, from blunt force, or from a simple interruption in electricity is something to be desired.  We rely on (unsustainable) energy sources to provide our reality every day.  And with each passing moment, virtual reality becomes more and more real.  The real tragedy is not the comically simple disruption we could face, it's the fact that we no longer have respect for quality, nor do most of us even have a clue how that sort of durability was achieved.  And with every passing generation, we will move further and further from that slow-moving past.  Already we find builders and Makers focusing on repurposing other people's garbage and disposable commodities.  Innovation continues, but the flow of history has been diverted from the pursuit of perfection.  Have we accepted an innate flaw of expansion, or are we as a society poised for a plane-crash of epic proportions?


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A blog about social change, written from Brooklyn, New York. Currently looking for contributors.