Saturday, January 21, 2006

A Better World

Fifty years ago, the typical computer was the size of about half a dozen refrigerators. Today's computers are not only tiny by comparison, they're about a zillion times faster as well. To put this rapid development of computer technology in perspective, keep in mind that refrigerators today are about the same size as they were fifty years ago, and they don't get any colder than the old ones did.

The computers of yesteryear didn't have all the processing power that computers have today either. Sure, they could compute orbits and trajectories and thereby allow us to land men on the moon, but they couldn't play MP3s or display pictures and videos with photographic clarity.

Personal computers have been very popular ever since they were introduced, even though a lot of people didn't really know what to do with them for most of that time. It wasn't until the mid-90s, when internet browsers were first deployed and web sites were created, that most people finally had a reason to turn their computers on every day. As the years went by, more and more information became available online, and now there probably aren't many things you can't learn about on the internet.

You can get information on just about any area of research, from the most common to the most esoteric. We now have what amounts to an information storehouse bigger than any other library before it, and it's growing bigger every day. That's why most people who regularly use the internet can't imagine how they ever got along without it. As it develops further, the impact the internet will have on our lives may possibly be greater than any invention that came before it, including the printing press, the television, and the automobile.

So how are we using this amazing life-changing internet technology? The best way to find out might be to look at the most common searches people requested from the popular search engines. As a historical aside, when music downloading first became popular, I remember reading an article announcing that for the first time since such statistics were collected, "sex" was no longer the most popular search term. It came in at second place, and "MP3" came in at first place.

That may be an interesting footnote to our cultural history, but those days are long gone. According to Yahoo!, neither "sex" nor "MP3" made it to the Top 10 in 2005. So what did? That's a good question, and I happen to have the answer right in front of me. Here are Yahoo!'s top 10 search requests for 2005:
1. Britney Spears
2. 50 Cent
3. Cartoon Network
4. Mariah Carey
5. Green Day
6. Jessica Simpson
7. Paris Hilton
8. Eminem
9. Ciara
10. Lindsay Lohan

In case you're not familiar with all those terms, let me break it down for you. There are eight singers or musical groups, one television station, and Paris Hilton.

Before I go a single word further, I want to make it clear that I'm not going to use this post to say mean things about Britney Spears or Paris Hilton or anyone on else the list. I will make the point, however, that the Cartoon Network consists of one channel, so it can't really be called a "network."

But besides that, absolutely no disrespect is intended toward any of the people in the list above, regardless of whether or not I happen to think they have any talent. On the other hand, plenty of disrepect is intended toward a culture in which more people are interested in Britney Spears than in anyone or anything else.

I can't say I'm surprised, though -- it's not like I expected to see terms like "new brutalism" or "Robert Barry Kaplan" or "deconstructivism" anywhere in the Top 10, or even in the Top 10,000. But I have to ask: Is this the best use we can find for our technology?

Maybe this is no big deal. On the other hand, maybe it's one of the signs of the End Times. I wouldn't be surprised, because it ranks right up there with some of the other signs, such as the following three.

1. Prejudice against Smart People. People with above-average intelligence are often derided as being part of the "intellectual elite" and their opinions are dismissed as being irrelevant to the common man. In our current cultural climate, we tend to admire stupid people with money, but we tend not to think too highly of smart people (unless they downplay their intelligence).

2. The Blurring of Science and Superstition. I'm not saying that superstition is bad and science is good -- I'm just saying we should recognize the differences between them and try to keep them separate. Superstition is the set of beliefs people accept without rational thought. Science is the set of beliefs people accept based on evidence and deduction. There have been recent attempts to change the definition of science so that it includes some aspects of superstition. That would have lessened the value of science, of course, so it's also an example of how language can be used as a destructive force, which is something else that we don't want.

3. Demodernization. We're seeing this on a large scale these days, although I don't know if it's an actual sign of the End Times or just a symptom. Demodernization comes in many forms, but it may be most apparent (to me at least) in architecture. I see a lot of houses that were built in the 1950s being remodeled to look like they were build in the 1850s. Great idea, right? Now instead of having a house that looks 50 years old, you have one that looks 150 years old. (By the way, designers often refer to this process as "updating" a house, which is another example of using language as a destructive force.) Worse yet, I see new housing developments being built this way. Besides being ugly, they aren't genuine -- they're like sets for a movie that takes place in the 19th century.

So, those are my Top 3 signs of the End Times (or Top 4 if you include the Yahoo! list). But just to make it clear, when I say "End Times," I'm not talking about some end-of-the-world prophecy -- I'm just talking about the descent of humanity into a new intellectual and cultural Dark Age.

Of course, I don't necessarily believe that either. I'm not saying it won't happen -- all I'm saying is that if it does happen, it won't be the end of things. The pendulum swings both ways, and if it doesn't knock us all down when it reaches the end of its current arc, we'll have a better world to look forward to. When that happens, it'll be interesting to see which search terms make it to Yahoo!'s Top 10 list.