Eschatology and escapism, Mark Broatch

Technology

Eschatology comes into its own as a discipline around the fin de siècle. And the populace’s anxious murmurs reach a far higher pitch when the changeover involves le millénium. Such countdowns have always involved some level of unease, despite the innate arbitrariness of valuing particular years and the fact that all apocalyptic forecasts to date have been wrong.

As the enjoyable snapshot history The Year 1000 points out, the year 2000 has come to mean more to non-Christian societies largely because of computers with date functions based on a system popularised 13 centuries ago by the Venerable Bede. Without Y2K, to them next year would have been just another year (Jewish 5760, Buddhist 2544, Muslim 1420, Chinese 4698), though fire-cracking revellers in the East are likely to feel even more pre-empted by the time their own New Year rolls around on February 5. But, assuming the Russians and others sort out the clocks on their precisely pointed rockets, the end of the millennium is unlikely to equate with the end of world, or the subsequent Last Judgment and arrival of the Antichrist. Unless Bill Gates has simply been making preparations.

So if your bedside clock’s extra effort in changing several digits doesn’t signal an ending, does it signify a turning point? Perhaps. Well, certainly for all those computers not able to cope with the new century. But setting aside Y2K angst for a moment (one study suggests 25% of Americans believe Y2K problems will affect them directly, and 50% won’t fly on the day), and doomsday cultists like the 39 Hale-Boppers in black Nikes and religious types who believe St John’s Revelations constitute a fully booked calendar of events for next year – many are looking to the next century, the new millennium, with real optimism. An optimism fuelled on a belief that things will be better, and that much of the improvement can be put down to technology.

Close to the year 1000, a terrifying comet appeared (989, Halley’s), and several fires razed major cities. Exhibitions of mass piety occurred before and after the year itself. We’ve had comets and eclipses lately, even if we don’t sacrifice so many people these days, but we don’t seem to be holding our breath as 10th-century folk would have done. Science has become the new religion, removing many cobwebs of doubt, though we are not entirely free of superstition and misdirected belief. The growth in television shows, books and movies devoted to catastrophe, let alone conspiracy, suppressed facts and unexplained phenomena, continues to spiral. But it is clear that technology, while it can act as a facilitator of intrusion and surveillance, promises also to sort out the world’s problems.

It’s instructive to look at technology as facilitator of new ways and destroyer of old, in the context of the concern of this particular publication, books. Few people can have missed the move of the bookseller onto the World Wide Web, the graphical side of the Internet. Amazon’s phenomenal sales success – even though profits are more elusive – has drawn many others to follow the model. But those who produce books themselves are holding back somewhat. Publishers are sometimes seen as slow-moving creatures, and are often initially hesitant about using new technologies, such as putting books onto audiotape, ironically now a money-spinner. Likewise putting books into digital form on the Web, and the arrival of electronic books. All forms of media are having to negotiate the Internet (TV, radio, magazines, newspapers), and while most have jumped on wholesale – regardless of whether they can make money out of it yet – book publishers are moving more gingerly.

The first e-books went on sale last year. They sell from anywhere between $600 and $3000, plus monthly subscriptions in some cases. US bookseller Barnes & Noble has about 500 titles available, and reports sales of about 15,000 copies to date. There are at least three models out, with screens varying in size between 17cm and 34cm. Interestingly, Nuvomedia, which makes the Rocketbook, has been invested in by Bertelsmann, owner of publishers Random House, and Barnes & Noble. No sense in being out of the game completely, even if it doesn’t pan out as expected. These book market players obviously see some advantage in not having to print, ship, stock and store paper titles, even if that is what makes their money right now.

Other issues, such as what deals authors, publishers and booksellers will strike over electronic rights for participation in e-books or Internet publishing, remain to be negotiated. In fact, intellectual property rights remain a fierce future battleground – for example, electronic publishing of authors’ work, and the question of who owns the rights to university teachers’ lectures when they are increasingly going online. These are just two intellectual property issues currently being (sometimes vigorously) discussed.

2

To return to electronic books, however, the required hardware may well be free in future to encourage readers to buy titles, much as mobile phones or even computers are being offered gratis in the expectation that users will make calls or roam the Internet. Nevertheless, e-book vendors may face some resistance. Critics to date have found electronic books lacking in “touch and feel”, to borrow a computing metaphor. Readers report losing a sense of place and forgetting how far they have gone or have to go – negating the idea of reading as a journey or accomplishment. This will no doubt be at least partially overcome by technology and the next generation gap.

While electronic books may more accurately mimic the hard-copy experience, or improve on it, our children may develop allergies to paper in their enthusiasm for the new medium. Many parents are already bewildered by their child’s effortless mastery of PC games and home electronic gear. Students and professionals will likewise overcome any reservations about reference or study texts transferred to the format, especially if they are markedly cheaper. And in a related move, digital versions of books are becoming popular. Free first chapters are common, being used to market and sell a book much as freely downloadable MP3 versions of songs are used to sell an album. And while endeavours like the Gutenberg Project (www.gutenberg.net) are putting public domain titles on the Internet, readers not afraid to subvert existing publishing models are already opting for pick-and-mix solutions, where you choose what you want; for example, combining selected recipes from different cookbooks into one of your very own.

This is an inevitable side-development of the fragmentation of human experience. If at one time most people more or less participated in the same social events, read the same newspapers, watched the same television programmes and listened to the same radio station, this is far from the case today. Technological developments have accompanied and contributed to the splintering of audiences and thus communities with shared experiences – and in a country with the history and population size of New Zealand not much of the new or old content is locally produced. Note the explosive uptake of subscription TV and the profusion of radio options in this country. The early consumers of most new technology and media are those with greater incomes, motivation and leisure time. Often they are the same person. Those with the money can also more easily avoid the ever-present advertising that pays for “free” broadcast television – a not insignificant cultural differentiator.

Meanwhile, the Internet has both added a new channel for existing information sources and created its own information. Content has started to catch up to vehicle; there is now a lot to see and do on the Net. The general consensus of media researchers seems to be that television watching is the leisure activity that has suffered the most from people surfing the Internet at home. On the other hand, the Net is allowing communication that would not have been possible before, reconstituting like-minded individuals and groups into innumerable global villages. While the bricks-and-mortar communities we live in continue to fragment (which will continue until being online doesn’t equate with being inside), the click-and-download communities are flourishing through routes such as email, newsgroups and chat rooms. Whether the personal communication gains outweigh the public communication losses in these developments – to give the changes some sort of name – remains to be judged.

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So what other technological developments will cause us to open our eyes, minds and wallets over the next few years? Here’s a small, light-hearted, personal selection.

The Web will continue to attract innovations, in content, services, access methods and devices, in the process pulling more and more surfers online and drawing a sharp cultural line between the haves (those with access) and have-nots. Internet service providers will offer ever-faster access methods – for a price. Expect mobile networking systems to link people all day and night to their workplaces, gathering email, voicemail, Web selections, short messages and faxes into a universal in-box that follows them from their desk to their mobile phone to their home. Television, phones and computers will merge, at long last, but into different devices depending on a user’s needs, though everything will be online at all times. The Internet will not kill TV, as TV did not kill radio, as radio did not kill newspapers. They will simply change and adapt, enabling technology such as videophones to become far more common.

Sales of digital video recorders – essentially fast disk drives which can do cunning things such as instant playback while still recording – will skyrocket, selling even faster than tape-based video recorders did. Household appliances will be intelligently linked through tiny pieces of installed software, and the several PCs in the average home will be networked through existing phone extensions or microwave links – for multiplayer games and chat conferences with relatives overseas. Instant messaging and chatting will begin to replace email for casual contacts, as the need for speed makes everyone into touch-typists able to multi-task on several conversations at once while working.

Phone calls will join paper letters as special-occasion efforts, though official printed correspondence will still form the bulk of delivered mail for some time to come. Bills will be just as common, though they will increasingly be sent – and paid – online, and most banking, voting, commodity purchases and travel bookings will likewise be conducted online. The government will guarantee every citizen the right to their own Web site from which they can control their digital “image” and public information. Everyone will have to get a lot more educated about security, encryption and certification measures like digital signatures. Crooks will move online faster than everyone else.

Software will get ever more clever. Accurate voice recognition will become routine, though there will be a backlash when offices begin to sound like call centres. Translation software will be cheap and unclunky, rendering the call to replace English as the de facto language of the Web academic. Scriptwriting applications will become so sophisticated that book competition judges will find it hard to tell whether the book was written or merely programmed.

Computers will get faster, and smarter, and smaller, and cheaper. Expect more wearable computers and, yes, more technological implants a bit more sophisticated than pacemakers to regulate the body’s failings. Computers will make a habit out of beating the best grandmasters at chess, but will continue to struggle with the basics of joke-telling. The Information Economy will account for a lot more jobs, though the government will realise that manufacturing products is no bad thing and actually reduces the current account deficit. Life goes on as before for most people, but the technology stays hidden in the background, waiting for its chance …

Mark Broatch is a freelance writer who has been covering technology and IT since 1992. Until May of this year he was assistant editor of the IT newsweekly Computerworld.

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