Friday, March 28, 2008

The World is an Amazing Place

Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these.
--Ovid, 43 BC - 17 AD

Every once in awhile, I look out on the world and marvel at where we are. The pace of technological improvement, and humankind's ability to adapt to it, is nothing short of amazing. My roommates are all science majors, and sometimes I grill them to explain to me how these things works. But I'm on Spring Break now, and they're not around. Which means I return to my default position of simple wonder.

We can send streaming pictures -- whole movies -- around the world in minutes, without anything connecting the source and the recipient. We can speak to people instantaneously across the world on our cell-phones. We can transmit pictures and sound over wavelengths and have them heard worldwide.

Do you realize that, prior to the 19th century, it's likely that no human being in history had ever traveled faster than 60 miles per hour (and lived to tell the tale, at least)? Today, we not only do it as a matter of course, but people as young as teenagers control highly complex machines that dance around each other at break neck speeds. An interstate highway lane change must look like a high-wire act to a medieval man or woman, but we do it without batting an eye.

Similarly, human adaption to flight has been remarkable. The Wright Brothers' glider first went off in 1900. By World War II -- less than 50 years later -- passenger air service was already well established. We went from flight being impossible, to flight being a normal part of our travel options, in the space of a single lifetime.

And the innovations keep coming -- in medicine, in telecommunications, in mathematics, in physics, in everything. But I'll tell you what: we could not have a single new technological invention ever again, and our lives would still rock. Most of the big problems in the world are not ones of technology. They're about distribution, or morality, or diplomacy. It's not that we don't know how to treat AIDS -- we just can't get the medicine to the right people. It's not that we don't know how to irrigate farmland, we just don't have the resources to get it to the poorest regions of the world. But the technology -- that's all there.

And that's amazing.

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