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“‘Now I understand,’ said the last man”*…

 

G.Dyson_

All revolutions come to an end, whether they succeed or fail.

The digital revolution began when stored-program computers broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things. Numbers that do things now rule the world. But who rules over the machines?

Once it was simple: programmers wrote the instructions that were supplied to the machines. Since the machines were controlled by these instructions, those who wrote the instructions controlled the machines.

Two things then happened. As computers proliferated, the humans providing instructions could no longer keep up with the insatiable appetite of the machines. Codes became self-replicating, and machines began supplying instructions to other machines. Vast fortunes were made by those who had a hand in this. A small number of people and companies who helped spawn self-replicating codes became some of the richest and most powerful individuals and organizations in the world.

Then something changed. There is now more code than ever, but it is increasingly difficult to find anyone who has their hands on the wheel. Individual agency is on the wane. Most of us, most of the time, are following instructions delivered to us by computers rather than the other way around. The digital revolution has come full circle and the next revolution, an analog revolution, has begun. None dare speak its name.

Childhood’s End was Arthur C. Clarke’s masterpiece, published in 1953, chronicling the arrival of benevolent Overlords who bring many of the same conveniences now delivered by the Keepers of the Internet to Earth. It does not end well…

George Dyson explains that nations, alliances of nations, and national institutions are in decline, while a state perhaps best described as “Oligarchia” is on the ascent: the Edge New Year’s Essay, “Childhood’s End.”

(For Nick Bilton’s thoughts on the piece, see here; and for a different perspective on the same dynamics, see, e.g., Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable.)

* Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End

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As we ponder the possibilities of posterity, we might spare a thought for Serbian-American electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla; he died on this date in 1943.  Tesla is probably best remembered for his rivalry with Thomas Edison:  Tesla invented and patented the first AC motor and generator (c.f.: Niagara Falls); Edison promoted DC power… and went to great lengths to discredit Tesla and his approach.  In the end, of course, Tesla was right.

Tesla patented over 300 inventions worldwide, though he kept many of his creations out of the patent system to protect their confidentiality.  His work ranged widely, from technology critical to the development of radio to the first remote control.  At the turn of the century, Tesla designed and began planning a “worldwide wireless communications system” that was backed by J.P. Morgan…  until Morgan lost confidence and pulled out.  “Cyberspace,” as described by the likes of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, is largely prefigured in Tesla’s plan.  On Tesla’s 75th birthday in 1931, Time put him on its cover, captioned “All the world’s his power house.”  He received congratulatory letters from Albert Einstein and more than 70 other pioneers in science and engineering.  But Tesla’s talent ran far, far ahead of his luck.  He died penniless n Room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel.

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Written by LW

January 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

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