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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Characteristics of Progress

In The Third Wave, published in 1980, Alvin Toffler described world history in terms of three types of cultural arrangements, each successively displacing and replacing the previous.

After creation, and later expulsion from the Garden, men simply hunted and gathered what they needed. Some suspect Job may have lived during this time as housing structures were susceptible to major damage.

The first wave Toffler identifies is of a shift to an agricultural-based society. “Settling down” would have been much less defined prior to this time.

The second wave was the industrial age, as brought on by the industrial revolution. Mass production made things more accessible to everyone.

The third wave was his prediction of what technology, specifically that which can be controlled by software and language, would bring next: the information age. Why mass produce everything the same for everyone when you can customize goods and services for individuals?

I am interested not just in identifying the waves and their characteristics, but what the changes in those “waves” may have in common. From when I first read this book a couple decades ago, I remember two.

Between each of these waves, things become more portable and more disposable.

When people build homes, they are more able to prepare for storage and travel. There is also an abundance that means not every scrap of value is considered precious and worthy of preservation.

When mass production was developed and implemented, costs dropped dramatically. The automobile made man vastly more portable than before.

With the invention of the transistor and microprocessor, it's now expected that most of the potential computing and processing power value available will not get used. The most successful technology companies have been those that got a head start on assuming the processing power and bandwidth would be available for what up to that point had been presumed unattainable or too far off. Before YouTube, sharing videos by email was considered placing an excessive burden on office networks.

Once one has identified characteristics of the transitions for technological development in the past, one can extrapolate the trend by extending those characteristics further than where we see them now. For instance, how does email become disposable? Easy: ephemeral messaging, these days most prominently seen in Snapchat, and before that, instant messaging. Computing has become more portable moving from mainframes in warehouses and cabinets, to desktops, to laptops, to mobile phones.

We're still grappling with the implications of the information age in the workplace and what that looks like. People are no longer just paid for creating value, but for creating better ways of making value. This is no longer limited to patent holders, but to anyone who can write a better algorithm. How should one get paid when there is no direct single correlation between what one produces and how others find that valuable?

While the historical wave transition patterns may be consistent, the results are not universally applied with good results. When human life is treated as disposable, especially in early or late stages, that is very bad for society. This is why historically technological progress is not charted in a straight line. While God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17), when people turn away from Him He eventually decides “My eye will neither spare, nor will I have pity, but I will recompense their deeds on their own head” (Ezekiel 9:10). Technological advancement is not the ultimate goal. For this life, reconciliation with God is.

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