Rarely does this happen. Probably four or five times in our lives something really transformational comes along and we are changed forever. Today we are overwhelmed by changes in technology and how they are affecting us and forcing us to change. But actually, this has always been the case. As technology has changed, so have science, politics, culture, literature, and many other aspects of the world. A closer examination of this might open a door to the mystery of technological change and its effects on us – the positive effects.
The Internet is truly one of those things that falls into the category of transformational. The way I gauge transformation is to ask the question, “Is it just a change in degree or is it a change in kind?” If it is a change in kind, then we have true transformation. Here is what I mean:
Early on in the days of mainframe computing, the argument was made that computers were just bigger and faster calculators. So if a computer can do the same things we can do, only faster, that is a change in degree. If, however, computers can do things infinitely faster than we can and with near-perfect accuracy and on a global scale, then I would argue that is a change in kind. Now we have capabilities that we never had before. We’ve gone way beyond faster calculating.
With the global reach of the Internet, we are able to collect information on a scale that is off the chart compared with the times after the Gutenberg printing press. In addition, once we’ve gathered that information, we are at a point where computers can process that information at an infinite speed in an infinite number of combinations.
It becomes clearer in a historical context. Before the Gutenberg printing press was invented, almost everything had to be memorized and passed on by word of mouth. After the press, experts could write their thoughts down in a book and didn’t have to be present to share ideas. This allowed for an average person (who could read) to have access to all kinds of knowledge and information at the same time from different experts. With all kinds of information available, it allowed for complex thinking to develop, where ideas could be pulled together to form new complex ideas. It allowed for what we call “research” today. Research is the basis for developing new theories and identifying accurate information.
Just stop for a moment and think about how transformational the mass production of books was in gathering information and developing new complex ideas. With the global reach of the Internet, we are able to collect information on a scale that is off the chart compared with the times after the Gutenberg printing press. In addition, once we’ve gathered that information, we are at a point where computers can process that information at an infinite speed in an infinite number of combinations.
For the first time in human history students are able to get a college degree, totally online, without ever having to come to campus. Library Internet research has become so sophisticated and so reliable that students using the computer inside a university library are using the same Web interface as distance students all over the world. Faculty, colleagues, and experts in all fields are sharing information that makes the exponential advancement of new complex ideas the norm, not the exception.
Probably four or five times in our lives something really transformational comes along and we are changed forever. Academic research on the Internet is one of those things. We truly live in great and wondrous times and I look forward to what the future holds. Not just the distant future, but the near future as well.