We have moved from a linear to a non-linear world, and the shock of this has been more than we can handle. What do I mean by this? I am talking about rate of change. Previously, this was manageable, now it is not. I am reminded of a Sixties song “Stop the world, I want to get off!”
This is related to the impact of technology on our lives – technological innovation has gotten faster and faster, with the result that social change got faster and faster. We did not see this as a problem – quite to the contrary, it seemed very exciting and profitable. Innovation was seen as a good thing – and the more there was of it, the better.
We actually thought everyone was going to get rich – in the new economy. Instead, everybody got poorer – except the very rich, who had too much already. This was innovation, but not the kind we wanted.
What I am going to do now, is what we all should be doing – but are not – going back over our past in an attempt to understand it. And to see where we got off the track.
I am hardly the first to try this, everybody and his brother has had his hand at it – and many of the are far better qualified. But one more voice in the crowd cannot hurt.
First, a definition. It started with a development in mathematics, which effected physics, which caused the Industrial Revolution. Isaac Newton, like everyone else of his time, was trying to understand the world. Then a strange idea occurred to him: that the world must be governed by mathematical laws. What a strange idea, right?
The math necessary for this had not been invented yet, so he, along with Leibniz, invented it – what we now call calculus. The basic idea here is simple: change could only happen so fast and this rate of change could be expressed by a mathematical formula, using a new notation. To this day, few can understand this – including the math instructor who taught it to me in a religious college I was sent to by my parents.
The impact of this was amazing: Newton had broken the code of how nature worked! The world (later dubbed the clockwork universe) was simply mechanical, through and through! The social implication was also amazing: people knew they could figure out how things worked, and use things to their own advantage, because the world was linear (it didn’t have any hidden surprises)!
For two hundred years this was thought to be the way things were. Then two things happened about the same time: modern society broke down, and so did Newtonian physics. The 20th Century experienced WW1 and WW2 – part of the move, as it turned out, towards Globalization. Einstein saved Newtonian physics with Relativity, but also helped invent Quantum Mechanics – which he later regretted, and fought against all the rest of his life.
Why was this? Because Quantum Mechanics was non-linear, things could jump from one state to another, and not change smoothly. No one was comfortable with this, but it quickly because obvious that this was how the world of the very small worked – not at all as larger things worked.
But that was not all: digital computers took over. When I was going to Electrical Engineering school in the Fifties, they did not teach digital computers, but analog computers – something you only see now in science museums. They were linear, something they were comfortable with.
But that didn’t matter, digital computers took over, and this opened up a whole new world. A short review is in order: in digital computers, only two states are allowed: a zero or a one – and nothing in-between. The real world, the analog world, has to be digitized before a digital computer can work with it. Digital computers needed software to run them, and eventually the Internet (completely digital) showed up to form an entirely new complex: the computer/software/internet (CSI). It quickly took over our world, and took control of it.
It should seem strange to speak of a technology controlling the world – but there is no better way of saying it. People have become addicted to their things – and, as with any addiction, it controls those addicted to it. In our case, our technologies, which have gotten out of control.