Autor: mr.sc.Ante Dulčić
Datum objave: 26.08.2020
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SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN - COMPUTING

Democratized Information Is Transforming Society

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN - COMPUTING
Democratized Information Is Transforming Society
Innovations are blurring the lines between consumers and producers,amateurs and professionals, and laypeople and experts.
By Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway, Scientific American September 2020 Issue
It is a truism among scientists that our enterprise benefits humanity because of the
technological breakthroughs that follow in discovery's wake. And it is a truism among
historians that the relation between science and technology is far more complex and
much less linear than people often assume. Before the 19th century, invention and
innovation emerged primarily from craft traditions among people who were not
scientists and who were typically unaware of pertinent scientific developments. The
magnetic compass, gunpowder, the printing press, the chronometer, the cotton gin,
the steam engine and the water wheel are among the many examples. In the late
1800s matters changed: craft traditions were reconstructed as “technology” that bore
an important relation to science, and scientists began to take a deeper interest in
applying theories to practical problems. A good example of the latter is the steam
boiler explosion commission, appointed by Congress to investigate such accidents
and discussed in Scientific Americans issue of March 23, 1878.
Still, technologists frequently worked more in parallel with contemporary science than
in sequence. Technologists—soon to be known as engineers—were a different community of people with different goals, values, expectations and methodologies.
Their accomplishments could not be understood simply as applied science. Even in
the early 20th century the often loose link between scientific knowledge and
technological advance was surprising; for example, aviation took off before scientists
had a working theory of lift. Scientists said that flight by machines “heavier than air”
was impossible, but nonetheless airplanes flew.
When we look back on the past 175 years, the manipulation of matter and energy
stands out as a central domain of both scientific and technical advances. Techno-
scientific innovations have sometimes delivered on their promises and sometimes
not. Of the biggest advances, three really did change our lives—probably for the
better—whereas two were far less consequential than people thought they would be.
And one of the overarching impacts we now recognize in hindsight was only weakly
anticipated: that by moving matter and energy, we would end up moving information
and ideas.
ONE STRONG EXAMPLE of science-based technology that changed our lives is
electricity. Benjamin Franklin is famous for recognizing that lightning is an
atmospheric electrical discharge and for demonstrating in the 1700s that lightning
rods can protect people and property. But the major scientific advances in
understanding electricity came later when Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell
established that it was the flow of electrons—matter—and that it could be understood
in the broader context of electromagnetism. Faraday showed that electricity and
magnetism are two sides of the same coin: moving electrons creates a magnetic
field, and moving a magnet induces electric current in a conductor. This
understanding, quantified in Maxwell's equations—a mathematical model for
electricity, magnetism and light—laid the foundation for the invention of the dynamo,
electricity generation for industries and households, and telecommunications:
telegraph, telephone, radio and television.
Electricity dramatically expanded the size of factories. Most factories had been
powered by water, which meant they had to be located close to streams, typically in
narrow river valleys where space was tight. But with electricity, a factory could be
erected anywhere and could take on any size, complete with lighting so it could run
around the clock. This innovation broadened mass production and, with it, the growth
of consumer society. Electricity also transformed daily life, powering the subways,
streetcars and commuter rail that let workers stream in and cities sprawl out and
creating the possibility of suburban living. Home lighting extended the time available
for reading, sewing and other activities. Entertainment blossomed in a variety of
forms, from the “electrifying” lighting displays of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair to
cinema and radio. Home electricity was soon also powering refrigerators, toasters,
water heaters, washing machines and irons. In her 1983 prizewinning book More
Work for Mother, Ruth Schwartz Cowan argues that these “labor-saving” appliances
did more to raise expectations for household order and cleanliness than to save
women labor, yet there is no question that they changed the way Americans lived.
One of the most significant and durable changes involved information and ideas.
Electricity made the movie camera possible, which prompted the rise of cinema. The
first public movie screening was in Paris, in 1895, using a device inspired by Thomas
Edison's electric Kinetoscope. (The film showed factory workers leaving after a shift.)
Within a few years a commercial film industry had developed in Europe and America.
Today we think of movies primarily as entertainment—especially given the
emergence of the entertainment industry and the centrality of Hollywood in American
life—but in the early 20th century many (possibly most) films were documentaries
and newsreels. The newsreels, a standard feature in cinemas, became a major
source of information about world and national events. They were also a source of
propaganda and disinformation, such as a late-1890s “fake news” film about the
Dreyfus affair (a French political scandal in which a Jewish army officer was framed
on spy charges laced with anti-Semitism) and fake film footage of the 1898 charge up
San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.
Information drove the rise of radio and television. In the 1880s Heinrich Hertz
demonstrated that radio waves were a form of electromagnetic radiation—as
predicted by Maxwells theory—and in the 1890s Indian physicist Jagadish Chandra
Bose conducted an experiment in which he used microwaves to ignite gunpowder
and ring a bell, proving that electromagnetic radiation could travel without wires.
These scientific insights laid the foundations for modern telecommunications, and in
1899 Guglielmo Marconi sent the first wireless signals across the English Channel.
Techno-fideists—people who place faith in technology—proclaimed that radio would
lead to world peace because it enabled people across the globe to communicate. But
it was a relatively long road from Marconi's signals to radio as we know it: the first
programs were not developed until the 1920s. Meanwhile radio did nothing to prevent
the 1914–1918 Great War, later renamed World War I.
In the early 20th century there was little demand for radio beyond the military and
enthusiasts. To persuade people to buy radios, broadcasters had to create content,
which required sponsors, which in turn contributed to the growth of advertising, mass
marketing and consumer culture. Between the 1920s and the 1940s radios became a
fixture in American homes as programs competed with and often replaced newspapers as peoples primary source of information. Radio did not bring us world peace, but it did bring news, music, drama and presidential speeches into our lives.
Televisions story was similar: content had to be created to move the technology into
American homes. Commercial sponsors produced many early programs such as
Texaco Star Theater and General Electric Theater. Networks also broadcast events
such as baseball games, and in time they began to produce original content, particularly newscasts. Despite (or maybe because of) the mediocre quality of much of this programming, television became massively popular. Although its scientific foundation involved the movement of matter and energy, its technological expression was in the movement of information, entertainment and ideas.
World War II tore the world apart again, and science-based technologies were
integral. Historians are nearly unanimous in the belief that operations research, code
breaking, radar, sonar and the proximity fuse played larger roles in the Allied victory
than the atomic bomb, but it was the bomb that got all the attention. U.S. Secretary of
War Henry Stimson promoted the idea that the bomb had brought Japan to its knees,
enabling the U.S. to avoid a costly land invasion and saving millions of American
lives. We know now that this story was a postwar invention intended to stave off
criticism of the bomb's use, which killed 200,000 civilians. U.S. leaders duly declared
that the second half of the 20th century would be the Atomic Age. We would have
atomic airplanes, trains, ships, even atomic cars. In 1958 Ford Motor Company built
a model chassis for the Nucleon, which would be powered by steam from a
microreactor. (Needless to say, it was never completed, but the model can be seen at
the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.) Under President Dwight Eisenhower's
Atoms for Peace plan, the U.S. would develop civilian nuclear power both for its own
use and for helping developing nations around the globe. American homes would be
powered by free nuclear power “too cheap to meter.”
The promise of nuclear power was never fulfilled. The U.S. Navy built a fleet of
nuclear-powered submarines and switched its aircraft carriers to nuclear power
(though not the rest of the surface fleet), and the government assembled a nuclear-
powered freighter as a demonstration. But even small reactors proved too expensive
or too risky for nearly any civilian purpose. Encouraged by the U.S. government,
electrical utilities in the 1950s and 1960s began to develop nuclear generating
capacity. By 1979 some 72 reactors were operating across the country, mostly in the
East and the Midwest. But even before the infamous accident at the Three Mile
Island nuclear power plant that year, demand for new reactors was weakening
because capital and construction costs were not falling and public opposition was
rising. In the five years after the accident, more than 50 reactors planned in the U.S.
were canceled and others required costly retrofits. Nuclear anxieties worsened after
the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union. Today the U.S. generates
about 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, which, though significant, is
hardly what nuclear energys 1950s boosters had predicted.
WHILE SOME PUNDITS claimed the 20th century was the Atomic Age, others
insisted it was the Space Age. American children in midcentury grew up watching
science-fiction TV programs centered on the dream of interplanetary and intergalactic
journeys, reading comic books starring superheroes from other planets and listening
to vinyl records with songs about the miracle of space travel. Their heroes were Alan
Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit
Earth. Some of their parents even made reservations for a flight to the moon
promised by Pan American World Airways, and Stanley Kubrick featured airplane space flight in his 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The message was clear: by 2001 we would be routinely flying in outer space.
The essential physics required for space travel had been known since the days of
Galileo and Newton, and history is replete with visionaries who saw the potential in
the laws of motion. What made the prospect real in the 20th century was the advent
of rocketry. Robert Goddard is often called the “father of modern rocketry,” but it was
Germans, led by Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun, who built the worlds first usable
rocket: the V-2 missile. A parallel U.S. Army–funded rocket program at the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory demonstrated its own large ballistic missile shortly after the
war. The U.S. government's Operation Paperclip discreetly brought von Braun and
his team to the states to accelerate the work, which, among other things, eventually
led to NASAs Marshall Space Flight Center.
This expensive scientific and engineering effort, pushed by nationalism and federal
funding, led to Americans landing on the moon and returning home. But the work did
not result in routine crewed missions, much less vacations. Despite continued
enthusiasm and, recently, substantial private investment, space travel has been
pretty much a bust. Yet the same rockets that could launch crewed vessels could
propel artificial satellites into Earth orbit, which allowed huge changes in our ability to
collect and move information. Satellite telecommunications now let us send
information around the globe pretty much instantaneously and at extremely low cost.
We can also study our planet from above, leading to significant advances in weather
forecasts, understanding the climate, quantifying changes in ecosystems and human
populations, analyzing water resources and—through GPS—letting us precisely
locate and track people. The irony of space science is that its greatest payoff has
been our ability to know in real time what is happening here on Earth. Like radio and
TV, space has become a medium for moving information.
A SIMILAR EVOLUTION occurred with computational technology. Computers were
originally designed to replace people (typically women) who did laborious
calculations, but today they are mainly a means to store, access and create
“content.” Computers appeared as a stealth technology that had far more impact than
many of its pioneers envisaged. IBM president Thomas J. Watson is often cited as
saying, in 1943, that “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
Mechanical and electromechanical calculation devices had been around for a long
time, but during World War II, U.S. defense officials sought to make computation
much faster through the use of electronics—at the time, thermionic valves, or vacuum
tubes. One outcome was Whirlwind, a real-time tube-based computer developed at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a flight simulator for the U.S. Navy.
During the cold war, the U.S. Air Force turned Whirlwind into the basis of an air-
defense system. The Semi-Automatic Ground Environment system (SAGE) was a
continent-scale network of computers, radars, wired and wireless
telecommunications systems, and interceptors (piloted and not) that operated into the
1980s. SAGE was the key to IBMs abandoning mechanical tabulating machines for
mainframe digital computers, and it revealed the potential of very large-scale,
automated, networked management systems. Its domain, of course, was
information—about a potential military attack.
Early mainframe computers were so huge they filled the better part of a room. They
were expensive and ran very hot, requiring cooling. They seemed to be the kind of
technology that only a government, or a very large business with deep pockets, could ever justify. In the 1980s the personal computer changed that outlook dramatically.
Suddenly a computer was something any business and many individuals could buy
and use not just for intense computation but also for managing information.
That potential exploded with the commercialization of the Internet. When the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency set out to develop a secure, failure-
tolerant digital communications network, it already had SAGE as a model. But SAGE,
built on a telephone system using mechanical switching, was also a model of what
the military did not want, because centralized switching centers were highly
vulnerable to attack. For a communications system to be “survivable,” it would have
to have a set of centers, or nodes, interconnected in a network. The
solution—ARPANET—was developed in the 1960s by a diverse group of scientists
and engineers funded by the U.S. government. In the 1980s it spawned what we
know as the Internet. The Internet, and its killer app the World Wide Web, brought the
massive amount of information now at our fingertips, information that has changed
the way we live and work and that has powered entirely new industries such as social
media, downloadable entertainment, virtual meetings, online shopping and dating,
ride sharing, and more. In one sense, the history of the Internet is the opposite of
electricitys: the private sector developed electrical generation, but it took the
government to distribute the product widely. In contrast, the government developed
the Internet, but the private sector delivered it into our homes—a reminder that
casual generalizations about technology development are prone to be false. It is also
well to remember that around a quarter of American adults still do not have high-
speed Internet service.
WHY IS IT THAT ELECTRICITY, telecommunications and computing were so
successful, but nuclear power and human space travel have been a letdown? It is
clear today that the latter involved heavy doses of wishful thinking. Space travel was
imbricated with science fiction, with dreams of heroic courage that continue to fuel
unscientific fantasies. Although it turned out to be fairly manageable to launch
rockets and send satellites into orbit, putting humans in space—particularly for an
extended period—has remained dangerous and expensive.
NASAs space shuttle was supposed to usher in an era of cheap, even profitable,
human space flight. It did not. So far no one has created a gainful business based on
the concept. The late May launch of two astronauts to the International Space Station
by SpaceX may have changed the possibilities, but it is too soon to tell. Most space
entrepreneurs see tourism as the route to profitability, with suborbital flights or
perhaps floating space hotels for zero-g recreation. Maybe one day we will have
them, but it is worth noting that in the past tourism has followed commercial
development and settlement, not the other way around.
Nuclear power also turned out to be extremely expensive, for the same reason: it
costs a lot to keep people safe. The idea of electricity too cheap to meter never really
made sense; that statement was based on the idea that tiny amounts of cheap
uranium fuel could yield a large amount of power, but the fuel is the least of nuclear
power's expenses. The main costs are construction, materials and labor, which for
nuclear plants have remained far higher than for other power sources, mainly
because of all the extra effort that has to go into ensuring safety.
Risk is often a controlling factor for technology. Space travel and nuclear power
involve risk levels that have proved acceptable in military contexts but mostly not in
civilian ones. And despite the claims of some folks in Silicon Valley, venturecapitalists generally do not care much for risk. Governments, especially when
defending themselves from actual or a nticipated enemies, have been more
entrepreneurial than most entrepreneurs. Also, neither human space travel nor nuclear power was a response to market demand. Both were the babies of governments that wanted these technologies for military, political or ideological
reasons. We might be tempted to conclude, therefore, that the government should
stay out of the technology business, but the Internet was not devised in response to
market demand either. It was financed and developed by the U.S. government for
military purposes. Once it was opened to civilian use, it grew, metamorphosed and, in
time, changed our lives.
In fact, government played a role in the success of all the technologies we have considered here. Although the private sector brought electricity to the big cities—New
York, Chicago, St. Louis—the federal governments Rural Electrification
Administration brought electricity to much of America, helping to make radio, electric
appliances, television and telecommunications part of everyone's daily lives. A good
deal of private investment created these technologies, but the transformations that
they wrought were enabled by the “hidden hand” of government, and citizens often
experienced their value in unanticipated ways.
THESE UNEXPECTED BENEFITS seem to confirm the famous saying—variously attributed to Niels Bohr, Mark Twain and Yogi Berra—that prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. Historians are loath to make prognostications because in our work we see how generalizations often do not stand up to scrutiny, how no two situations are ever quite the same and how peoples past expectations have so often been confounded.
That said, one change that is already underway in the movement of information is the
blurring of boundaries between consumers and producers. In the past the flow of information was almost entirely one-way, from the newspaper, radio or television to the reader, listener or viewer. Today that flow is increasingly two-way—which was one of Tim Berners-Lees primary goals when he created the World Wide Web in 1990. We “consumers” can reach one another via Skype, Zoom and FaceTime; post information through Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat; and use software to publish our own books, music and videos—without leaving our couches.
For better or worse, we can expect further blurring of many conventional boundaries—between work and home, between “amateurs” and professionals, and between public and private. We will not vacation on Mars anytime soon, but we might have Webcams there showing us Martian sunsets.
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