Technology, Time and Space

(Preamble: This is a draft. However, what started as a draft has turned into something more through the dialog in the comments section. So, I'll leave it as it is, at least for right now.)

A farmer in Heilongjiang province of People's Republic of China, a nomad in Mongolia or a bushman in Namibia only need to look into the night sky to observe the canopy of far away stars and to conclude that space stretches to farthest distances imaginable.

When we, individually, come to realize our own mortality, and compare the length of our lives to the life of, say, a Redwood tree, a mountain, Earth, Sun or a distant galaxy, we can conclude, rather easily, how shortly our lives occupy time in its vast stretch.

One would hope that recognizing the apparently infinite reach of time and space should help moderate the ego and bring some humility to all who care to examine what stretches and presents itself in their surroundings. Yet, few seem to have a discerning eye, and we are prone to falling prey to our egos and our own feeble notions of grandiosity.

We often use various tools (call them "technologies") at our disposal to shrink space or time in the practice of this present life.

We produce things that lead to durability and mobility.

In fact, all technologies can be categorized according to the extent they contribute either to durability or mobility.

As time has moved forward and the industrial age has engulfed human life, the emphasis in produced tools has shifted from providing durability to providing mobility.

The Persian nomadic tribes invented the carpet thousands of years ago to carry through various seasonal moves, from place to place, as a floor covering which survived many moves over many years.

The Persian carpet, as a mobile covering, conveyed, also, in its design, a definite sense of stability and durability in life.

Paper, as a recording technology, emphasizes the durability of recorded content much more than the mobility of the content it carries. It cannot be carried as readily as bits of information on a wire but it inherently requires no energy for retaining and presenting the content it carries.

The Internet (some call it the largest copy machine in the world) emphasizes the mobility of content it carries more than the durability of the content it might be said to record.

Why has the modern age focused primarily on provision of mobility? What is lost when tools emphasize mobility over durability? Is there a pendulum that may swing back? Why will it swing back?

Comments:

Really Creative!, I feel there is something valuable in this point of view, but I am afraid I cannot accept it very fast, not only because very few evidence were provided for durability/mobility categorization, but also because of things that I think they don’t fit in either of the categories, technologies like programming languages, metallurgy technologies, or other technologies that provide building blocks for other technologies can be used for making mobile and/or durable things, nowadays may be they are used for making mobile things more, but they don’t have any special inherent tendency to durability or mobility.

And a point about the questions in last paragraph:

” What is lost when tools emphasize mobility over durability? Is there a pendulum that may swing back?”

Do implicitly mean that durability and mobility are in opposite directions? Can’t we have things both mobile and durable?

What I can see is that today there is much less emphasis on durability and a there is burst in mobile technologies, may be both of these two observations are results of capitalism and a kind of economic thinking, but other than that, I cannot see a direct connection or contrary between mobility and durability.

Another point is that what do we mean by durability? May be today headphones are not as durable as before, but I can get a new headphone very fast, so the service is at least (approximately) as durable as before, although the equipment is not as durable as before.

Excuse me if my comment is not so humble!

Posted by pasparto on April 12, 2007 at 10:15 AM PDT #

Thanks. Questions help me see where I need to clarify things.

First, notice that we're not talking about durability of a thing or mobility of a thing but rather how a thing helps things of greater value to be transported through time or space.

Yes, the categorization does not apply readily to building-block technologies, certainly not directly, although there might be a way to extend the categories there.

I'm talking about technologies directly used by human beings in their lives. Programming languages are used to do other things, say in an IT department of some other producer (of services or products), in a communications network for telephony, etc. Metallurgy is used to build cars, planes, etc.

When I talk about mobility, I do not mean "mobile things." Instead I mean a dimension where a technology provides value. All technologies provide value along the "mobility" and "durability" dimensions. They can make human-made content and knowledge mobile and/or durable, or affect objects on which they operate more in time or in space. Many technologies (mostly of the ones in 19th and 20th century) make our very physical bodies mobile or (those in late 20th century) provide substitutes for complete physical mobility by making, say, our voices or our images mobile in real time, as phones or video-conferencing does.

All technologies can reduce temporal and spatial distances for what they affect.

When you take a picture of a friend on your mobile phone, you can send it to another friend on the other side of the globe or you can keep it for as long as you have your phone or as long as your photo-blog lives, etc., perhaps for your great grand-children to view although that amount of durability might be a stretch given what we know of the Internet technologies today and the need for continuous energy input to keep digital records alive--energy a paper book or album does not require.

So, in the above example, using your particular mobile phone technology, you can affect a kind of bridging of space and time for the photo you've taken or the voice you've recorded or the text message you've written. However, what is the primary use of the mobile phone: It is a bridging of spacial distances, not temporal ones. You cannot call someone on the other side of town, back into time, although you can call them right now on the other side of town, or record something they might retreive later in time or you can look at a photo you took earlier.

Or, take a book --- It helps you carry the knowledge it contains from one side of town to the other, but more importantly, a (non-acid) paper book can project Avicenna's knowledge from 1000 years ago to today. In the first instance, the book offers an aspect of mobility to what it contains; in the second, it offers a certain aspect of durability to its content.

My contention in this essay is that majority of modern and current technologies: trains, cars, mobile phones, roads, urban infrastructure, transportation, etc., are there to reduce spacial distances, or to improve the mobility dimension of modern life.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on April 12, 2007 at 01:57 PM PDT #

you have missed a major category called comfort. Take the case of the A/C. It is neither durable (it s life is a few years) nor does it provide mobility on its own. But its just that it makes the hot Indian summer a lot more tolerable. Yes people survived the Indian summers without A/C before and can if required. But the air cooling technology has made life lot more comfortable. I hope I express the following thought simple enough to be understood without deviating from the topic. Human ego is enhanced by our bliss. With lack of knowledge as to whether there is someone/something that can outlast us and more intelligent, we seem to marvel at ourselves as God's greatest creation. Fermi's paradox is what I have in my mind.

Posted by Madhan on April 12, 2007 at 07:17 PM PDT #

Thanks for your note about the distinction between durability and durable things and the difference you mean between mobility and mobile things. May be it was the Persian carpet example that created the misconception for me, however I think my argument in the first paragraph still holds, and of course you clarified what you mean by technology in the previous comment.

So if I understood it correctly, technologies that offer durability, help us to save or pass things in time, and technologies that offer mobility help us to have a service in various spatial positions or reduce spatial distances; and you also say that majority of modern and current technologies are there to improve the mobility dimension of modern life.

Now I think it would be good to have look a history and see what were the things that human wanted to save. In the ancient times, people wanted to save everything, from carpet and jar to knowledge and information. May be, because everything was so expensive, costly, and difficult to get, and more over, they wanted to pass all they get to the next generation, and so durability was of great importance, the most valuable thing that was carried through time by the durable thing was may be itself.

As the technology improved and also with the invention of money the number of things that human wanted to keep and save started to decrease, and little by little, value got concentrated in some special things, and a greater number of things were available with less cost and difficulty. Nowadays there are really few things that we care for passing them to our children and next generations. So as there are fewer things to save, like information, money, and etc., fewer tools (technologies) are needed to save them too.

This is how I approach the situation, I am very eager to know your point of view too.

Posted by pasparto on April 12, 2007 at 07:25 PM PDT #

Pasparto -

You have a very good hypothesis about why "technology" emphasis has changed from greater focus on providing durability to greater focus on providing mobility.

It is definitely an interesting way to start answering the first question I raised, i.e. "Why has the modern age focused primarily on provision of mobility?". How about the other questions: "What is lost when tools emphasize mobility over durability? Is there a pendulum that may swing back? Why will it swing back?"

I tend to think that what we pass on through time into the future are actually quite important to so preserve.

My concern is that as we emphasize mobility ever more, less value may pass through time.

(Note, as an aside, that unless the collection of all available "technology" did not provide for both, organized human life will come to a stand-still, either in time or space or both, and will, as a result, end in temporal or spacial decay.)

Posted by M. Mortazavi on April 13, 2007 at 02:51 AM PDT #

Madhan -

Good points. (I don't think your comment is a deviation.)

First, please note that by "durability" and "mobility," I do not mean the thing itself being durable or mobile. (See the very start of my dialog with Pasparto above.)

As far as the "comfort" dimension, we have to do further analysis.

I was also actually thinking in the background about the comfort dimension but I'm not sure what comfort really means. Often, when we think we are comfortable, we are actually missing things. Say, instead of being in a comfortable air-conditioned office, you could also be in an even more comfortable beach with your friends. Why are you not there, then?

Most technologies seem to have a comfort aspect but it is not clear whether they are actually about comfort or just a way to reduce pain under a certain abnormal circumstance. A good stereo in my car makes me more comfortable but why should I even have to drive, say for 1/2 to 1 hour to buy vegetables for dinner.

Freeways are for "comfortable" driving but what is the effect, on short-term and long-term memory, of fast driving, and rapid movement of millions, perhaps billions, of objects in every one hour of driving in the visual field of a driver in an urban environment.

We can ask further questions, like, "comfort for what purpose?" A car is more comfortable as a means of transportation on a modern road than a donkey is. Riding a mule is more comfortable than walking on foot on a steep mountain where a car cannot even go.

In general, urban environments and their infrastructure today are there to support a "mobile" work force, who live at home and commute long distances to work in offices---a rather abnormal, modern condition.

On the other hand, a hammock is for comfort and rest. (No one can argue with that although some may not feel as comfortable as others to sleep in one.) So, for the case of hammock, what sort of comfort is it providing? I would say it provides rest. What is rest for? It is either to help us become mobile again or to help us integrate something into ourselves for a later time, to make it durable. Is this even a correct analysis?

So, the "comfort" argument needs to be clarified and opened up more ... if you care to respond and continue the dialog ... And, let's focus on the case of the hammock as a technology of comfort... :-)

I'm not sure what you mean by the "Fermi Paradox" ...

Posted by M. Mortazavi on April 13, 2007 at 03:13 AM PDT #

I still have problem with mobility/durability dichotomy, so in my previous comment I tried to say what I think about why there is less emphasis on durability in modern world. I didn’t say anything about mobility. So I didn’t mean to answer "Why has the modern age focused primarily on provision of mobility?"

I tired to understand it, I tried to find a justifiable interpretation of the dichotomy, I got to one but it was not so good with the real world examples. Why not to discuss about “durability focused” and “not durability focused” technologies instead of “durability focused” and “mobility focused” ones?

Would you please tell us why did you think it as mobility/durability?

Posted by pasparto on April 13, 2007 at 04:43 AM PDT #

Sorry for my grammatical mistakes!

Posted by pasparto on April 13, 2007 at 05:04 AM PDT #

Pasparto -

You're right and exact. You only answered that question by implication, and you were focusing on why durability has come to have less value over history. (At least, that's what I think you meant.)

You raise a good point. Why the dichotomy between mobility and durability?

I sense there is in fact a trade-off between durability and mobility. It can be the case that when you have too much of one, you lose the other, at least on a macro level, if not on a micro level. (A "macro" characteristics arises due to the aggregate outcome of all the "micro" effects.)

The quintessential "micro" example is the trade-off between the two as addressed, technologically, in "paper" and on the "web" for the production and preservation of content.

"Web" content is easier to transport. It is more mobile than content captured by "paper" technology. However, is content captured on the "web" more durable than content captured on "paper"?

The "paper" content is possible to transport but not as readily or as easily as "web" content can be copied and transfered over the Internet. (In fact, Internet is a vast copy-and-transport machine.)

Which technology (paper or web) offers more durability?

Many web pages disappear. Archives are only available if they are continuously renewed through energy and storage. Paper requires far less energy for its continuous storage over time.

I hope this provides more food for conversation.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on April 13, 2007 at 05:05 AM PDT #

I think what you said changes the course of discussion, but before continuing I thought it might be good if I share my interpretation of the dichotomy. I tried this (italics are my comments to my interpretation):

Technology works on physical world.
Physical world is time and space. (so where is mass and energy?)
Technology’s effect on time is durability (as far as we cannot travel in time!)
Technology’s effect on space is mobility (may be the word effect is not so good)

But as I mentioned before it is not so good with some examples.

I am doubtful if the trade-off is exactly between mobility and durability, I think there is a related trade-off between 2 other things, of course it is still so vague for me and I should think on it more.

Posted by pasparto on April 13, 2007 at 06:12 AM PDT #

O.K. You've organized the argument quite well here. That's certainly a well-organized point of entry into the topic.

First, I would only replace "Physical world is time and space," which seems to me to be a bit extreme, with the claim that "Our experience of the physical world unfold in time and space." There are other dimensions of our experience and the physical world is not limited to notions of time and space. I certainly do not want to enter a physics understanding of the world. When I say time and space, I mean time and space as experienced by ordinary human beings in their daily lives, not as theorized by physicists.

You could find other "principle" dimensions in our experience of the world, and among these dimensions, you could define trade-offs when it comes to technology.

I should note that the time-space trade-off has been a well-known part of the calculative views of world. (Consider for example, the time-space trade-offs in a Turing Machine. You can create a calculating machine that does a particular calculation in shorter time but larger space or in longer time and smaller space, for example.) That's of course a naive view of the time-space trade-off, limited to mathematics and computational theory. In my discussion, I'm more interested in time and space as experienced by agents or humans, as beings-in-the-world.

I certainly look forward to any further thoughts you might have on the topic.

Thanks again for your succinct approach to the topic.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on April 13, 2007 at 09:49 AM PDT #

Thank you very much.

First of all I should say that in my previous comment I tried to give an organized interpretation of what you posed in your recent post, and you mentioned a very good point about it in your previous comment. And as I told before I think my interpretation has some problems.

About paper and web I should say that we should be worried about things that must be saved but we lost them, not everything. There are lots of paper bills, paper advertisements, and so on, that are lost but no one cares.(Although I prefer to have an archive of everything) I don't think the loss in the web is more than paper.

About web I think we should be worried about availability and accessibility of it's content. How efficient are the search engines? Do we use this huge amount of data and information optimally?

May be our weakness in compilation and aggregation of the information about a certain topic cause some kind of loss or not optimal use of information (inventing wheel for the second time). But we should note that this is not because of mobility aspect of the web, web hides it's distributed nature from you, it is because of the huge amount of data.

So I think, at least about the web, it is our weakness in processing this huge amount of data -and not mobility- that threatens durability. Before informatics revolution the same thing threatened the paper base knowledge storage too, and at the time good librarians were of great importance.

Thank you for the interesting topics you pose for discussion :)

Posted by pasparto on April 13, 2007 at 05:40 PM PDT #

It is hard to filter what is on the web but the same holds for paper. Just like you mentioned, there are some paper documents whose loss might not be a big deal--e.g. a bill you receive after a lunch at a restaurant.

However, see if you can focus on comparing content collected in books vs. content collected on the web. What are the differences? What are the similarities? Which will be a more effective container of content?

Avicenna's books are still alive, as are many other books of his time.

Will "the best" of the web still be alive 1200 years from now? Maybe, or maybe not ... What dangers are there that "the best" might not survive? ... Certainly, now, most web services are catering to the what the "public," i.e. the "majority" of people want ... but majority have not always been the best judges of the best writings or the best philosophers ... I think a good thing to read in this area is Kierkegaard's The Present Age.

For one thing, as you mention, search, access and filtering of web information is quite a challenge ... What might matter to a few people might not be the same as what matters to the masses of people.

Things survive and stay because they matter to people and because people have a way of keeping them with little effort. Let's say you like a piece of writing on the web ... In what guaranteed way can you preserve it, and have access to it, for as long as you want? You can certainly not depend on the server that is serving that content to have that content live forever.

There are archives and libraries on the web, but how much of the web are they archiving and how will this archive help you find what you need? While they might not be archiving online information of interest to you in a way that is accessible, they might be archiving too much of what you don't need at all ... In fact, they are even archiving things at the same comparative level as the "lunch bill at a restaurant" example I gave above, and who or what digital entity determines what spam not to preserve? In fact, the most "perfect" digital archiving spiders would be archiving even the most spurious spam.

... Search engines today cater to the masses, not individuals with particular interests and contexts, and this is not going to change. (See Hubert Dreyfus' On the Internet, for more on this.)

In the meantime, people who have interest in books have a very easy way of categorizing and preserving the books they want. It is called the library.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on April 15, 2007 at 03:19 PM PDT #

Hammock is a good example. I just realized that some foods are also a sort of technology. Take the case of an ice-cream -- it is not natural nor does it offer any great benefit other than a temporary sensory pleasure. Probably that is what comfort is - a temporary pleasure which we seem to value highly. Fermi's paradox -- Given the size of the universe, there is a good probability that intelligent life should exist elsewhere but they haven't been discovered yet. Probably due to our limited technology/knowledge which means that we are not best of God's creation. Shouldn't we have the best of everything if we are God's best creation?

Posted by Madhan on April 15, 2007 at 04:10 PM PDT #

Madhan -

I wouldn't classify foods as technology. Perhaps instruments to eat them, their decoration and combinations into courses, processes for their cooking, production and distribution, or even the restaurant rituals could be stretched into the "technology" category, but I would hesitate to categorize food itself (as "food") under "technology".

However, to help along, let me propose the instruments of any sport, say soccer or volleyball. Should we classify them as technology? I so, how would they participate in the mobility/durability duality?

I had heard of Fermi's claim but had forgotten (or perhaps never knew) of the relationship between the claim and Fermi himself. Thanks for the reminder.

That "intelligence" as we understand it exists somewhere else, we do not know. I do not want to speculate about that although I'm also interested in the sense in which the question might be a question or have an answer.

The answer to the other questions, regarding one's relationship to God, will depend on one's conception of God. If one conceives of god as all-powerful, all-knowing and all-just, one will only marvel at one's own limited understanding, and under such conception, all belongs to God and "return" to God, and God will determine all, according to divine justice.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on April 15, 2007 at 04:31 PM PDT #

I don’t think comparing books and web content is a very good comparison; web content is what you can find on a web page, in web, web page is just like a piece of paper, so it might be more reasonable to compare web content with what is published on pieces of paper, from restaurant bills to books.

Another thing to mention is that they are not libraries that preserve books, they are people and communities behind libraries and in the whole publishing cycle that preserve books, I want to borrow your own sentences:

Things survive and stay because they matter to people and because people have a way of keeping them with little effort.

Avicenna’s books were important to some people, that’s why we have them today.

So now this is the question, How can we be sure that people find things that they need? And a more important question: How can we be sure that people of same interests find each other?

As you say it seems that search engines are biased to results wanted by masses, but there are some movements toward specialized search, such as Google scholar, or blog search, of course they are not exactly what we are talking about.

By the way it can be good to make examples of good stuff on the web that may not find a way to a durable archive. Define good based on your own attitude and try to find examples. I think will help us in the rest of the discussion(if it is going to be continued!).
Another thing that may help is categorizing web content, I borrowed this categorization from Wikipedia with a little change. We can classify web content in these categories:

Personal Content :Blogs, Homepages, etc…, Contents created by individuals
Search Engines and General purpose web portals :Yahoo,Lycos,Google, etc…
Discussion Boards:lots of groups on the internet
Ecommerce Sites

This categorization is not so complete (for example in what category is Wikipedia itself!) but it gives of an overview of the most of the content on the internet.

According to the categorization above, and without concerning value (because I don’t know what is really valuable), I think that the most threatened content on the web is personal content, especially those that are not supported by a community or not hosted on a stable server. But I think the condition is not so worse than paper case, because many personal writings are lost too.

Posted by pasparto on April 16, 2007 at 12:33 AM PDT #

Pasparto -

The whole point of comparing paper books or newspapers with the web is that many people think of one as a replacement for the other. The only people who have understood their mutual relationship well, one could argue, are the major newspapers themselves.

I should have said that libraries help communities to preserve books. When I say libraries, I mean ones that are in tune with their use community, have a mission to preserve books for the community and are well-stocked, say the library at UC Berkeley, the Library of Congress in Washington, or the Majlis Library in Tehran, etc. These are just rough examples. No library is perfect but they have served a great function.

I think all the web content you give above are quite unstable compared to what one finds in books.

Web "communities" will come and go. Physical communities come and go, too, and have ups and downs. Hence, the role of the library embedded in the community. The Sarajevo library which was burnt down in the early 1990s preserved historical documents, litrary works in multiple languages and other valuable books, some hand-written, of the Bonian community. I don't know how much of this library has survived through copies held by the community itself.

One great function of the web is its ability to copy and distribute content. Had we had the web and had we copied the Bosnian national library into multiple "locations," the chances for its preservation would have increased. Some scholars, such as Lawrence Lessig in his Free Culture and elsehwere have argued that it is exactly this function of the web, i.e. its central function as a copy and distribution machine, which should be unleashed. However, much content, at least in the U.S., remains under stringent copyright laws making such preservation and propagation methods unavailable or very poorly available. Elsewhere, matters may turn out to be different.

Let's return to the physical vs. Web communities.

Which community requires which type of support and sustenance? (I would argue that that the web communities do not actually make us truly social. Without the physical communities, the very fabric of human society will degrade. However, let's leave that argument for later.)

Even if the web had come about earlier and had been used to copy and distribute Bosnia's historical archives, and in view of the role of physical community in social cohesion, would there have been no function to Bosnia's national library?

By the way, if we continue this discussion well, and if we care about it, we should probably summarize all this into a paper and prepare it for publication as a note some where.

You seem to have good summarization abilities (and may have more time than I do). If you summarize it, we can edit it together and send it off for publication ... in some kind of journal or on the web :-)

We should also explore some of Madhan's points.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on April 16, 2007 at 01:18 AM PDT #

OK, I have two questions:

1- Do you say that web content is less durable than what is published on paper?(I tried to argue that durability on the web is not so worse than paper if it is worse at all concerning type of its contents, but I didn't find an explicit yes or no from you to this question.)

2- If you think so, why is it due to more mobile nature of the web?

I really enjoyed this discussion up to now,in fact I am worried if you think it is getting too long for a blog discussion and you haven't time for it! Of course, I would certainly be happy to help to get something presentable out of this discussion. :)

I am following your conversation with Madhan too, it can lead us to interesting points.

Posted by pasparto on April 16, 2007 at 07:31 AM PDT #

I wonder if our focus on mobility over durability stems from the fact that our daily lives involve constant movement. The number and length of daily trips has increased dramatically in the last 50 years (the DOT can verify this statement). Technology has largely facilitated this trend.

Posted by Closets on April 29, 2007 at 07:33 AM PDT #

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