October 09, 2011

Technology — The Great Leveler

Death is a good thing not merely because, as Mr. Jobs put it, “It’s probably the single best invention of life,” or “it’s life’s change agent,” but also because men of hubris are at last brought down to Earth (and indeed below the Earth) by the phenomenon of death. It’s a fate that no hubristic billionaire can escape … yet.
The ordinary person can look at a hubris-laden individual engaged in some megalomaniacal activity and take some satisfaction out of this knowledge that death will conquer this villain as well just as it has claimed many other villains through history.
What other areas of human activity can you think of where there’s virtual equality between all? Some path breaking inventions of medical science qualify. When a vaccine is available for polio, EVERYONE is suddenly safe from this scourge — street dwellers and penthouse dwellers.
But they are few and far between. Technology seems to be one arena where this occurs more frequently. Consumer devices are at once cutting edge and common place.


Sure, the rich can afford to buy a personal supercomputer and we can’t. But that is not the point. Supercomputers don’t come pre-loaded with countless freely downloadable cool apps. Nor perhaps can you conveniently carry a supercomputer around in the tiny pockets of your tight jeans.
Hence: the unparalleled genius of Mr. Jobs of Apple. Perhaps he understood this. That if you create great products and make extraordinary claims about those products, people will be converts. He was willing to go beyond most others in making himself synonymous with Apple products.
He was in essence the sole brand ambassador for Apple. There was risk involved in this strategy. He would have become the laughing stock of the entire nerd universe if his claims about the superiority of Apple products did not pass muster with consumers.
And above all there’s fundamentally this refreshing authenticity when Steve is promoting the latest Mac, iPod, iPhone, or iPad. It’s the latest that Steve himself is using. There’s no assumed, built in, duplicity involved. Imagine how unlike the usual norms of marketing that is!
When preternaturally thin models or heavenly beauties promote various products on TV, there’s this essential lying involved which goes like this: you KNOW as well as I do that no matter how much anti-wrinkle stuff you’re going to apply or how much you’re going to starve yourself, you ain’t going to become me. You KNOW that! And yet, I will PRETEND that you can get as good looking as me or as slim as me by using this or that product.
Who believes for an instant that some shoe promoted by some superstar is going to convert everyman into an equally talented sportsperson? Yet we choose to be influenced — otherwise there won’t have been multi-millionaire sportspersons.
With cutting edge technologies such as space travel, we may choose to be passionately devoted to the exploits of NASA and get whatever vicarious sense of achievement we may by being witness to the heroic exploits of astronauts who stand on the shoulders of thousands of technologists. But clearly we all can’t yet be space travelers.
With deep scientific research, we may choose to marvel at the capacity of the human mind to drill so deeply into the bedrock of the fundamental nature of nature. If we are so inclined, we get what joy we can from the mysteries and wonders of quantum mechanics. We may choose to be humbled if we have the slightest realization about the immensity of the astronomical universe (Carl Sagan told us about how astronomy was an humbling science) or simply get a tingle in our spine just looking at the Milky Way at night standing out on an open field somewhere far away from city lights.
We do not need to be actually working on the Hubble imaging team or the Cassini imaging team or be part of the great Voyager project. We do not have to be Penzias and Wilson to acquire the realization today that we are able to hear the leftover noise from the very creation event itself that started it all.
We are indeed lucky to have had such giants walk among us: giants such as Einstein who understood the deep connections between space and time and between mass and energy. Other giants such as Bohr and Feynman and the other quantum pioneers and Weinberg and Chandrasekhar and others of the community of physicists and astrophysicists have enabled us ALL — if we choose to see and learn — to have such a deep understanding about the cosmos. The human brain has perceived and deciphered the quantum nature of phenomena at the sub-atomic level. We have learnt to calculate in precise mathematical detail the evolution of stars with varying masses and compositions. And we understand stellar nucleosynthesis — how all those elements in the periodic table are made inside stellar fusion furnaces.
What a beautiful mind our species is possessed of!
We are explorers all. Some are more talented … or perhaps more persevering or just plain lucky. But all of us wish to touch that envelope, the boundary between what is possible and what is not. We wish to experience it ourselves as the once impossible is brought squarely into the fold of the possible.
It happens in high energy particle physics experiments when each new accelerator experiment explores a hitherto unexplored region of energetic interactions among subatomic particles travelling at close to the speed of light.
Each new space telescope enables us to peer ever deeper into the universe using yet another part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio telescopes on the ground are designed with ever increasing complexity and sophistication to enable ever higher resolution views of the distant galaxies and other objects at the very edges of the visible universe.
While all these fascinating endeavors endure, most of us can only be vicarious participants in them. Consumer technology seems to be the only arena of high technology where the very latest is instantly accessible to vast numbers of people (at least in the advanced/wealthy countries of the world).
It was perhaps Mr. Jobs’ unique achievement that he was able to understand this innate human desire to be able to directly participate in cutting edge technology. Apple’s products embedded the latest technology and presented an interface to the user that was not only not intimidating but indeed immensely inviting. And Mr. Jobs marketed those products himself thus making certain extraordinary claims and promises. The public touched the technology frontier and liked what it saw.
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