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On Fact, Faith and Fiction

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Those appalled at the dysfunctional behavior of all types of government in recent years but still unwilling to concede the decline of civilization can plausibly hope that the turbulence we are witnessing indicates an ultimately constructive transformation well underway. That is admittedly more an act of faith than a demonstrable observation at the moment, but there are coherent reasons not only to aspire to human progress but also to believe we are actually seeing it. In particular, underneath all the bothersome political conflict, we clearly have been experiencing one of history’s most seminal events – the dramatic efficiency gains in the storing, processing and long-range transmission of information that have occurred over the past four decades. Public consciousness of the underlying technical achievements is driven by cell phones, personal computers and the Internet services that connect them, but the consequences extend far beyond those applications. The operations of all contemporary societies have come to depend on a massive flow of information that was literally inconceivable just a few decades ago. On balance, that development has substantially improved the circumstances of living around the world.

When the prime symbol of this achievement – the Internet – was first established in the early 1970s, the originators thought they were designing a research network connecting perhaps 100,000 main-frame computers. They did not imagine that the file transfer protocols they devised would eventually extend to billions of personal computers far more capable that the mainframes of their time. Nor did they imagine that the resulting network would carry a flow of data currently running at the rate of an exabyte (1018) daily and projected to triple by 2015. They did not anticipate that the Internet would become a spontaneously generated global utility vital to the functions of everyday life with no political authority in charge. They did not foresee that it would enable the emergence of a global economy exceeding the control of any sovereign jurisdiction or any organized institution.

Four decades later we marvel at these developments and appreciate their immediate benefits, but it is doubtful that we yet comprehend or have yet experienced their ultimate implications. The various social upheavals that dominate the daily news give reason to believe that more is happening than the enjoyment of miraculous consumer products. Cultural traditions and established institutions are besieged in all parts of the world. Their evident struggles to cope suggest that a major transformation is in fact occurring with as-yet undefined character and as-yet undetermined outcome. It is a time to look for prophets among the multitude of pundits.