NPF: THE GREAT LEAP FORWARD

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 3rd, 2010 by Ed

This is hardly recent news, but I just found out that the U.S. Coast Guard no longer uses Morse code. Apparently its use in communicating with ships at sea ended in 1995. The USCG was actually one of the last holdouts, with many other nations and organizations abandoning it earlier. Like all historically important technology that becomes outdated, there was considerable emotion displayed when it passed from the scene. The USCG's last Morse code dispatch (read the full text here) sadly acknowledged that satellite and GPS-based technologies obsoleted Morse code but their cold precision lacked the romance of a lone radio operator communicating by dots and dashes. It ended: "What hath God wrought?" and the sadness of the operators is apparent throughout. The French Navy was in an even more lyrical mood, signing off for good with "Calling all. This is our last cry before our eternal silence." Damn.

It is not hard to understand the sadness of people who devote a substantial portion of their careers to a technology that becomes obsolete. There is also a melancholy aspect to tossing a technology that played such an important historical role onto the trash heap as soon as it is improved upon. Email and the GPS are undoubtedly more convenient and helpful than letter-writing or Morse code, but it's a shame that we so quickly forget that people did just fine for a couple hundred years with only pen, paper, and the mailman.

This train of thought led me to the state of communication technology today and the realization that, although my mind can't comprehend the details, in 30 years we will be looking back on Droids and 4G iPhones with the same kind of nostalgia for primitive technologies. I certainly don't mean that they are primitive today, but history suggests that what we consider cutting-edge today will quickly be surpassed until we reach some sort of singularity.

But as much as I know that smartphones and other recent developments will become outmoded, I can't begin to wrap my head around how. What will be the next great leap forward in communication technology? We already have nearly instantaneous access to any bit of information on the planet from mobile devices and we can communicate to any corner of the globe instantaneously by text, voice, video, and so on. How can we improve upon this? To some extent this is a silly question, because any of us who knew with certainty what is to be the Next Big Thing would be busy inventing it, investing in it, and getting rich. But even in the broadest conceptual terms, even assuming technologies that do not currently exist, I lack the imagination to foresee how we can improve upon instant access to the sum of all human knowledge. Much as there are no physical frontiers remaining in the world, it seems to me that we are quickly reaching the point at which electronic and technological frontiers have also been exhausted.

But I'm sure people say the same thing with every new development. Like everyone who failed to comprehend how technology could get more advanced than the telegraph, the radio, and then television, I am certain that time will prove me wrong.

What do you think our next Great Leap Forward will be? I'm stumped.