Technology: Prediction is useless
Where technology will take us in the next millennium, let alone the next century, is anyone’s guess. But history tells us that, whatever happens, we will likely underestimate it.
To quote “Timeline,” Michael Crichton’s latest novel, “A hundred years ago, as the nineteenth century drew to a close, scientists around the world were satisfied that they had arrived at an accurate picture of the physical world.
“As physicist Alastair Ray put it, ‘By the end of the nineteenth century, it seemed that the basic fundamental principles governing the behavior of the physical universe were known. Indeed, many scientists said that the study of physics was nearly completed; no big discoveries remained to be made, only details and finishing touches.'”
But late in the final decade, a few curiosities came to light. Roentgen discovered rays that passed through flesh. Because he could not explain them, he called them X-rays. Two months later, Henri Becquerel accidentally found that a piece of uranium ore emitted something that fogged photographic plates. And the electron, the carrier of electricity, was discovered in 1897. Yet on the whole, physicists remained calm, expecting that those oddities would eventually be
explained by existing theory. No one would have predicted that within five years the complacent view of the world would be shockingly upended, producing an entirely new conception of the universe, as well as technologies that would transform daily life in the 20th century in every possible way.
If you had said to a physicist in 1899 that in 1999: * moving images would be transmitted into homes all over the world from satellites in the sky; * bombs of unimaginable power would threaten not merely the human species, but the existence of the world; * antibiotics would abolish infectious disease, but disease would fight back; * millions of people would fly every hour in aircraft capable of taking off and landing without a human touch; * airplanes could cross the Atlantic at 2,000 miles an hour; * humankind would travel to the moon and then lose interest in it; * microscopes would be able to see individual atoms; * people would carry telephones weighing a few ounces and speak anywhere in the world without wires; or * that most of those miracles would depend on devices the size of a postage stamp, which operated because of a new theory called quantum mechanics; he would almost certainly have pronounced you mad.
Most of those developments could not have been predicted in 1899, because prevailing scientific theory said they were impossible. And, for the few developments that did seem doable, like airplanes, the sheer scale of their eventual use would have defied comprehension. One might have pictured an airplane, but 10,000 airplanes in the air at the same time would have been beyond imagining.
We are like the scientist of the last century looking upon an uncertain but bright future. Tremendous technologies are available to us now – many of them not employed for their maximum value. There are far too many reasons for this under-utilization, none the least of which is our limited understanding and personal reservations about grasping technology. Our children, constantly exposed to the changing technological environment, thankfully seem to be oblivious to the fears that have kept many of us from advancing even sooner.
The immediate future offers tremendous opportunities to improve the way we do business. Data dissemination and retrieval over the Internet is exploding. Mobile hardware and software that allow us to take our data into the field and sync it up to its parent are improving. Digital white boards can capture our thoughts, and voice activation can transfer our phone calls and compose memos. High-end database tools are becoming more affordable and user-friendly. And GIS, which offers visualization, analysis and manipulation of data in real time, is becoming one of our primary technological tools.
GIS technology is simply a means of applying computerized processes to otherwise traditional manual methods. However, a GIS independent of other technologies will not meet our needs and expectations for the future. We need to remain educated in all areas of technology and be ready (and willing) to employ them with our GIS tools.
With regard to the future, let our imaginations soar. As for the present, what’s stopping us?
Elliott Ellsworth is the GIS project manager for Ontario, Calif.