The meaning of life

By Philp Conkling | Jan 05, 2012

As many of you may have heard or read – or even experienced – it is now possible to ask your iPhone, which has voice recognition software called Siri, metaphysical questions such as “What is the meaning of life?”

Which got me to thinking, as the family sat around the Christmas tree opening presents, how much technology infuses our lives. My oldest son, now approaching 30, commandeered the first computer we bought as a family Christmas present in 1992. But then no one else could get near it. He bought his own dial-up modem, connected to the Internet through an early AOL account and was a citizen of the world overnight. Little did he (or we) know what this meant until the first phone bill came in with the roaming charges of more than $700. He spent the rest of his seventh grade year working for his mother after school paying off the phone bill at $2 an hour. But it was worth it to him.

The next summer on Vinalhaven, he set up a computer consulting business and charged anxious summer people who needed to be connected $12 an hour for his help instead of painting porch railings at $5 an hour. His first client came to pick him up at the house and met the 12 year old, “Dr. Macintosh,” at the door, but immediately showed his ignorance by asking for his father.

Around the same time at the Island Institute office, we began developing software, which could display, zoom and pan on satellite images of huge swathes of the Maine archipelago –a million acres in a scene. Instantly, we could zoom in on a tennis-court sized “pixel” in a million acre image from space to determine precisely what habitat we were looking at. I had spent the better part of a decade in the field collecting ecological information on something like 500 Maine islands comprising perhaps 10,000 acres. Now in a week’s time, I could accurately map the habitats on a million acres. It was stunning. If only Sergey Brin and Larry Page had not been in middle school, Google Earth might have been born a decade earlier.

Twenty years ago, Richard Podolsky, who codeveloped the software we called GAIA (Geographic Access Image Analysis), and I were supported by Apple Computer because we developed the software on the first color desktop computers available – the Macintosh II. Apple invited us out to Cupertino, where we gave a demonstration of GAIA to a group of their employees in a glass-walled conference room they called “Knowledge Navigator.” Then they showed us a film of the future, where a busy guy uses a desktop touch screen to check his schedule and then uses voice commands to enter meetings in his calendar and have his computer call his wife to arrange a dinner date. Finally I have that computer, only I can now hold it in my hand as if it were just a phone.

Which gets us to another axiom about technology – the hype about how quickly technology will transform our lives exceeds the reality on average by at least 10 years. At one of the early PopTech conferences, which computer-savvy Camden-area residents, such as Bob Metcalfe (3-Com, Ethernet) and John Sculley (in his Apple salad days) helped launch, came the prediction of the great telecom convergence between computers, telephones and televisions. Computers and telephones took the next decade and a half to converge; we are still waiting for televisionary convergence – which is now expected soon, with planetary alignment to follow.

Maine’s Governor King (makes you think of Plato’s Philosopher King) decreed that Maine would be the first state in the country to have broadband Internet access in every school and library in the state. And he succeeded! But broadband access at schools with technology-challenged teachers and at short-staffed rural libraries with limited operating hours did not transform Maine’s educational system nor upgrade the skills of the state’s labor force. Neither did King’s next ambitious program of providing a laptop for every middle school student, which may have inadvertently contributed to Maine’s brain drain of talented young people since there are so few high technology jobs in Maine. But we started slowly gaining.

During my oldest son’s freshman year in high school, with a (un?)-healthy dose of adolescent male cockiness and rebellious curiosity, he installed an endless loop on the school’s email server to see what would happen. And when he did, with predictable and significantly inconvenient results, the stunt earned him his second school suspension for a computer prank. He was discovered because the school’s technology coordinator read his emails. Whereupon, of course, the testosterone-infused high school freshman, who had taught himself a programming language, wrote an application to encrypt his emails, whereupon the technology coordinator banned his encryption software from the school system, whereupon the freshman set up a website offering the encryption software to anyone who wanted to download it as “shareware.”

The technology coordinator, of course, could have recruited this computer-struck youngster and his cohorts by asking for their help, but authority will have its way. Besides, the technology coordinator would never get fired for not trusting these kids, but may well have lost his job for trusting them if things went south.

During the last five years, however, we have made some real progress educating in a new generation of ”wired” students. A National Science Foundation sponsored technology education program organized by the Island Institute, has developed an innovative program to recruit students and teachers to an annual summer institute the students call “Geek Camp.” There, the students become teachers and the teachers become students and they bond over designing how to integrate new technology education programs into 20 or so schools along the coast and islands of Maine. This approach, called “non-hierarchical learning” by educators, has received one of the highest success rates of any program in the country in encouraging American middle and high school students to enter technology careers.

So, back to the original question you have wondered about. “What is the meaning of life?” One of Siri’s answers is “All evidence to date suggests it’s chocolate.” In other words, in order to be useful, technology should also be playful. S.P.J., R.I.P.

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