Technology and perspective
Jordi Benítez, from Spanish finance monthly Capital, asked me for a column on the occasion of the publication’s 200th edition, in which I tried to apply a little perspective to the technological evolution of this century (pdf in Spanish).
Jordi joined Capital back in 2000, just as I was returning from California after finishing a four-year stay to obtain my doctorate. We have collaborated on many occasions, and the column represented the opportunity to review seventeen vibrant and dynamic years.
How to summarize seventeen years in which I have written every single day? I decided to use as evolutionary references three moments I consider especially significant: the the dotcom boom and bust, resistance to change by established industries, and finally, emergence of machine learning.
Here is the full text of my column:
Technology and perspective
Remembering what technology has meant in the recent past is not easy: events have moved so fast, making it hard to find key moments: if we can remember them, surely it is because we are obsolete, clinging to the because change is hard work.
In my case, looking back to 2000 is simple, because it was an important year for me. After four years of living in an effervescent California, I returned to Spain with my doctorate under my arm and found myself able, by my academic qualification and my experience in a market recognized as more advanced to write about the effects of technology and its adoption. Although I never intended to make a living out of it — most of my contributions to the media then were unpaid — it has allowed me to keep a faithful written record of my ideas, my concerns, and my obsessions, about the evolution of technology.
For me, technology is a brutally dynamic environment, where change happens fast. The end of the century and the entry a new one proved that: the dot come crisis was seen by many as a kind of “amendment to totality,” a hoax of little importance. Those years were seen by many as magical, along the lines of “look at those clever kids and what they’ve done and how much money they’ve made,” as though all they needed to do was click their fingers to set up a dot com.
The reality was different. The so-called magic was actually very hard work and long hours in front of a keyboard, along with the ability to turn ideas into executable code. Over time, some countries have come to understand the immense importance for the future of programming, to understand that we are surrounded by programmable objects, and that learning to program is as fundamental as understanding physics or biology. In Spain, unfortunately, this is still not the case and successive education reform have focused on other issues.
The magic then gave way to a failure to adjust to the new reality. Much of what we wrote in the first decade of the century reflected the realization that new ways of doing things displaced old ones and how those affected were trying to resist it. Those vain attempts to resist progress kept us entertained for much of the decade: the film and movie industry’s insistence that the public was evil, rather than trying to provide us with their products under the conditions we wanted. Over time, we have come to understand that the problem was not the public or technology, but some companies’ lack of vision that claimed that in a world where everything had changed things could somehow continue as they wanted, which over time proved completely unsustainable.
The breakthrough of the century brought us, first and foremost, evidence that Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, was a genius, and that the application of his law enabled us to enjoy computers that were ever more powerful and smaller, so powerful and small that we started carrying them around with us and installing them in all sorts of places, giving rise to the internet of things. And with all those things connected to the internet and generating data, we began to realize that we weren’t capable any longer of analyzing that data, and that learning and intelligence were no longer the preserve of humans: bringing us to what, for me, is the most important revolution of the century: machine learning and artificial intelligence.
For me, those are the three elements that define my perspective of this century: dot.com, resistance to progress and machine learning. They’ve been 17 very rapid years of creative destruction. But as the man said, you ain’t seen nothing yet …
(En español, aquí)