How to change the world.

This is a bit of rant post on something I thought of after watching bunch of old hacker-themed movies from the Hollywood. It continues to amaze me how I can participate in all sorts of crazy things even with the summer studies and jobs I need to keep up with. I guess that’s the benefit of living in place like NYC.

I’ve been watching some old hacker movies lately.  And I just can’t believe what kind of cool things those movie hackers were able to pull off with their now decades-old computers and laptops. Computers with interfaces and hardware that exudes that retro feel even across the projector screen. I know a lot of people with brand-spanking-new computers with state of the art hardwares and what they usually do, or can do with those machines aren’t as cool as the stuff on the movies being pulled off with vastly inferior hardware and network access. Of course, like everything in life it would be insane to compare the real with the imagined, and Hollywood movies have a bad tendency to exaggerate and blow things out of proportion (I’m just waiting for that next dumb movie with synthetic biology as a culprit, though it might not happen since Hollywood’s been barking about indecency of genetic engineering technology for decades now). Even with that in mind, I can’t help but feel that the modern computerized society is just way too different from the ones imagined by artists and technologists of the old.

Ever heard of younger Steve Jobs talking in one of his interviews? He might have been a rather nasty person but he certainly believed that ubiquitous personal computing will change the world for the better. Not one of those gradual, natural changes either. He actually believed that it’s going to accelerate the humanity itself, very much like how Kurzweil is preaching about the end of modernity with the upcoming singularity. Well, personal computing is nothing new these days. It’s actually quite stale until about a few months ago when people finally found out glut-ridden software with no apparent advantage in functionality were bad things, both in terms of user experience and economics. Ever since then they’ve been coming out with some interesting experiments like the atom chipset for netbooks (as well as netbooks themselves), and Nvidia Ion system for all sorts of stuff I can’t even begin to describe. And even with the deluge of personal computing in the world we have yet to see the kind of dramatic and intense changes we were promised so long ago. Yeah sure, the world’s slowly getting better, or changing at least. It’s all there when you take some time off and run the real numbers. It’s getting a little bit better as time goes on, and things are definitely changing like some slow-moving river. But this isn’t the future we were promised so long ago. This isn’t the future people actually wanted to create.

We have engines of information running in every household and many cellphones right now.  Engines of information meaning all sorts of machinery that can be used to create and process information content. Not just client-side consumption device where the user folks money over to some company to get little pieces of pixels or whatever, but real engines of information that’s capable of creating as well as consuming using all of the hardware capabilities. It’s like this is the Victorian Era, and everyone had steam engine built into everything they can think of. And nothing happened. No steam cars, no steam blimps, no nothing. The world’s rolling at the same pace as before and most people still think in the same narrow minded niches of their own. What’s going on here? Never had such a huge number of ‘engines’ responsible for creating an era in history been available to so many people at once. And that’s not all. Truly ubiquitous computing made available by advances in information technology is almost here, and it is very likely that it will soon spread to the poorer parts of the world and remoter parts of the globe traditionally cut off from conventional infrastructures.

But yet again, no change. No dice. Again, what’s happening here, and what’s wrong with this picture? Why aren’t we changing the world using computers at vastly accelerated rate like how we changed the world with rapid industrialization (not necessarily for the better, of course)? That’s right. Even compared to the industrialization of the old times with its relatively limited availability and utility of the steam engines we are falling behind on the pace of the change of the world. No matter what angle you take there is something wrong in our world. Something isn’t quite working right.

So I began to think during the hacker movie screening and by the time the movie finished I was faced with one possible answer to the question of how we’ll change the world using engines of information. How to take back the future from spambots, ‘social gurus’, and unlimited porn.

The answer is science. The only way to utilize the engines of information to change the world in its tangible form is science. We need to find a way to bring sciences to the masses. We need to make them do it, participate in it, and maybe even learn it, as outlandish as the notion might sound to some people out there. We need to remodel the whole thing from the ground-up, change what people automatically think of when they hear the term ‘science’. We also need the tools for the engines of information. We need some software based tools so that people can do science everywhere there is a computer, and do it better everywhere there is a computer and an internet connection. And we need to make it so that all of those applications/services can run on a netbook spec’d computer. That’s right. Unless you’re doing serious 3D modeling or serious number-crunching you should be able to do scientific stuff on a netbook. Operating systems and applications that need 2GB of ram to display a cool visual effect of scrolling text based documents are the blight of the world. One day we will look back at those practices and gasp in horror at how far they held the world back from the future.

As for actual scientific applications, that’s where I have problems. I know there are already a plethora of services and applications out there catering to openness and science integrated with the web. Openwetware and other synthetic biology related computer applications and services come to mind. Synthetic biology is a discipline fundamentally tied to usage of computer, accessibility to outside repositories and communities, and large amateur community for beta testing their biological programming languages. It makes sense that it’s one of the foremost fields of sciences that are open to the public and offers number of very compelling design packages for working with real biological systems. But we can do more. We can set up international computing support for amateur rocketry and satellite management, using low-cost platforms like the CubeSat. I saw a launching of a privately funded rocket into the Earth’s orbit through a webcam embedded into the rocket itself. I actually saw the space from the point of view of the rocket sitting in my bedroom with my laptop as it left the coils of the Earth and floated into the space with its payload. And this is nothing new. All of this is perfectly trivial, and is of such technical ease that it can be done by a private company instead of national governments. And most of the basic the peripheral management for such operations can be done on a netbook given sufficient degree of software engineering and reliable network connection. There are other scientific applications that I can rattle on and on without pause, and there are plenty of people out there much better versed in sciences who can probably come up with even cooler ideas… So why isn’t this happening? Why aren’t we doing this? Why are we forcing people to live in an imaginary jail cell where the next big thing consists of scantily clad men/women showing off their multi-million dollar homes with no aesthetic value or ingenuity whatsoever? Am I the only one who thinks the outlook of the world increasingly resembles some massive crime against humanity? It’s a crime to lock up a child in a basement and force him/her to watch crap on T.V., but when we do that to all of humanity suddenly it’s to be expected?

We have possibilities and opportunities just lying around for the next ambitious hacker-otaku to come along and take. But they will simply remain as possibilities unless people get to work with it. We need softwares and people who write softwares. We need academics willing to delve into the mysterious labyrinths of the sciences and regurgitate it in user-friendly format for the masses to consume, with enough nutrient in it that interested people can actually do something with it.

This should be a wake-up call to the tinkerers and hackers everywhere. Stop fighting over which programming language is better than others. Stop with the lethargic sarcasm and smell the coffee. Learn real science and hack it to pieces like any other system out there.

Get to work.

Change the world.

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