Saturday, February 23, 2013

When Progress Hinders Us


When life gets busy, I tend to cut back on my useful and useless projects. I have about four 50% finished things lying around and it bugs me that I cannot do any of them, but that doesn't mean that I don't have time to think and subsequently write. Between my absorption in university and the IT world, lies this part of me that reflects on the machine that is technological progress. It is easy to get wrapped up in and think little of its consequences past your own personal enjoyment you hope to get from it. This blog post is a rant and reflection on "progress."

As a general geek, I am usually tickled pink by small and large leaps in progress within the computational and industrial sector. The logic of progress is simple:

If there are many competitors, then there is lots of competition.
If there is lots of competition, then people work harder.
If people work harder, then we progress faster.


If there are few competitors, then the competition is smaller.
If it is smaller, then people work more slowly.
If people work more slowly, then we progress more slowly.

Largely speaking, this logic holds; however, it does not mean that that this is how it has to be. Just because something is logical, it does not make it universally true for all situations in time. This is what going to university does to you, it makes-you-question-EVERYTHING.

A Practical Hindrance

Lets put aside ethics and morality for a second - or at least, try. The software and hardware industries rely on each other necessarily for survival. I don't need to spell that one out, but they still have individual choices to make within their sectors. That is to say, they don't always work together.
The hardware industry is like the fuel and engine in your car. It is what enables us to accomplish things. It is even like the computer chips that control those engines (for modern models). But wait, something needs to tell those things what to do, which means that the software is like the steering wheel, the joints, the gears, etc., which commands the power of the engine and harnesses it in a usable manner. A car is an example of a machine that was built to work together exclusively. Each part was built FOR another. The analogy ends here, however, as the software/hardware industry does not work in this way. The hardware industry makes something and says "do stuff with it," and the software industry dreams of and demands hardware capable of their software. I'm not saying it is always like this, but it often is. There needs to be a certain level of collaboration to make sure software and hardware work together, but they often overstep their bounds. This might turn into an attack on the software industry.
For example, when Microsoft releases an operating system (OS), they need to contact hardware manufacturers to make sure they agree with the OS and will produce compatible components. If they do not, Microsoft's OS is useless, but this also means that hardware manufacturers lose out. In this case, the software industry is the bully. If nobody complies, everybody loses money. Whether people hate the next "best" OS or not, others will still want to buy it, and manufacturers will just keep churning out products. It is how our economy currently works. A company might hate Windows 8, but they know that if they develop for it, consumers will buy. Likewise, consumers might hate, but they will still buy for the sheer fact that it is "new" and "improved." But, a smart consumer will say, 'but wait, my email, Google, games, and Windows XP are just fine and dandy as they are, why do I need to upgrade?' And what happens when we upgrade? Well, if it is from Windows XP to Windows Vista, then bad things happen. Things are slow and incompatible, which is the problem with the software and hardware industry at a practical level. Moore's law dictates (in short) that COMPUTER CHIP performance will double every two years, but it has not been so with software. Every time a new chip is released, many developers code over the efficient limits of the computer chip. Sure, my little nine watt netbook I'm writing on is many times more powerful than my dad's ten year old four-hundred watt desktop, BUT IT IS ALMOST AS SLOW. Maybe if the industry slowed down for a year or two and got productively lazy, we could work on building efficient programs for the faster hardware we would still allow to develop.
Companies that develop their hardware alongside their software always do well in terms of practical usage. For example, motherboard makers make their own hardware and firmware, which means that they have control to develop them to be as efficient and fast as the can be. No more, no less. The same goes for Apple, this why so many people like them. Is a Mac easier to use than anything else? Not necessarily, there is a learning curve, but people might appreciate Windows more if Microsoft started to pay more attention to who is making the hardware who runs their software. If Microsoft truly knew the limitations of current hardware, they might not have created such a painful and buggy operating system like Windows Vista.

An Ethical Problem?

If I told you that a lot of our 'progress' hinged on the cheap labor of developing countries, would you stop buying into it? Or would you rather say, 'well, at least I am providing them jobs by buying products I don't really need or need to upgrade.' That is an interesting question, because I think the latter answer often reflects a denial of the fact that something that gives us so much enjoyment could be made through exploitation. It can also reflect a fear that we can't handle life if we go 'backwards.' That fear is ridiculous, because we all know we did fine before then. I need not write about the last few thousand years of human history, or even the life that I, you, or our parents lived before we had what we have now. But maybe I do need to write about the fact that in general, people now are no happier than people hundreds of years ago. This shows a terrible lack of efficiency in my mind, because not only do we often exploit others for our enjoyment or 'betterment,' but we aren't gaining anything in terms of happiness from it. So why do we continue to exploit? Maybe it is because people will not admit that they aren't really happy. Like drug addicts, we either deny that what we do hurts others or we admit it but keep going because we are afraid to do different. We are addicted to progress, and it is often the case that addicted people will hurt others for their addiction.

Clearing Some Things Up

Okay, so all of this sounds pretty negative and hypocritical. I mean, I'm using a computer, which was probably partly put together by some exploited person. Here is the thing, and this is why I'm saying all I am: Let us look for a way to progress that does not involve turning it into a race. Progress does not have to involve a loser, though it is tempting to think that. If that idea is difficult to comprehend (it still is for me), don't resolve then that it is a stupid one, rather think about how you've probably never really considered it before or even lived it out before. It starts small, it starts with your friends and family, moves into the community, and then into the world. The reason why we have foreign aid and programs for the poor and homeless is because we have hoarded too much and everyone else has not enough. Like I said, it starts small. It means co-existing in a manner that builds on people's lives around you. People supporting people, communities supporting communities, and countries supporting countries. None of this capitalist bullshit that allows for crushing others. If you really want to thrive and progress, consider it in a way that is beneficial to both you and your neighbor, whether it be next door, the next town over, or the next ocean over. If we all do this, I can't say that we will have what we have now, I can't say that everyone will be as prosperous as middle class North Americans, that is not the point. What I can say is that if we all set a standard and a norm that involves working together in a restorative and equally sustaining way, we might be able to accomplish things and feel better about ourselves and each other in ways we never would be able to think possible, until we try. 

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