Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A short time ago, at a mailbox far, far away...

I'm returning to my blog after an absence of more than a few months, partly because of a comment I received by Tom Kidd the other day. I've been travelling around the United States extensively the last six months (this week being in Temecula, CA), consulting with my company's clients to help some of the best and brightest minds in science and engineering define future technologies that will no doubt affect the lives of countless people over the coming generations.

While trying to keep up with all the articles I read from science and business publications, as well as keep up with trends in modern culture, I came across this picture, soon after it had already been identified as one of the most popular images on the Internet in less than 21 hours since it was spotted:

The stories of this photo (taken on the campus of the University of Oregon) can be found on the photographer's blog. I encourage you to follow the links and read the related articles. I find the image (and some of the details behind it) rather thought provoking, particularly as someone who grew up in an earlier generation (and not simply because I actually saw Star Wars in the theaters when it was released in 1977).

First, there's the obvious "life imitates art" angle as, clearly, the Star Wars franchise has made yet another inroad into modern popular culture. In this case, the law of unintended consequences needs to be considered, particularly on the part of the United States Postal Service for having embraced the Star Wars mythos as part of a marketing campaign. Having now seen the photograph shown above, from this day forward, I will not be able to look upon the iconic scene from the original movie (Episode IV) where Princess Leia entrusts R2D2 with the stolen Death Star plans, and think, "the Post Office has the plans...we're doomed".

Second is part of the story of the person behind the photo. The photographer, Erin Julian, gives details about herself that many people are comfortable doing in the Web 2.0 world. This by itself is not unique to younger generations. However, one comment she makes gave me greater pause.

"Seven years ago my dad introduced me to HTML code, and I have never looked back." - Erin Julian

Having grown up in a time just prior to the onset of mainstream personal computers, and having been keenly interested in the early development of web technologies in the 1990's, this again was a moment to reflect on the law of unintended consequences. Much of the electronic publishing and communications infrastructure we use today (and at the risk of sounding like an old fart, that we take for granted) was developed at a time when there were competing interests between academic, government, and commercial organizations to try and define standards of electronic document and network interoperability. At a very high-level, the competition between organizations was rooted in the constraints they were trying to overcome. Academia and research organizations were in favor of open-standards to eliminate barriers to information exchange. Government and commercial organizations resisted open-standards for different reasons (though both revolved around control of information exchange and user activity). Ultimately, what defined the "winners" including HTML (and the evolving publishing standards we have to this day) are compromises. Yet to later generations, the process that defined the compromises, and the learning that took place, is all but lost except for archival records that are used by a relatively small community compared to the masses that now utilize commoditized applications. All that remains are the tools and technologies that, for better or worse, we all unconsciously depend upon to use for everyday transactions of communication, commerce, health care...the list of applications and levels of remote control on our lives grows everyday.

It makes me wonder what advances of culture and technology that Erin and people of her generation will develop, only to come back to them in forms they never expect, another generation from now. Erin's picture, as much as it is just a really cool picture, puts an entirely new spin on the prospect of learning from the past.

The question I'm left with is, who in the future is really going to know how to retrieve the plans?


Marianne said...

Hi Jim,

Thanks for the nudge in this direction. :-D Yours is a fun post, and I went and looked at the Photographer's blog too.

I joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1982 - 25 years ago last week - and felt the world changing around me. Mum and Dad bought one of those new fangled video player/recorder things while I was on rookies, and my first gifts to them on returning home was a VHS of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Grease. Computers hadn't raised there blocky heads around then, and not even while I was in the Airforce: no, I got used to using the code variety in the job I got when I got out in 1988. I much prefer the user-friendly versions now - but could live without the bugs in the innards of the things.

I understand coding data into computers from my library work in the early 90s. Amazing that my generation has seen the world go from analog to digital in a 30 year span. Most recent generations often assume that it has always been like it is now, and have no idea how it all came about. They have no roots - which is worrisome if someone pulls the plug. How would the now generation know how to build the knowledge up again without refering to us old fogies for help. :-)

Great post, Jim. Very thought provoking.


Damian said...

Hey, Jim!

You don't know me from Adam but I'm a friend of Erin Julian's and, like you, I also wrote a blog on her photo.

Love your layout BTW! :)

Tom Kidd said...

Hey, shouldn't there be another post already? This has been here for what, a couple of days now? I'm such a smart ass.

Anyway, very interesting article and nicely written as well. I'll keep an eye on this young lady. It'll be interesting to see where she and the born-with-programing-in-their-veins types go. Thanks.

I guess I'll check out Damian's blog now.