Supposin': A Look at Progress, Part 1

For a brief session, let’s mute the invasive and persuasive barrage of the press and turn up the volume on some positive notes of hope and progress. Here are some facts that will make you smile for a change. It is time we take notice of the technological and cultural advances that are taking place without our even noticing. Your amygdala may not ferret out these facts, but your heart should be greatly encouraged when you hear them.

We need to be reminded that our generation has more access today to services, goods, information, and modes of transportation, medicines, education, communication systems, human rights, and democratic experiments than any other generation in recorded history. Generally speaking, we are wealthier, healthier, and safer than any previous inhabitants on earth.

When I was eleven years old, Dwight D. Eisenhower ran against Adlai Stevenson for the presidency of the United States. I was pretty passionate about the General, and even wore an “I Like Ike” badge, wrote a poem, and also made a poster for the campaign. With World War II over, I recall how General Eisenhower tried to assure the American people that all the information and technology that had gone into developing the atom bomb could be turned into peaceful purposes.

He talked about using the nuclear power to turn the salt water of the seas and oceans into fresh water. We could irrigate the unused fertile land of the world with the water and transform it into a breadbasket for the millions of hungry people. He also explained how the harnessed power of the atom could one day be safely used so that there would never again be a shortage of electricity anywhere on the earth.

After his election in 1952, he spoke to the young United Nations organization in New York City and laid out the plan for his Atoms for Peace program: “To the making of these fateful decisions, the United States pledges before you–and therefore before the world–its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma–to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life." (December 8, 1953)

Imposed fear and political manipulation pretty much sabotaged President Eisenhower’s dream. But in the ensuing years, the knowledge base regarding atomic and hydrogen power continued to grow exponentially every year. Exponentiallymeans the doubling of a number from one period to the next, (example: 1 becomes 2, 2 becomes 4, 4 becomes 8, etc.). And now, for the first time, our knowledge base and technology is beginning to catch up with our dreams and ambitions. Let’s talk about the exponential growth of our knowledge base.

Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt claims that from the beginning of time until the year 2003, humankind created five exabytes of digital information (an Exabyte is one billion gigabytes . . . that’s a one (1) followed by eighteen zeros.) By the year 2010, the human race was generating five exabytes of information every few days. By the near future, the number is expected to be five exabytes produced every ten minutes. (1)

A major newspaper today will contain more information in one week’s worth of print than the average seventeenth century individual would have encountered in a lifetime. A culture can possess the possibility of storing, exchanging, and improving ideas based on specialization and innovation . . . building one idea or bit of information upon another.

When I first started traveling in Africa in the early 1980s, the only international electronic connections I had to countries like Zimbabwe was the old commercial Telex machines. Other than that it was air mail service that took about 10 days each way to communicate. It would take forever to communicate back and forth just to make travel arrangements, hotel reservations, confirm who would be at the airport to meet me, and any other inner-country arrangements.

I thought I had arrived in heaven when the fax machine was introduced, eventually followed by the marvelous computer email. Within just the time I have been traveling to Africa, the internet and wireless technologies have become within the grasp of nearly all Africans. They never had to go through the stage of stringing telephone lines that would have cost multiplied millions of dollars, because the technology was wireless.

Because of micro-lending and other available programs, 2% of the people had mobile phones by year 2000, 28% by 2009, and nearly 70% by 2013. Now, a common African businessman with a cell phone has better information and communication capabilities than the president of the U.S. did when I first started traveling in Africa. And if he has Google and a smart phone he has better information than the president did just fifteen years ago. Very soon the entire world’s populations will have the exponential technological advantage and experience that only the affluent experienced just a few years ago.

Three billion people who have never before had access to the internet or shared information will be coming on line via computers and smart phones. They are a brand new world market. Additionally, their contribution to the global intelligence will result in new ideas, inventions and discoveries, and products.

Next Week: Supposin’: A Look at Progress, Part 2

(Research ideas from Dr. Jackson’s new writing project on Cultural Economics)

© Dr. James W. Jackson  

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