converging on what?

First of occasional notes on new books on futuristic subjects…

One of the common themes in discussions of the singularity is that trends apparently under way in different areas will interact, and reinforce each other. It is not just that computers are getting smaller and faster, cell biology is unravelling how molecules build organisms, or nanotechnologists are fashioning new materials – but that all these things are happening at once.

The idea that this matters makes sense as an elaboration of one view of the history of technology. Different technologies (and different sciences for that matter) often come together to make possible things which would not happen without all of them working at once.

The idea is explored at length in Stanley Schmidt’s 2008 book The Coming Convergence, a future-oriented work which spends most of its time reviewing aspects of the past. Soome the examples are classic case-studies in innovation. Steel frame construction made it possible to build skyscrapers: electric-powered safety elevators made it possible for people to actually use them. X-rays provide images inside the body: computer processing allows a series of X-rays to be built up into a 3-D scan. Solid-state electronics, minaturised with aid from many other technologies used to manufacture microchips, gave the world personal computers. Fibre optic cables – often connected to old-fashioned copper wires at local level – connected them all together. New kinds of software allowed anyone to search and retrieve the files stored on other computers all over the world. And good old electromagnetic waves allowed the whole system to be accessed from a laptop which is free to roam without wires.

So OK: convergence, or perhaps interpenetration, is an important part of the story of most modern technological systems. Can’t decide, though, whether this is a real insight, or a bit banal. Some things enable you to do other things, in unexpected contexts. Different stuff which is around at the same time can get combined in new ways. Creative, sure, and doubtless the combinations that work only seem obvious in hindsight. But does this count as a big idea? Persuasion here not helped by one of Schmidt’s opening examples (World Trade Centre plus fully-fuelled jumbo jet equals atrocity). If his point is that convergence can lead to the unexpected, it is forcefully, if crudely, made.

But insightful? Still not sure. Nor whether this gives any special insight into what the allegedly soon to be with us great convergence of bio/info/nano technologies will look like.

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