When I was in the tenth grade, nothing about technology intimidated me. I signed up for classes in high school which taught binary and how to write simple programs, and my first full-time job was working with a woman who could program in COBOL.
So I knew how to instruct a machine to print an entire sheet with my name on it, which involved some sort of “goto” command and line numbers, and I was a great support leaning over the shoulder of my co-worker, while she wrote the code for the program that I would later put to use.
Since then, my relationship with technology has been characterized by ambivalence.
Recently I inherited a cell phone from another family member, and I love it so much that I think I might name it.
Simultaneously, I am frustrated by the knowledge that without this in-house guide/escort through the digital world, I could never keep this device functioning on a daily basis.
I used to be the family member who knew how to program the VCR, but now I struggle to comprehend basic concepts like cloud-sharing and wi-fi.
The world is changing so quickly that often I don’t even have the vocabulary to articulate what it is that I do not know.
This kind of rapid change is at the core of Peter Nowak’s Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.
First, however, he orients readers in the present-day. He defines terms in accessible, clear language, he provides a context, and he summarizes complex movements/events concisely.
Consider, this passage:
“In 1965, chemist and businessman Gordon Moore observed that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit had doubled every year since it was invented in 1958. He estimated the trend would continue for at least another decade. He was right in his basic evaluation but wildly wrong, in a good way, about the time frame. His observation became Moore’s Law and has expanded into a golden rule that governs pretty much all of technology. Generally speaking, it posits that the performance and power of just about all forms of technology double every two years or so, yet prices stay the same or decline. This is largely why everything from computers to phones gets more powerful, cheaper, or both every year. It’s also why that flat-panel TV you bought for thousands of dollars a few years ago is worth practically nothing today. Moore later cofounded Silicon Valley stalwart Intel, which has kept his theory alive and moving.”
Not only context (a couple of setences about the past) but also relevance: readers might let all the details wash over them until they reach that observation (technological devices get more powerful and less expensive every year) and then choose to go back and allow the specifics to fall into place. Every reader will recognize the phenomenon, whether or not they were aware of Gordon Moore.
(I was so impressed by this, that I excitedly asked my resident-digital-advisor if he knew about Moore’s Law which, to me, felt like when you discover a new word that perfectly describes the way you’ve been feeling about something, but which you could not properly articulate. He squinted as though it was some sort of trick question and outlined the law in detail, in a sentence which ended in a question-mark, even though it was a statement, because he clearly could not believe that I would be talking about THAT Moore’s Law, which every cell-phone-loving individual knows and understands.)
One of the most impressive illustrations of the digital revolution, which readers will readily respond to, is the discussion of the movment from analog photography in the 1820s through to the present day (at the end of 2011, 2.5 billion people had digital cameras). It is difficult to cover almost two hundred years of change in a few paragraphs, and keep the material not only interesting (rather than a string of names and dates) and accessible, but present it in an engaging manner.
My notes from the early pages of Peter Nowak’s book include definitions of GDP and a reference to the animated movie WALL-E, the acronym MIPS and Justin Bieber’s name. The pop culture references abound and add another layer of accessibility for readers. There is some scientific and economic discussion, but alongside the bacterial and the political, there is talk of the musical and vampiric elements of modern life. It might not be surprising to find references made to Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek, but Britney Spears and Anne Rice are here too.
In the book’s second half, my notes are more commonly an indiviual’s name followed by a brief description (for instance, Tor Nørretranders: science journalist and author). Much of what is discussed in later chapters seems to move beyond what is common to my own everyday life, as reflected by the increased number of details that I have recorded.
But in fact these later chapters do discuss matters which impact my everyday life: privacy, food production, neuroscience, genetic engineering, altruism, faith and globalization.
Sometimes this still surprises me. Because back in my days of learning binary, technology was something separate from my daily life; it was relevant when I was sitting in the classroom, but the VIC-20 on the living-room floor was for playing Gorf, Jupiter Lander and Garden Wars.
Now, whether or not I consciously articulate the thought that technology is with me in my daily life, it most certainly is, as it is for all of us, whether or not we can see the gears turning (whether or not the concept of ‘gears’ has any relevance to the workings of today’s tools).
Peter Nowak’s Humans 3.0 serves as an excellent reminder of this for me, but my resident escort through the digital world found it a good read as well. (He found discussions like the intersection between the age of the smartphone and Buddhism more interesting than the talk of Moore’s Law, however.)
Those with a specialized area of interest which is briefly discussed in the book might find it less satisfying than other readers. For instance, the amount of reading that I have done about genetic engineering in the food supply leaves me questioning the author’s warm embrace of technological advances in this field. But Peter Nowak does not hide his bias; technology has made him prosperous and gratitude can sometimes outweigh scepticism, and readers are acquainted with this from the start.
A variety of sources are consulted, from “American Sociological Review” and “New England Journal of Medicine” to “The Guardian” and “Slate”. There are a lot of digital citations, but also a lot of author interviews, which suggests many hours of conversation behind this relatively slim volume. And the chapter epigraphs are drawn from exceptionally diverse sources, from Proverbs to Steve Jobs, from Dilbert to David Lee Roth.
Peter Nowak slows the rate of change in text, so that readers with a variety of technological experience can travel at a pace they find comfortable, even while performance and power multiply at high speed; I read more fiction than non-fiction, but I found Humans 3.0 as compelling as many novels.