Tuesday, October 08, 2002

The revolution will be television

Asparagirl is reminiscing about watching the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission over her high school's T1 link.

I am around ten years older than she is. When I was at high school, the most exciting space mission would have to have been Voyager 2, which got to Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989. To see the photographs that Voyager had take, I could either watch perhaps 30 seconds of footage on evening network news bulletins, compiled by people who really didn't care (Australia had no cable or satellite television in those days, so there was no chance of hoping the Discovery Channel or similar would show something) or look at a blurred black and white photograph in a newspaper. To see a good selection of colour photographs, I had to wait a couple of months for a copy of New Scientist of Scientific American with a photo spread on the subject to arrive in Australia (by sea mail!) from Britain or America.

I was at university in 1989, and I had access to the outside world via Usenet and UUCP based e-mail by that time. (Full internet access between Australia and the outside world was a few months when Voyager got to Neptune). It still didn't really help, as sending pictures over computer networks was not something people did at the time.

(Part of this was that Australia was and to some extent still is a fairly provincial place. However, Australians can not downoad anything they want over the internet from NASA, just like anybody else, not to mention watch the Discovery Channel. (No, Nasa TV, though).

Despite this, this time of post telco-boom post-tech boom depression, it is sometimes easy to forget the extent of the revolution that has occurred in the last decade. It is phenomenal beyond words. In the 1980s, particularly if you were a teenager without much money, information about anything was generally difficult to obtain. Your local (or school) library might contain a book about a subject, but it would often be simplified and/or a decade out of data and/or written by somebody who didn't understand the subject properly. If you wanted to know something about the law, that was what you had to rely on. Today, you can look at the statute directly, and look every judicial case that has ever been concerned with the subject. If you want to know almost any statistic about almost anything, you can get to the source, and get the most accurate and up to date information imaginable. If you don't understand something and are generally interested in the subject, you can get an expert's view on a lot of subjects very quickly. (Just send the expert an e-mail, or ask a question on Usenet, or hang out on the right message boards). I was at my most curious and my most hungry for knowledge when I was about 15, and, quite frankly, I was starved of knowledge about the things I wanted to learn. Today, I wouldn't be. I think I would give almost anything to have had the access to knowledge and information at 15 that is available to anyone who wants it (at least in the rich world) today.

To be truthful, it's available in a reasonable amount of the poor world, too. Go into an internet cafe in a small town in Indonesia or rural Turkey - to name two places I have been in the last year and where I have actually seen it - and almost inevitably it is run by some bright kid, who is the only person in the town capable of setting up such a thing. The bright kid might come from a well off or well educated family, but maybe not. (Even in these kinds of places, or perhaps especially in these kinds of places (I don't really know) being a geek is not that fashionable I suspect). The extent to which some bright kid can nag his or her way into getting access to such a system can really be really quite impressive.

Of course, even in situations like that, access is a long way from being universal: it only goes to a very particular sort of bright kid, who may ultimately discover that he is stuck in the small down in Indonesia even despite knowing a lot. But it is something that very definitely is there, and which wasn't there even a few years ago.

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