Mary Branscombe (marypcb) wrote,
Mary Branscombe
marypcb

Living with Clarke's three laws and modern technology

I spend most of my working and personal life living with the third and most famous of Clarke's three laws, added to make up the numbers ("As three laws were good enough for Newton, I have modestly decided to stop there") but actually fitting the tech we all encounter now extremely well. I often reformulate it as 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo' - which, like magic, is not susceptible to explanation or reproduction.

But I'm seeing a lot of the second law, or at least an unpleasant variation on it.The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible is one thing, but both Google and Facebook seem to specialise in discovering the limits of privacy by venturing a little past them - Google's Schmidt talks about getting right up to the creepy line, Zuckerberg says it's OK if people complain and then live with the problem ^H^H^H^H^H discover that they're comfortable with sharing more than they planned. His comments at All Things D make me wonder how long it will be before Facebook wins the same level of privacy oversight Google scored this year, because the crowdsourced panopticon is coming; maybe the first time it exposes something that goes from link to lynch mob in three clicks.

And a discussion with an old friend about whether Freeman Dyson's scepticism about climate change models meant we could just ignore specific data (like 'all summer arctic ice will be gone by 2016', 'the air quality index of pollution only goes up to 500 and Shanghai hit that level in May this year', 'careless coal mining causes statistically significant clusters of brain tumours', 'the amount the US Department of Energy spends on clean tech annually is exactly the same as the coal industry spends on lobbying') and carry on arguing about what we do and don't have covered in the models instead of working on shifting to a low-carbon infrastructure (wind generation already provides as many jobs in the US as the coal industry does), had Simon quoting Clarke's first law at me. 'When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.'

From the man who brought us geostationary satellites, the basis of many of the communication systems that enabled both the tech that enables and the meteorology measurements that track its impact:

  • When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  • The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
  • Tags: privacy, rant, science fiction, technology
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