Sunday, May 10, 2015

Flashlights

Imagine being lost in a wilderness of perpetual darkness. All you have is a small flashlight. The bumpy landscape is covered with all sorts of interesting, yet complex structures; some large, some tiny, some benign, some extraordinarily dangerous. As you thread your way around these obstacles, you can only see a temporary two dimensional projection of the structures as illuminated by your flashlight's beam. You do your best to remember what you can about the landscape, but it's the limits of your own memory that throttle your ability to move about. If you try to move too fast, but your memory lets you down, the results can be fatal. So, you have to shine the light ahead first, then carefully maneuver.

You're not alone in this wilderness, there are lots of other people carefully making their way through this landscape as well. You can see their lights flashing here and there, but unless they are really near by, their beams don't assist you, they are merely a curiosity. You're still on your own, most of the journey.

What could assist you is turning on the overhead lights. But unfortunately for you, there is no such thing. The only light comes from flashlights, nothing else.

The next best thing would be to somehow keep the glow of the surfaces going for a lot longer than just their appearance in a beam. That is, for quite a while after being illuminated by a flashlight, if the surface continued to emit light, with enough people shining their lights around, you could continuously highlight the structures well enough to allow everyone to move quickly and safely throughout the obstacles. All that would be needed is some form of light absorbing paint that glows afterwards, that was fairly long lasting. In that sense, a technology that could collect a bit of the light, and then make that available for some time.

Knowledge, in a sense, is a collection of some pretty intricate structures. Given how much there is to know and how limited humans are, it is easy to draw similarities between what people collectively understand and a vast, mostly dark, landscape. Knowledge is of course not tangible, but it's not hard to see how having more of it would significantly make it easier to move around in this world. At all levels we are constantly making decisions, but we only make them based on what we ourselves know -- what we can see in the flashlight beam directly in front of us. That then transpires into either very slow going, a lot of very poor choices or a rather significant reliance on luck, the latter of which is in shorter supply as the world gets more complex. What we need, is to aid ourselves but also everyone else trapped in this same landscape, with some type of light emitting paint.

But knowledge isn't tangible, so our paint wouldn't be either. Fortunately we have stumbled upon a technology that could, within the confines of this analogy, fit well into our need to conserve and share our world. Computers may be void of intelligence, but they have an intrinsic ability to remember stuff, and to hopefully regurgitate it back at the right moment when it is useful. In a sense, they capture the light, and continue to glow long afterwards.

If we want to move around more conveniently, than it is imperative that we capture and retain as much as we can. We need to chart out the briefly illuminated world into a form that is readily accessible to its inhabitants. A massive map that accurately reflects the structures of what we all individually have encountered; the knowledge that we have seen. The more light shone on this endeavor, the more accurate it will become. Once that map is widely available to all, the pace of our traversals will improve.

Getting back to the analogy, a little bit of glowing paint might help a select few, but the chains of darkness don't get fully broken until everything has been coated with paint. That type of massive effort isn't going to be accomplished by a small number of people, rather it takes everyone chipping in to insure the benefits for all; leaving no dark zones left to trap the weary.

That being said, if we want to remove our current physical limitations and really improve our fate as a species, we have to leverage what we know collectively to make our world easily navigatable. We have the technology, now we just have to utilize it.