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Technology and Society

Thirty years after the invention of the world's first commercial microprocessor by a group of Intel engineers, it's still just the dawn of the digital age. This might seem surprising. After all, microprocessors are everywhere. By one estimate, there are already 15 billion of them running our breadmakers, clock radios, calculators, heating/cooling systems, streetlights, ATMs, and of course, our computers. Without a microprocessor a modern car wouldn't start, a cell phone wouldn't ring, and a TV remote wouldn't switch channels.

What More Can the Microprocessor Do?

To answer that question, it's time to look outside The Journey Inside℠. In this section, you'll look at how people all around us are adapting to the digital world and how it's changing the way we live and work.

Lesson 1: Looking Back to See the Future

Every so often, an invention comes along that makes a major change in the way an entire society lives. Think about the computer, the radio, and the automobile. Think further back and there's the steam engine. Before that, the printing press.

Looking back at how certain inventions have changed and continue to change our lives can help you better understand and prepare for the digital revolution.

Consider the telephone. Before the telephone was invented, the only way to send a message quickly was the local telegraph office. Coded in dots and dashes (an early binary language) by a telegraph operator, messages had to be brief. There was no chance for conversation unless both parties were in the telegraph office at the same time. Even then, you'd never hear an actual voice.

That changed in 1876 when the telephone was invented. Just two years later, the first commercial switchboard began operation. It connected a community of 21 telephones in New Haven, Connecticut. From there, telephone service steadily grew, creating new jobs such as telephone operator and telephone line installer as phone service spread across the country. Early service was limited, expensive, and suffered from poor voice quality, but the telephone was here to stay. In just 38 years, 30 percent of U.S. homes had telephones.

Today, it's almost inconceivable to be without a phone. The telephone has had a tremendous impact on society. It has:

Enabled us to alert people of illnesses and injuries more quickly so more lives could be saved.

Facilitated the rapid exchange of information, speeding up the pace of business, government, and scientific and technological advancement.

Permitted family members to live farther apart while continuing to share in each other's daily lives

Spread word of wars and disasters faster, promoting a more global focus in people's lives.

Don't think the telephone is done changing our lives, either. Consider the effect the cellular phone is having on our society. It enables people to remain in touch while they're on the go. No longer do you have to wait until you're "at" a phone. Your phone is in your pocket. What's more, if regular telephone service has been a lifesaver in emergencies, think what the newest cell phones with global positioning systems can do. Now rescue teams can zero in on a person's exact location in an emergency.

The moral of this story? If 125 years later, we still have yet to see all the innovation and change the telephone brings to our lives, what does this say about computers and other digital devices?

It tells us they're still in their infancy. There are a lot more surprises ahead.

Questions to Think About >

Lesson 2: Change is All Around Us

Living in a time of rapid innovation, you might start to take change for granted. You may overlook something amazing just because there are so many amazing changes happening all around us. It is easy to miss seeing potential advantages—and disadvantages—of new technologies.

Take digital imaging, for instance. Digital imaging is the ability to convert film, video and other images into a format that can be processed by a computer. Ever use a scanner or a digital camera? You were doing digital imaging. Digital imaging has also given special effects a starring role in movies today. Special effects a movie director would have thought impossible ten years ago are now routine using digital imaging. Even more amazing, the tools for digital imaging have become less and less expensive. It no longer requires a Hollywood budget to produce these effects. Independent film producers with digital video cameras are creating award-winning films, editing their films and creating special effects on personal computers and even posting them on the Web.

Digital imaging is becoming so common, we might forget to think critically about what we are seeing. We shouldn't. The ability to easily manipulate images carries with it some real concerns and responsibilities. Photo-enhancing software makes it hard to tell whether an image is authentic or not. It's an easy matter to put a figure from one photograph into the background of another. With not too much work, you could make it look like you were there with Roald Amundsen, first person to reach the South Pole. The same thing could be done with a film. If you didn't know something was a special effect, you could mistake it for being real if it was presented that way. A news photograph could easily be altered to influence your perception of a story.

How can you become a better observer of change and all its consequences? Try spending a week where every time you use something, you think about how long it's been around for you to use. When did it come into your life? Is it old technology with new digital features that significantly change it? Is it something that required you and everyone else to learn new skills? What kind of an impact is it having on society? What potential is there to misuse it?

Be sure to think about whether it's part of the digital world, too. Do you think there is a microprocessor in the device you're using? Do you think one day there will be?

Here's a list of some of the devices you might use and think about:

  • Point-and-Shoot Camera
  • Scanner
  • Electric Toothbrush
  • MP3 Player
  • Thermostat
  • VCR
  • Remote Control for TV or VCR
  • PDA (Personal Digital Assistant)
  • Electronic Watch
  • Video Game Player
  • Car
  • Cell Phone
  • Telephone Answering Machine
  • Camcorder
  • Calculator

Lesson 3: A New Way to Work

Life on the farm isn't what it used to be. In fact, that goes for almost every job you can think of today. People aren't just living in the digital world. They're working in it.

Today farmers track everything from the weather to soybean prices on the World Wide Web. Using the computer, farmers analyze crop performance, livestock growth rates, and the family budget.

A recent study found that on average the American worker spends 35 percent of the workday on the computer. That's nearly three hours. Two of those hours are spent on the World Wide Web—an information and communications tool that wasn't in common use before the 1990s.

The trend is sure to continue, too. It won't just be working "at" the computer either. As various devices with microprocessors in them become easier and easier to carry, they'll be at our side helping us at work and at play. The day may not be too far off when you can walk into a room and all the computerized devices in that room recognize who you are and offer their assistance.

Lesson 4: The Digital Revolution in Sports

A tenth or even one hundredth of a second in many sports makes the difference between winning and coming in second. Which is why today's athletes don't rely on just muscles or skill—they've added digital technology to their training.

Athletes hone their performance using digital devices that measure everything from their heartbeat to the oxygen in their blood. Trainers use computers to track an athlete's progress and analyze factors that could shave seconds off their finish time. Golfers have sensors attached to key parts of their body to study and perfect their swing. Think what you might be able to improve—a basketball shot, a tennis serve, or your running motion—if you could perfect your body mechanics using a computer's help?

The digital revolution in sports doesn't end there. In team sports like baseball, managers and coaches are using computers to keep track of things like which hitters do the best against which pitchers (and vice versa). Coaches can tell you the exact percentage of times a hitter has homered on a fastball down the middle of the plate from a specific pitcher. He can also tell you how many times the third strike was on a curveball on the outside corner of the plate. When the umpire yells "batter up," you can bet each team has someone at the computer ready to record what happens with each pitch.

Lesson 5: The Accelerating Rate of Change

Where is the future headed? A few decades into the digital world, we're still looking at the microprocessor and finding hundreds more things to do with it. Part of the reason for this continuing wave of innovation is the microprocessor itself. While we're inventing new things with it, it's being reinvented too. It keeps getting smaller and more powerful. There's even a law for predicting this. It's called Moore's Law, named after Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel. Moore predicted in 1965 that the number of transistors on a chip would double about every 18 months. Not only has this happened for the 10-year span he predicted, but it remains true today. We continue to shrink transistors and pack more processing power into a chip.

Increased processing power would make speech recognition and gesture commands not only possible, but simple to do. You may see many other new ways to interact with devices using microprocessors. It's safe, too, to predict that many more devices—common ones we use every day and devices that haven't even been invented yet—will have microprocessors.

How will people handle so much fast change? If the Internet is any indication, people are actually getting faster at adopting devices that enhance their lives. It took the telephone 38 years and television 17 years to win a place in 30 percent of U.S. homes. It took the Internet just 7 years to do the same.

Now what about you? How do you think the digital world will affect your life? What types of jobs might you want to do when you grow up? Will these jobs require the use of a computer or other digital device? Will you perhaps invent something that uses a microprocessor? Times of change are times of great opportunity. What kind of opportunities will there be for you in the digital world?

Question to think about >

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