Technology and Society

The Journey Inside℠, an Intel® Education Program

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, like the computer, the radio, and the automobile. Or looking farther back, the steam engine, and before that, the printing press.

Remembering how certain inventions have changed—and continue to change—our lives can help you better understand the world we live in today and prepare you for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is the name we use to describe the time period of rapid technological change we’re currently in.

Consider the telephone. Before the telephone was invented, the only way to send a message quickly was to visit the local telegraph office. Messages were coded in dots and dashes (an early binary language) by a telegraph operator, but there was no chance for conversation unless both parties were in telegraph offices receiving messages in real time. Even then, you’d never actually hear a 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 services steadily grew, creating new jobs (such as telephone operator and telephone line installer) as access to phones spread across the country. Even though early service was limited, expensive, and suffered from poor voice quality, the telephone was here to stay. By the early 1910s, nearly 40 years after they were introduced, 30 percent of US homes had telephones. Today, it’s almost inconceivable to be without a cell phone.

The telephone has had a tremendous impact on society. It has:

  • Enabled us to quickly alert people and emergency responders about illnesses and injuries
  • 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 frequently communicate with each other
  • Enabled us to quickly spread word of disasters, promoting more global focus in people’s lives

Despite all these benefits, don’t think that the telephone is done changing our lives. 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, not only has regular telephone service been a lifesaver in emergencies, but our current cell phones that sync with global positioning systems can help rescue teams zero in on a person’s exact location in an emergency.

The moral of this story? If 150 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.

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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. Have you ever used a scanner to create a digital file of something you drew by hand? Or taken a picture of your art with a smartphone and then sent that photo to a friend? You were doing digital imaging. Digital imaging has also given special effects a starring role in movies today. Special effects that a movie director would have thought impossible 30 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. With the right software, you can be a movie producer, using a personal computer to add special effects to a video you record with your smartphone.

Digital imaging is 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. Without too much work, you could make it look like you were there with Roald Amundsen, the 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 were 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:

  • Video camera
  • Photocopier
  • Electric toothbrush
  • Speakers
  • Bluetooth earbuds
  • Thermostat
  • Remote control
  • Digital watch
  • Gaming console
  • Car 
  • Cell phone
  • Calculator

Lesson 3: A New Way to Work

People aren’t just living in the digital world; they’re working in it, with technology being used as part of almost every job you can think of.

Consider life on a farm. Today farmers use the internet to track everything from the weather to soybean prices. With a computer, farmers analyze crop performance, livestock growth rates, and the family budget.

When their products arrive at the grocery store, the inventory manager may scan a barcode with a mobile phone to record what was received, or someone in the produce department may use a tablet to report on food freshness or cold case temperature.

Depending on the type of job you have, you may spend different amounts of time using technology, but you will use some. Workers today use technology for basic tasks such as recording the daily amount of time they work, digitally signing and sharing important documents, and communicating with coworkers and customers. If you’re a writer, you may spend most of your day at the computer. If you work in a science or engineering field, you may use technology to analyze samples, calculate experiment results, or design and model the next innovation that will change the world.

A recent survey found that, worldwide, people are spending nearly seven hours a day using the internet for work and play, with at least four hours spent on a computer or tablet and two or more hours on a mobile phone. People in some professions spend between five and 15 hours a day in front of a screen. The rate at which we’ve incorporated the internet into our daily lives and the amount of time we use it is incredible, especially since the internet, as we know it, and the World Wide Web were introduced during the 1980s.

Think about how you use technology. What kind of technology do you use at school and at home? Has your use of technology and the types of devices you use changed over time?

And how might our use of technology change in the future? Today we have devices that recognize our voice, answer questions we ask, and set reminders for us. What do you think the future will bring?

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 muscle 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 that 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. They 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? Several 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 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 did this happen in 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 makes speech recognition and gesture commands, both in use today, not only possible, but simple to do. Have you ever asked your phone a question by using your voice? Your phone uses speech recognition to understand what you’re saying. What about waving your hand under a sink faucet to turn on the water or under a soap dispenser to get soap? If you have, then you’ve used gesture commands.

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 more quickly adopting more devices that can enhance their lives. It took the telephone 38 years and television 17 years to win a place in 30 percent of US homes, but it took the internet just seven 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 as an adult? 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?

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