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Awesome tech

"Sometimes I'm just amazed by what computers can do," said a friend of mine the other night. "I'm at a web site asking some server thousands of miles away to do a complex operation, and it's getting routed through dozens of other servers, and it's coming back to me in a second. And there are hundreds of other people being served by that web site as well. Unbelievable."

This isn't some guy back from his first trip to a computer store, running a machine with the Styrofoam peanuts still clinging to it. This is one of the smartest software engineers I've ever met, a guy who cut his teeth at some of the most innovative companies around. His awe isn't based on ignorance. Quite the contrary. It's because he knows what's involved that he's amazed by the technology he works with.

I was so glad to hear him say this because I often have the same nano-epiphany. Now I know it's not because I'm a moron.

There is an inevitability about this response to networked technology. We are "wired" for certain speeds. To humans who run about 10 miles in an hour (or, in my case, in the course of a lifetime), a cheetah is fast, a jet is wicked fast and the speed of light is incomprehensible. Likewise, we can understand distances we can see and distances we can walk, but stars are so far out of our scale that contemplating them brings a sense of awe.

We may not be able to get an intuitive grasp of distances and speeds on such a scale, but we can--if we work at it--get some understanding of what they entail. For example, the mistake many anti-evolutionists make has to do with underestimating just how long a billion years is. It's such a long time that a complex apparatus like an eye actually has enough time to develop by accidents winnowed through natural selection. And, we can follow Carl Sagan as he explains why the mere size of the universe practically guarantees that there's some other place with intelligent life. And we can do calculations that will show us what happens when a million users try to download pictures of Victoria Secret models at the same time.

We can work with numbers this immense, but we can't understand them because they blow our human scale to smithereens. And so technology inevitably leads to awe...until it becomes commonplace, and awe is replaced by a shrug of the shoulders and a flick of the remote. And then we can get back to work at our KM systems, gathering knowledge and telling one another that we're just one step away from wisdom. Yeah, like we're just one step away from the source of a pinpoint of light that traveled 20 million years to reach us.David Weinberger publishes JOHO (the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization) and is a co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto.

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