By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tempo Of Transformation

With intense nostalgia I had recalled in this column last week (Sept. 21) that a beautifully illustrated book called Marvels Of The Modern World -- published in London just before the Second World War -- had not only given me a vibrant vision of modern technology when I was a very young student in India in the 1940s, but had equally fascinated and inspired my schoolgoing children some 30 or 40 years later.  And I had observed:

     "..... An important reason for such high durability of the pre-War book, I believe,  is the fact that although the progress of science and technology during the half-century between 1940 and 1990 was no doubt spectacular compared to any earlier period in world history, it was much slower and far less turbulent than during the next 20 years from 1990 to 2010."    
     I knew perfectly well that in expressing the above opinion I was running the risk of attracting some  adverse criticism in science circles:  for it could be asserted that the tempo and magnitude of the progress achieved in science and technology for several decades around the middle of the 20th century were no less dynamic and impressive than they've been during the past 20 years around the millennium mark. 
     And in specific terms, I knew one might well be tempted to ask indignantly:  were the amazing results achieved in the exploitation of atomic energy and the exploration of outer space during the period in question less formidable and significant than the fabulous progress made in the fields of computers, telecommunications and 'information technology' later on?  

Symbols of change

     Such claims and questions wouldn't be merely hypothetical ones.  and there would certainly be a large grain of truth in them if you considered the issue from a purely scientific point of view.  But my answer would be that I am not a scientist, and I am not looking at the scenario in exclusively scientific terms.  Rather, I am an articulate layman surveying the trends from a social angle also --  or,  to put it more accurately, in a technosocial perspective.      

     I had actually specified 1940 as a significant date in this context only because it indicated the beginning of the decade during which I studied in elementary school and started gaining intelligent impressions about the world at large.  But of course it was a very crucial decade in the history of modern science and technology,  explosively marking the dawn of the atomic age.

     The 20th century, in my opinion,  can be roughly divided into three distinct segments, which we may conveniently call airborne age (1900 to 1940), atomic age (1940 to 1990), and Internet age (1990 to 2000+).  In making such a division, we would only be adopting the advent of the aeroplane, atomic energy and Internet as symbolic landmarks ushering in successive phases of the ever-changing environment, without ignoring other important and parallel phenomena of scientific progress.
      And it will need only a little reflection for anyone to realize that during each of the above phases, the quantum and tempo of technosocial transformation has been dramatically greater and faster than in the preceding phase, reaching turbulent levels in the last one. In fact, that's precisely the basis I have adopted for drawing the dividing lines.   
     This trend would seem to be all the more intriguing if we conceded that the actual progress of science and technology was no less spectacular around the middle of the 20th century than towards the fin de siecle.  What, then, is the true reason for the frenzied tempo of the past twenty years?  

     That may sound like a very intricte question, but it isn't really difficult to find a convincing answer!  All we have to do is to study the social effects of the marvels of modern science and technology during the successive timespans we have identified above.  
     (to be continued)

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