5. The Shoulders of Giants
In reference to his own success as a physicist and mathematician, Isaac Newton was once quoted saying, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
I am reminded of that quote constantly as I do my coursework at Bloc. Something that I didn’t really understand (or at least, didn’t fully appreciate) before beginning my journey as a software developer was how much the work of the past has laid the groundwork for what is done today. Sure, it’s easy to grasp that the work Alan Turing did to construct his code-breaking computer during World War II was massively influential to the field of computer science, or that the Macintosh, Windows 95, and google.com each had a huge impact on humanity’s ability to be productive, communicate, and access information.
But these projects are the big, sweeping changes to the industry that everyone knows about. The thing is, there’s so much more than that. To this day, app developers and web designers rely on operating systems based on Unix (macOS, iOS, Android, and Linux) and MS-DOS (Windows) to run their machines and develop products on, platforms that were first created in the 70’s and the 80’s. We rely on stable internet connections that require a functioning network of cable internet or wireless carrier towers that took years, if not decades, to build. We interact with computers and smart devices through a variety of programming languages, many of which were first written before the turn of the century (Ruby, for example, was developed in the 90’s). And we haven’t even talked about all the hardware engineering required to make processors, displays, RAM, and hard drives interact.
I suppose my point is that I’ve gained a great deal of respect for the years of work that led us to today, when a teenager at Starbucks can Google the Great Depression and find a webpage that tells them exactly what led to the biggest economic collapse in history within seconds. And yet despite the marvel of having highly portable computers in our pockets (smartphones), it’s become a common refrain to talk down about technology. It’s referred to as “stupid” and “distracting,” people say it’s killing our interpersonal skills, and many yearn for the days when we still hunted through encyclopedias to get our information and sent letters through the mail.
And to some degree, I understand their concerns. Change makes people uncomfortable. It’s weird reading a book on a Kindle after reading them on paper for so many years, it’s weird seeing people so immersed in their smartphones everywhere they go, and it’s weird purchasing a digital song or a movie without any physical representation that it’s been done.
But as much as I understand those fears, I disagree with the notion that technology is making the world worse overall. The smartphone in your pocket doesn’t have feelings; it doesn’t act in a good or bad way. It’s simply a tool. Like the television and the computer before it (both of which were described as the killers of family life and social time, too), your job is to decide how to use it.
Instead, I feel that the primary thing technology has accomplished is to empower people. Our access to information, to jobs, to new opportunities in the arts and sciences, and to communicating with each other has greatly improved because of the advancement of technology. It’s easy to take it for granted and criticize it, but after seeing all the work that’s been done to make both using technology and creating software easier, I find I have a greater appreciation for these advancements than ever.
And improving upon the work done by the giants before us, to me, is a great goal to strive toward.