Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Hand it over

For a long time I've assumed that progress is measured by the distance mankind puts between itself and its memories. Specifically, the photos, letters, videos, songs and so on that decorate our lives. Historically, those memories, those things, were physically close. In our houses, in old shoeboxes and albums and scrapbooks  stuffed under the bed, in the attic and on bookshelves.

As letters become text messages and emails, photographs become jpegs  and video cassettes turn into .wmv files our distance from them has increased. Some may be held on a phone or camera but increasingly they are in some data centre some where out there and all we know is how to click to see them. They are paradoxically distant and present. Nowhere near us but always at hand.

Peter Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction has made me question my assumption that the distancing process would continue indefinitely. Published in 1996 it suffers the problems you'd expect from a book out a year before Google was founded. One ubiquitous technology in it is the "flek" - a futuristic USB stick with data on it. Lots of data.

From my lofty perch of 2012 I scoffed at the flek when I first read about one being handed over. The more I think about it, the more I'm wondering if he might have been on to something. Or posing problems that I think need resolving.

There's no doubt that we can cram more data than ever into smaller spaces. What's the limit of that? Charles Stross speculates that one day, cue waving of arms, we might be using diamonds and writing one bit of data per atom. Look far enough ahead and it's effectively infinite. Everything can be recorded. Your entire life. My entire life.  They'll need to be roomy as the quality of human experience eats up data really quickly. The most intense experiences eat up about 3 gigabits per second of data, or so some people think.

Does that remove the need for fleks? Maybe not. Right now a lorry full of data tapes barrelling down the autobahn has a higher bandwidth than pretty much any cable we've laid. Those data carrying abilities will improve but in Hamilton's universe where FTL travel is possible, a flek in the hand is far, far faster than beaming it to a planet in that second solar system over there. So, yeah, we might still need those antiquated chunks of matter with data on them.

Any ship sent with that data on it will be a travelling time capsule. Maybe it will take with it all the data from Earth up to the point it launched. That'll get increasingly out of date though might be of interest to any alien races we encounter. More comprehensive than the golden record on Voyager, at any rate. 

For in-system, slower than FTL travel, the maths is very different and it probably makes sense to beam it. Though you'd hope that we'll better the 3500-12000 bps data rate of the current Earth to Mars transmission system. That signal takes 10-20 minutes to go from Earth to Mars but is still much faster than the months it would take humans carrying fleks to make the same trip.

There are obviously upper limits to how much data can be sent through space governed by how much we care about that outpost. There are interesting historical parallels here with the days when a new transmission technology literally outran the horse carrying the diplomatic bag full of imperial papers. But again, a flek or equivalent may not be a bad idea.

There could be social imperatives for using a flek. Maybe you want to keep the data secure so you give it to someone, such as Johnny Mnemonic, to take it for you.  Even if they do not have it in their head they might carry it so they can be sure it stays safe and only gets to the person it is addressed to. It might be so personal that you don't want to trust it to the ether or put it in the hands of an entity, such as the AI piloting a starship, that might look at it.

No comments: