It’s a Small World After All

I just put down my phone.  I was texting one of my friends, just checking in and seeing what was going on in his life today.  He’s in Germany.  4,000 miles away.  Even in the Internet age, that we can have a real-time conversation across an ocean, on two separate continents still blows my mind.

It makes me think of something that I talked about with my students last year.  For most our history, it seemed to Earth’s inhabitants that the world was constantly growing.  Explorers and outcasts alike spread from their homes to find new lands and new peoples.  The horizons kept stretching further and further into the distance.  The discovery of the Americas by other peoples seemed to double the world’s size – at least to the outsiders’ eye.

But once the globe had been fully explored and charted, the horizons became fixed, and within generations, they seemed to begin rushing inwards.  The reason for this?  Technology.  Technology in general allowed us to see the world from a much larger viewpoint, but the technological advances in communication have done the most to advance this feeling of a shrinking world.

What used to take weeks or months to deliver a message can now be done with the press of a button.  But let’s think back even within the last 25 years – or even 15 years.  Remember when the only phone we had was a land-line at home?  And it had a long, curly cord attaching it to the wall?  Yeah, I remember that.  And I remember when cordless telephones came out, and we all felt like we were the Jetsons.  And then, eventually, the unthinkable happened:  they came out with phones that could go in your cars.  Beam me up Scotty!  You remember the first mobile phones, right?  They were as big as your house phones (and included the curly cord) and were mounted right on to your dash.  Or, if you were really mobile, you had a “bag phone” – a big bulky mobile phone that you could actually carry in and out of your car.  I remember when we got one, I thought we might as well had been the President since our bag phone was so fancy.

But what did those bulky phones do?  They allowed for more chances of communication between people.  We no longer had to wait around the kitchen for a call.  Wives were spared the annoyance of forgetting to tell their husbands to get milk.  They could simply call him on the way to the grocery store!

And then!  And then, cell phones came out.  And it has been non-stop from there!  Suddenly, people were connected to each other, no matter where they were. Our ability to communicate with each other no longer relied on cords, or time, or even space.  We each had a device that would allow us to instantly contact another.

And let’s not forget the Internet.  Oh, the Internet.  The only people who can really understand how the Internet changed the world are the ones who lived before its invention.  I actually remember not having the Internet.  Actually, I remember not having a computer in our house (mainly because I had to do my whole 4th grade Georgia History project by hand…and when my brother came to fourth grade a couple of years later, he got to type it all!).  And I don’t have to go into all of the cool things that the Internet can do, or more accurately, can allow us to do.  We all know that.

What I think is the coolest of all is what the Internet does on a larger scale.  Let me back up for just a minute.  For most of civilization’s history, access to knowledge was very limited.  If you wanted to learn a trade, you went to live with a master of that trade and you became his apprentice.  Books were scare and people who could even read them were even more rare.  That’s why if you wanted a formal education, you picked up and moved your life to live at a university.  And there weren’t thousands of students; there were a handful, and each of them studied personally under one, two or three professors.  Even if you spent your entire life studying, you could only learn what your professor taught you, plus what you could read.  Information was limited.

Now think about the Internet:  You have a question about something?  As long as you have an Internet connection, you can have 4 million posts about your inquiry within 0.23687 seconds.

Now for the part that really makes my head swim:  look at smart phones (iPhones, BlackBerrys, Andriods, etc).  They all have access to the Internet.  What does that mean?  It means that, at any given point, we now have access to more information than ALL of humanity in the past ever had, combined…All in the palm of our hand.  We don’t have to be content with not knowing what the Pythagorean Theory is.  Simply open your phone’s browser and Google it.  Each phone is now a portal to the vast ocean of shared knowledge that is the Internet.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the information that we have access to is all good knowledge.  I don’t know the stats, but I’m sure that most of the information out there is pure crap.  Anyone with a keyboard can put whatever they want into the Internet.  And that will come up when you search.  So, you have to be smart about sifting through information.

But think about what the Internet has done beyond giving us instant access to vast amounts of knowledge.  Think about what it has done for communication.  We can now email people across the globe and they will receive our message instantly.  Researchers in France can collaborate with scientists in California to come up with a new life-saving drug.  Engineers can troubleshoot a robot an ocean away that will be used by a doctor in another state to perform a delicate surgery.

Skype allowed me not only to call home as often as I wanted to when I lived in Germany, but it allowed me to see my family via video chat.  For free.  And now, I have a free Skype app for my phone, so I can pick up and call my friend in Germany just as quickly and easily as I can my brother.

And don’t even get me started on technology’s impact on transportation (which is the other major reason the world seems smaller).  What used to take a month – or several months – in a dangerous, rocky, wind-powered ship, now takes merely hours.  I can wake up in Frankfurt and then go to sleep in Cuthbert, Georgia that same night.  I may live 1,400 miles away from my family, but I can fly down for my grandfather’s 80th birthday, and it’s no big deal.

And we’ve all seen the beauty of a sunrise and even a moonrise.  But can you imagine the feeling that those NASA astronauts had as they became the first humans in history to witness an earthrise?  All of humanity’s conflicts, all of the wars, the Roman, Greek, Chinese, Ottoman, Egyptian, European and American empires, all of our achievements – all of those took place on a little blue and white orb that those astronauts saw in their line of vision.


That’s why the world is smaller.  China no longer seems so far away when you can video chat live with a student there.  Marburg can really be a home away from home when I get constant updates from my friends there.

Yep, it’s a small world after all. 

That’s why it sometimes makes all of our disagreements seem silly.  If our entire world is so small, then our differences and problems are even smaller.  We should focus on working and living together…on making peace, and on saving our environments.


Following are two articles that I shared with my students.  They both deal with technology and the power it has to shape the way we interact with the world, the way we think, and the way we (re)act to different situations.

The first is Google, a Giant in Mobile Search, Seeks New Ways to Make it Pay by Claire Cain Miller and was published in the New York Times on April 24, 2011.  It has to do with the technology that Google is creating to improve searching for information on mobile devices such as smart phones.  Here are a couple of excerpts from the full article:

Google trained its computers to learn spoken language based on troves of voice recordings. “Even if you’re from Brooklyn and you drop all your R’s when you park your car, it’s heard plenty of people from Brooklyn and it can do well,” said Mike Cohen, head of Google’s speech technology team. 

At first, Google engineers thought people would talk to its voice search service as if they were talking to a person — “you know, it’s my anniversary, and I’d love to take my wife somewhere really romantic to eat, do you have any ideas?” — so it taught the service to filter out unnecessary words. But it turned out that Google had already trained people into thinking in keywords, so they knew to search “romantic restaurants” even when speaking instead of typing.

People can now snap photos of landmarks or wine labels to search for them using Google Goggles, speak to their phones using voice search and, on Android phones, translate spoken conversations between English and Spanish.

People can also snap a photo to translate a menu in a foreign country, and speak English to hear the Spanish translation. Someday Google hopes to be able to translate both sides of a phone conversation as it happens, said Franz Och, head of Google’s machine translation group.

This second article is from the April 12, 2011 USA TodayThe World to the Rescue  is written by Steve Sternberg and is the most amazing article (out of the two).  It shows how “for-fun” social networking sites (like Facebook) can be utilized in the most unlikely of cases – like disaster response.  Again, some excerpts to pique your attention:

Japan’s disaster has spotlighted the critical role that social media websites such as Twitter, FacebookGoogleYouTube and Skype increasingly are playing in responses to crises around the world. They may have been designed largely for online socializing and fun, but such sites and others have empowered people caught up in crises and others wanting to help to share vivid, unfiltered images, audio and text reports before governments or more traditional media can do so.

“Often, it’s not the experts who know something; it’s someone in the crowd,” says Sree Sreenivasan, a social media specialist at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. 

The emergency managers and military officers who planned X-24 say the idea was to tap the potential of social media to create video and text channels of communication that offer more immediacy and flexibility than the standard command-and-control operation anchored in a government war room. 

“We’re trying to reconceptualize emergency response around resources that didn’t exist five years ago,” says Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).

One example of the technology in the article are emergency maps that anyone can create as a free app.  Here is an excerpt describing how a Boston resident was able to help save people in Haiti after their horrible earthquake by designing such a map:

Meier put out a call for volunteers.  They began creating a crisis map in his Boston apartment.  “We were all crammed into my living room,” he says. “It was snowing outside. Here we were on a live Skype call with search-and-rescue teams in Port-au-Prince.”  Soon the Marine Corps and Coast Guard were using the program to stage relief efforts. The World Food Program sent Meier’s team a list of displaced-person camps along with a request for GPS coordinates so volunteers could locate them.

 In Japan, Meier says, colleagues familiar with the Ushahidi approach launched their own crisis map “within a couple of hours.”  It may be the largest crisis map ever created, containing more than 8,000 reports from social media detailing such items as shelters, food stores, open gas stations, road closures, building damage assessments and cellphone charging centers, he says.

You want an idea just how helpful social media sites can be in helping with disaster relief?  Check out these stats:

As many as 4 billion people worldwide — and 84% of Americans — now use mobile phones worldwide.  Twitter’s traffic is just as eye-popping, says spokesman Matt Graves.  “Right now, on any given day, people are sending 140 million messages,” he says, “a billion tweets every eight days.”  About 200 million people a day watch videos on their mobile phones, triple the number of a year ago, she says.

Compared with social media, information moves at a relative snail’s pace even in today’spost-9/11 war rooms, with their vast Internet bandwidth and huge TV screens, says Blanchard, a former deputy director of the U.S. government’s preparedness website,  “Currently, situation reports aren’t real-time,” she says. “They can be up to six to eight hours old.”

Social media can bridge that gap, she says, but emergency managers must overcome longstanding hurdles, such as policies that restrict them from acting on information that doesn’t flow from official sources.

Read the whole article here.

The article begins and ends with a remarkable story about a US Ambassador who kept up with his Twitter feed during and after the Japanese catastrophe.  He received two tweets, each about 100 characters long, from a Japanese worker, asking for help in evacuating a hospital.  It shows just how interconnected we have become:

Officials at Kameda [Japan] turned to [Ambassador] Roos. The ambassador alerted the U.S. Embassy’s defense attache, who passed it down through the U.S. military chain of command.  An hour or so later, Fuller, Roos’ aide, says, “we got a note back,” saying the patients would be evacuated by Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Forces.

Two tweets had mobilized troops.

Categories: Politics/Current Events, Science/Technology | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “It’s a Small World After All

  1. Judy D. Moseley

    I loved reading that you, at the ripe old age of 24, can remember “when”….a lot has happened even in YOUR short lifetime! I’m glad we have you to help us oldtimers with all the new technology!

  2. Pingback: Fear of the TwitterBook « the Curious Wanderer

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