Progress in the information age.

Tomorrow marks an anniversary, one that most of you are familiar with by now… 100 years since the Wright brothers first flew. I was watching a documentary on the History Channel last night. In it, they claimed that it was six years before anyone other than the Wright brothers engaged in “heavier than air, self sustained flight”, following that historic day in 1903. Furthermore, when others did find similar success, even though it was six years or more later, they also claimed to be the first. Although the program did not elaborate, they seemed to imply that the event was not well publicized. How else could someone claim the same thing – six years later!

Two guys who made bicycles invented then flew an aircraft, and none of the wealth and resources of the rest of the world could do it for another six years? I found that, as much as anything else in the documentary, absolutely fascinating. Maybe it is because I take flight for granted. Just because it is routine now, doesn’t mean it was then. After all, it wasn’t like the Wright brothers could make a photo copy of their research and mail it in. They couldn’t fax it in. They couldn’t call someone on the phone and discuss it. They couldn’t email anyone either. By today’s standards, they were cut off from the rest of the world. It’s a wonder that anything got done at all back then.

So what would happen if a comparable achievement happened today? Surely it would get a weeks worth of coverage on all of the 24 hour news stations. We would be inundated with close-up shots of the inventors, their families, their birth place, and outside shots of the facility where the historic work was done. But more importantly, would it take six years to replicate the achievement? Are the circumstances of today more conducive to the free flow of information? It is a given that technology removes many of the barriers to communication, but are there more societal barriers? Are people more protective of their discoveries, particularly if they stand to make money from their discovery?

This is the point at which you may be expecting me rail against today’s self interested scientists that hinder the advancement of mankind. I could bring up the example of the private sector effort to map the human genome, and the flurry of (undeserved, overly vague, detrimental?) patents that came with it. The thing of it is, I’m not going to. I don’t think human nature has changed in one hundred years. The Wright brothers documentary stressed, over and over, the secretive nature of the Wright brother’s project. Even if they had a fax machine, the documentary seemed to suggest that the Wright brothers would not have been stumbling over themselves to share the plans of their aircraft with other researchers. Was this the real reason no one else flew like the Wright brothers for six more years? Was it the lack of information technology, the secretive nature of their project, or a combination of the two?

Folks are always telling me about the good old days; the days when people behaved better, when all the world got together after church on Sundays and sang Kumbaya.

Yeah, sure.