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Sufficiently Advanced Technology

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The process by which we generated Pallavi's last post left me briefly awed by the miracles, and apparent absurdity, of modern technology. Not that we did anything particularly special.

While she was drafting, Pallavi decided that it would be nice to post a picture along with her entry. She used my iPhone to snap the photo, and then the only question was how to get it to her computer so that she could add it to her entry.

Now that I give the matter considerably more thought than I did at the time, there were several ways we could have accomplished this: miniSD cards or a shared network, for example. But I chose the easiest and most thoughtless way, which actually involved a number of complex international transactions:

  • I transferred the image to my computer and attached it to an email. Because my SMTP server is based in England, this means that the image was probably uploaded to a machine outside Oxford.
  • It was then sent to Pallavi's Gmail address, to a server that may be located anywhere in the world. I'd guess that it was in the United States.
  • Pallavi then downloaded it from Gmail's far-flung servers to her machine, which I could have reached out and touched without stretching too hard.

In a real sense, the image had traveled much of the way across, if not around, the globe. In a practical sense, I had shifted it across the table.

I've done something like this hundreds of times. It only occurred to me now because I've been reading Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. These sort-of-sci-fi novels are perfect for a round-the-world trip: first, because their sheer length and complexity demand a significant amount of time to complete them; and second, because their scope spans decades and the entire breadth of the world. [1] Much of the plot revolves around problems in communication, and how events on the other side of the globe will eventually affect the flow of money within Europe when they become known. I realized that one character spends much of the second book, and a decade of his life, to go a distance around the world that is actually somewhat shorter than Pallavi's photograph took this morning.

As I said, I've done something like this a hundred times, and it no longer seems magical. That alone is worth noting.

[1] It should also be noted that while these are historical novels, Stephenson does not always get his history precisely correct. For instance, there is a point where a Japanese character relates the story of how Dutch were allowed to trade in Nagasaki that gets certain historical events a bit out of order. Of course, it could simply be that the character relating these events had his history, handed down to him by his father, somewhat misremembered.

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