Nick's Blog

From Atoms to Electrons

Last night I went to a meeting of the local history society – I know, some people get all the best gigs. The speaker was excellent and showed many images demonstrating the history of our area. For some reason, I particularly noticed one image. It was an old building and it had one of the early Sun Alliance insurance plaques on the wall. I’ve seen these before, of course, but as I have recently renewed my own insurance policies, it struck me that this was another example of something moving from atoms to electrons. My latest insurance policy didn’t even come in a format as ‘physical’ as a PDF – all of the documentation is on my insurers servers, and I can access it needed. The plaque I saw the photo of had a 6 digit insurance policy number, my current one has 11 alpha-numeric characters, but of course it needs to be unique globally nowadays rather than just in the immediate location.

Moving from atoms to electrons has been a metaphor for a lot activity in the Information Age. It was used when very expensive video conferencing first arrived – claiming that business travel was so old fashioned when you could fully interact from your own offices – why move atoms (ie us) when you can move electrons so very much quicker and cheaper. It was used again by the proponents of digital downloads which replaced physical music albums and again when downloads became available instead of books. And when people who objected to the concept of HS2 suggested we should not be spending money on shipping atoms, ie people and goods around, but instead should be investing in better, faster broadband across the country.

As the Cassini space probe is directed towards the atmosphere of Saturn, I am also struck by how recent space exploration goes part way towards substituting electrons for our atoms. As manned missions are currently limited to low earth orbit, we experience the solar system through images and remote sensors. It’s safer, cry the protagonists of robotic spacecraft, and cheaper as we don’t need the life-support systems or to return the ships to Earth.

Silicon Valley may disagree, but I think we risk going too far. There is a limit to substituting electrons for atoms in a helpful and useful manner. (I can hear the chant of “luddite” even as I write this.) We are starting to see a push-back with physical books making a comeback and so even are film cameras and vinyl records in small ways.

Today we are told people want experiences more than things. Most of us have so many things. But to experience a holiday, smell new smells, walk round new streets, enjoy the weather, hear the different languages and eat the different foods, drink different wines and meet different people can’t be (yet) reproduced by a VR headset. In my opinion there is no comparable benefit in being immersed in a virtual world – even, perhaps especially, if it tries to mirror reality.

Isaac Asimov wrote a book in which all human risk was removed. It was achieved through the mechanism of time travel. The “eternals” – who were human and mortal – governed all changes by making interventions at the appropriate time in history to remove undesirable outcomes in later times. This led to the death of the human race. Millions of centuries of future time were lifeless, because people had been unknowingly cushioned in their controlled, safe version of reality. Innovation died, and so did mankind – of boredom.

We’re not there yet, but there are some signs that we’re heading in that direction. We are in peril if we retreat to our own digital, virtual, worlds. We need to remember that the human race is at its best when challenged, when facing adversity and taking risks. In short, when we are exploring.

When we collaborate we can move mountains and fly to the moon. We need to experience these things viscerally, not vicariously. We must touch things for real – even if we risk being hurt.

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