Monday, March 19, 2007

Fishnets and Chips

I teleported down to the Jakarta Convention Centre again last weekend for the Computer Mega Bazaar exhibition. Geek orgies such as these often serve to intensify the vertiginous feeling many of us have whilst we watch technology accelerate into the future at breakneck speed. Techno fear aside though, there were plenty of shiny plastic and metal objects of lust on show for the computer savvy Jakartan to feast on, and the public were out at the JCC in their droves.

Computer wise, prices are still being whittled away by the increasing cheapness of microprocessors. A locally assembled desktop computer can be had for as little as Rp 2.7 million whilst laptop prices have plummeted as low as Rp.5 million. It's not quite the Bill Gates millennium vision of the $100 computer for the developing world but it's not far off. I can remember when laptops used to cost a small fortune in the city's electronics stores. I resisted the endless upgrade path this time though and decided to stick with my more modest desktop machine. Presumably this means that when Rp.20,000 copies of Windows Vista finally start showing up in the city's dodgy software shops, my old crate won't be able to handle its new, high-tech 3-D graphic interface.

Never mind, at least I could seek solace in the sexy dance show at the LG stand. They were wearing fishnet body stockings by the way. I'm not sure how this fits in with the overall LG techno marketing strategy but it certainly got me to stop long enough for the stand's staff to thrust several deciduous forests worth of glossy product brochures into my hands. Sex still sells, even in the deodorized, uber-geek, motherboard fetishising world of the computer show.

After the dancers, I trundled slowly through the thronging masses to see what other semi-conducting objects of desire could be had. There were MP3 players the size of postage stamps that can hold about 20 albums worth of songs going for a mere Rp.250,000. There were huge flat screen computer monitors. There were projectors which, starting at about Rp.7 million, are a cheaper alternative to those expensive widescreen plasma TVs currently in vogue. I also saw the latest graphics cards producing quite amazing, almost photographic quality visuals. I even managed to scoff at some ludicrously overpriced laptop backpacks which looked no different from any backpack that you would find down the markets of Blok M for Rp.50,000 on a Saturday afternoon.

It was an interesting exhibition though and thoroughly demonstrated how computers have permeated every facet of the modern, urbane sophisticate's life. From laptops to notebooks to music players, cameras and a million and one plug in USB gizmos, your middle-class Jakartan is as wired as anyone on the planet.

It seems that we increasingly rely on computers to mediate every aspect of our existence. If every computer in the world in 1960 had suddenly stopped functioning, few people would have noticed. Perhaps a few scientists would have had a problem with their punch card printouts. Circa 2007, the same event would be a different matter entirely. All electrical power distribution would grind to a halt for a start. Anything with embedded microprocessors would also go dead: telephones, radios, televisions, walkmans, e-mail, the Web, the lot. You wouldn't be able to get your money out of your bank. Business and government would operate at only the most primitive level. And if all the data in all the computers vanished as well, then we would really be in trouble.

This seems to be just as valid a hypothesis in Indonesia as in any other country. Computers rule here too, from the girl in my local warung who seems to be unable, to my endless exasperation, to add up Rp.12,000 and Rp.7000 without her trusty calculator, to the corrupt elites seeking to hide their ill gotten gains through endless, dodgy computerized bank transactions; although admittedly that tactic didn't seem to work so well last week when we all found out that the government have been kindly laundering jailbird murderer Tommy Soeharto's money for him – talk about the war on corruption taking a ceasefire!

Futurists such as Marvin Minsky or Ray Kurzweil in his books The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity assert that we are only at the start of a future far more mind blowing that any Star Wars style sci-fi flick. They state that technology amounts to no less than evolution of our species by other means. Leading on from this proposition they assert that the inexorable and exponential increases in computational power will eventually give us sentient machines (within the next 20 to 30 years).

After this, brain scanning techniques (already in their infancy today) will enable humans to upload their consciousnesses into computer hardware and thus we will merge with our own technology into a super brain singularity. Makes Bluetooth look like peanuts, doesn’t it? Nanotechnology also holds the promise of the creation of a real virtual reality. Walls and houses constantly morphing and changing; computer/human consciousnesses able to actualize themselves as real, physical nano-robot-swarm humans within seconds. High fallutin' stuff to be sure and it certainly beats the cod religious symbolism and half arsed cops-and-robbers-in-space narrative of Star Wars if you ask me. Mind you, if the various members of SBY’s cabinet were to upload their minds into a conscious computer singularity, there probably wouldn't be enough combined megahertz to run a game of Tetris.

Simon Pitchforth