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I Want Ray Guns!

This is the most damage lasers have done to us thus far.

Lasers are cool. Face it. Look deep in your heart; accept it as truth. Ever since you and I and everybody else saw Star Wars, we’ve wanted lasers. Not for dinky science experiments or for pointless, boring crap like ‘communication’ or ‘entertainment’. We’ve wanted laser to incinerate our enemies, dammit! We want ray guns!

Well, we’re getting closer. As of 2009, lasers hit battlefield strength. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t mean raygun-toting stormtroopers anytime soon. That laser they’re talking about has to ride around on a truck. It eats HUGE amounts of energy, it costs as much as a fighter jet (hell, probably more), and if you use it wrong, it probably melts/blows up/lights on fire or all three at once.

And all this just to shoot at mortars.

The inherent problem with lasers/energy weapons is that they don’t really do anything substantially better than we can do already with conventional guns. War is the most utilitarian of all laboratories–a guy with a shovel can kill just like a guy with a $10,000 weapon can kill. If you’re spending that money, it better damned well let you kill $10,000 better than the guy with the shovel/hunk of rock/pointy stick he found on the side of the road. For a laser to be useful, it needs to fill a niche that other military tools don’t or can’t.

For that reason, I find it rather doubtful we’ll be seeing man-portable laser rifles anytime soon. Regular rifles shoot just fine, actually, and until some aspect of military engagements change to force the usage of lasers, they won’t be used. If the AK-47 ain’t broke, don’t fix it (though, this just in, they are). This is the same as the trouble with giant robots, which I’ve discussed before.

So, what would a laser be better at than a gun? Well, a laser causes damage by generating heat, though it can take a

Goldfinger is using his laser wrong.

second or two for it to transmit that heat. Kinetic Energy weapons deliver all their force at once, pretty much, while a laser builds up. The good news is that the laser could likely keep the focus on a very precise spot for a comparatively long time. How is this useful? Well, it would be useful in the same way that the military seems to think–anti-materiel, or, in English, for blowing up/destroying stuff rather than people. Think about it: you can, with virtually unerring accuracy, place all the power of your weapon on a single rivet of the enemy tank/ship/plane/gun. If you’ve got troops trained well enough, they could make junkyards of enemy fleets or convoys in a matter of seconds–pretty cool–and with relatively little loss of life (yay, prisoners!). It’s got a use, certainly.

As for ray guns, they might show up, but they aren’t going to be lasers. Perhaps some kind of plasma thrower or radiation sprayer, maybe (but, again, they need to beat out good old-fashioned firearms to make it worth it). That, however, isn’t the direction the military is currently heading for their small arms–don’t think lasers so much as high-tech grenade launchers and ultra- lightweight machine guns.

So, yeah, no lasers for blasting rebel scum. Sorry guys. On the bright side, though, don’t be so disappointed–the blasters of Star Wars were really just plasma weapons, anyway. Those we might still build…someday. If we were really, really mad.

The Road to Hell is Paved with Semiconductors

So, my father recently drew my attention to the work of Jaron Lanier, a preeminent computer scientist, who has some concern regarding the future of humanity vis-a-vis the internet. To sum up his various articles at large, he suggests that the habit the internet has taken on of making users into resources by which advertisers make money has, in the end, some very dark and unsustainable ends. He hastens to say that he doesn’t consider the main culprits of this (Google, Apple, Microsoft, and their buddies) are ‘evil’, per se, but has mentioned that the Internet, far from raising humanity up, has served, on balance, to bring us down. He even refers to it as a ‘failed technology’ that is in need of saving.

In essence, if we continue to ‘streamline’ with the internet and continue to use computers to remove the need for human input in various capacities (and, given the improvement in computers, the numbers of things they are able to do continue to increase), what, then, happens to all the humans?

Lanier proposes two likely futures and hopes for a third. The first is a Marxist model, wherein the now-idle masses, their jobs taken by the super-efficient computer world, are supported by the state. This is at least partially already happening, as more and more manufacturing jobs are lost and retail jobs are replaced by computers. Robert Reich has noted this as well, in his artile “Why the Rich are Getting Richer and the Poor, Poorer”. It has all the ugly side-effects one would expect from a socialist society.

The other, and perhaps even worse, outcome is that the now-idle masses are left to wither and starve away until, at last, they die out. I touch on this idea of ‘thinning’ the human race in my article ‘This Ticking Time Bomb, Earth’, and point out how it would be a terrible, terrible thing.

“Pshaw” You scoff, “How can the internet do such a thing?”

Simple: It is making us pointless. I mean this in every concievable meaning of the word, mind you. As we outsource more and more of our brain into the ‘cloud’, the reason for us even being here dwindles. Remember when you had to remember phone numbers? Remember when you had to be good with directions? Remember when you had to know how to parallel park? Remember when you had to entertain yourself while commuting or on road trips? Well, if you do, you’re older than my students. Most of them have no memory of that time, and they are, frankly, the stupider for it. Much of my waking hours are spent idling away on the internet in-between bouts of productivity, and I am not alone. For many of my students, those bouts of ‘productivity’ are often just another form of idling away in the internet.

Here I am producing content for a blog, but for what purpose? One of the reasons I stayed away from blogging for so long was not because I can’t write or I am not interesting, but I had trouble figuring out what was in it for me. This is, ultimately, part of the point–the Internet doesn’t hold promise for you or me or for most people. All it is is a time-suck, an information drain whose purpose has drifted away from being practical and helpful to society to simply becoming maturbatory and inane. That doesn’t make it evil, of course, but it is robbing it of something that it could be. Lanier talks about that at some length in his article–I’ll leave you to read it.

It is not my purpose or desire to wax political or even historical in this blog. It is a space I perfer to reserve for flights of fancy, and so in that vein, let me offer you this: How many more ways can we be asked to waste time on the internet. Where does it all end?

To my mind, it ends in Huxley’s Brave New World, but only if we’re lucky. It is a society of vapid, brainless sheep who have nothing but purposeless, empty fun all day and work for a rigidly ordered society that strips from them all pretentions of individuality, romance, or inspiration. This is Lanier’s Marxist ‘solution’ (though both he and I shudder to call it that), and it would, should it come about, be as doomed to failure as any other Marxist state. The other side, well, there lies the collapse of civilazation as we know it.

The third way? Well, a revolution, of sorts. A fundemental reordering of the internet where we, the users, are not just product but also worker and consumer. A world where we get paid for what we produce and what we provide, and work the harder because of it. Is this likely to happen? Well, predicting the future is a fool’s game, and I should probably stop now. In all liklihood, all that I have thus laid out will not come to pass. Still, every time one of my students scoffs at the idea that there is such a thing as information that is not contained in Google, I cringe a little bit. I don’t like the idea of a world where that is the common belief. That way lies dragons.

Anyway, that’s what I have to say about that.

Now, back to Facebook.