Home >Opinion >Columns >The irony of modern technology zapping us all back to the future

In Hindu mythology, there is the story of King Raivata Kakudmi, who travels to meet Brahma, the Creator. Kakudmi thinks that it was a short trip, but when he returns to Earth, he is shocked to find that 108 yugs have passed on Earth, each yug representing about 4 million years. Brahma explains to a perplexed Kakudmi that time runs differently on different planes of existence.

Time seems to be moving forward at an astonishing pace, and it is technology, more than any other force, which seems to be driving this ever-accelerating change. The relentless cadence of Moore’s Law doubles computing power every 18 months, Metcalfe’s Law expands social networks like Facebook in proportion to the square of its user base to dominate the planet in a few years, and Carlson’s Curve describes the same exponential growth for DNA sequencing. It seems preordained that a modern day Kakudmi, even if he were to be absent for a few short centuries, would be unable to recognize the world today. But, if you look a little closely, technology seems to be taking the world both to the future and the past simultaneously.

When Pierre Bouchard discovered the Rosetta Stone in Egypt in 1799, the world finally figured out what ancient Egyptians meant when they engraved pictures on stone. This gave way to alphabets and writing, then to typewritten text, and then to text messages. Most kids today seem to write in pictures again, with emojis, the hieroglyphics of the tech age. Ancient villages are said to have used barter, which gave way to cowrie shells and beads, then to coins and currency. With the eBays and BitTorrents of the world and the peer-to-peer revolution, technology is taking us back to barter. In the not-too-distant past, each region had its currency, and with barter you actually had your own currency, and now with cryptography and blockchain, each cryptocurrency is unique to the individual. We used to seal documents with a wax mohar, representing our individual fingerprint; technology has brought fingerprints and other biometrics back to our doors, identities and phones.

In the time of the modern Kakudmi, everything was tailored for the individual, be it clothes or weapons. Then came the Spinning Jenny, the assembly line and mass production that created multitudes of cheap everything for the burgeoning world population. Now, with artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms and recommendation engines, we are hyper-personalizing everything again. Food was natural and grown in your backyard, everyone was a locavore. Then came mass industrialized agriculture, with its gargantuan farms, mechanization and global trade, making the origin of the food you ate unknown and untraceable. Technology, including blockchain, internet of things and aeroponics, is now helping us grow food locally and know where the rest of it comes from, as we go back full tilt to organic, locally-grown produce.

Technology seems to be driving the world of work to the past too. We started with individuals working from their homes and yards, which gave way to organizations and offices. With the gig economy, in which you work for yourself, combined with the covid-sped work-from-home movement, we are going back to where we started, working from our own premises. Software-as-a-service, blockchain-based digital autonomous organizations and the Zooms of the world enable this retreat.

Tribal leaders ruled us, and perhaps Kakudmi was one of them. Then came monarchs, democracy and governments. Today’s social networks push us back to being tribes again, with tribal leaders elected as our leaders. There was thought to be one God, many of them, and then people started turning away from religion as atheists. Now, technology promises to give us the ultimate AI deity, as a new technology-centric faith takes hold.

It is intriguing and difficult to explain this journey to the future that’s taking us to our past. Brahma tried explaining it to Kakudmi; perhaps, it can be explained better by the Eastern and Indian concept of time, where time is not linear with a beginning and an end or a past and future, but is circular (kaalchakra), thus driving us back to where we started. It is something that perhaps crossed Albert Einstein’s mind, when he mused on the past, present and future existing simultaneously to explain his unfathomable Theory of Relativity. Or perhaps it was the American rapper Snoop Dogg who understood it best when he intoned that, “You’ve got to go back in time, if you want to move forward."

Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’, and founder of Digital Matters

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