Every fifty years

This last summer I saw a wonderful project by some graduate students in the Interactive Digital Media program at Trinity college. Noting that this year is the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, and the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, they created an original work of interactive art.

Much of the power and delight of Lewis Carroll’s classic comes from the way it warps time and space. Everything is relative, and notions of reality as a static frame of reference go out the window.

As the students observed, this is one of the fundamental predictions of Einstein’s theory. It was general relativity that definitively moved our view of reality itself away from the rigid framework of Newtonian mechanics, with its fixed notions of the nature of time and space.

The students created a clever assortment of interactive techno/art experiences that riffed on the connections twixt red shifts and Red Queens, manifolds and Mad Hatters, gravity and Gryphons. Much of it was quite delightful.

But why just those two points in time? What about 50 years ago? I got to wondering what might have happened in 1965 to shake up our fixed notions of time and space.

So I went on the Wikipedia and started snooping around. Quite a few notable things happened that year, in music, politics, science, literature and many other domains of human interest.

But one event in particular jumped out at me: On April 19, 1965, Gordon Moore published a paper laying out the principle that came to be known as “Moore’s Law” — that computation would become exponentially less expensive with each passing year.

In hindsight, that paper was the shot across the bow. It effectively predicted that our nation’s economic engine was going to shift radically from industrial to informational, from an ecology of fixed resources to one of exponentially increasing resources.

The vision of the future that Moore predicted 50 years ago — the world that we live in today — is indeed in the spirit of Carroll and Einstein. For it is a world in which the meaning of time and space, how we move through them, how we use them to communicate with one another, seems to change with every successive doubling of computational power.

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