Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Dark Age of Technology

I've always liked the Warhammer and Warhammer 40k universes. They were created to give a background narrative to tabletop battle games, and yet they have become incredibly deep, rich, and extensive. Who knew that the dystopian dreams of tabletop gaming nerds could be so compelling?

In Warhammer 40k (hereafter referred to, as in gaming culture, as simply '40k'), a part of the invented history is a time called the Dark Age of Technology. Ironically, it refers to a period in which the human civilization - the Imperium - was at its technological peak. Shortly after it experiences a long, catastrophic fall, and never recovers.

However, some of the relics of that bygone age still exist - and more importantly, still function. To a degree. They are maintained as much as possible by the technicians of the age, who - while they don't really understand HOW these things work - know just enough to KEEP them working. Entire planets sometimes depend on these machines.

I work in datacenters (big rooms where info-heavy institutions keep their main computer systems). Recently, in the basement of an older datacenter, a few machines were found, part of a system that nobody could seem to identify. It took almost a month to dig up the one person in the company who knew anything about the system - and it turns out, it was a very important system. It had been quietly humming along for ten years, forgotten by the people who were supposed to maintain it.

Kind of scary. If these machines had suddenly developed problems, it could have taken days, even weeks to fix it. We're talking about serious money lost, perhaps even jobs, because a company nearly let the so-called secrets of a machine pass out of its gestalt knowledgebase.

Obviously, this is not quite a parallel to the fictional world of 40k. These were old and obsolete machines - ten years in the world of computer systems is a few generations. We'd lost the knowledge of it because we'd since replaced them with far better models. Still, with the current dearth of science and math students in the western world, and with this experience, I suddenly wonder just how easy it might be for our society to slip into the strange scenario of depending on technology we don't understand anymore.

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