Overheard at a coffee shop– or how come iCloud is cooler than a supervolcano?

Posted on January 16, 2012

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This morning I sat next to two guys who were discussing iCloud at a coffee shop—  except it wasn’t so much a discussion as a verbal celebration of the brilliantness that is Apple’s innovative technological genius. The one who had just  acquired OS X Lion was explaining to his backward Leopard-using friend the potential of storing information in clouds. He was particularly enthused by the fact that he had been able to upload over 1,000 music files into his cloud and that the system automatically evaluated the quality of every file, searched for the top quality version of that particular song and replaced it, thus optimizing sound and avoiding duplication simultaneously. The guy pretty much had an iBoner by the time he finished explaining how amazing Lion was– and although I wasn’t quite as aroused by the system’s new features, I was pretty amazed.

Every time some sort of new gadget comes out on the market people marvel not only at the developer’s genius, but at our capacity as human beings to exceed ourselves in inventing things which make our lives simpler and so much cooler. And though innovation and creativity are things that deserve to be celebrated, it sometimes puzzles me the sort of things people drool over. I mean, isn’t it just a bit  strange that we marvel more at the things we ourselves create than at phenomena which happen around us without our awareness or understanding? Here’s something that really blew my mind when I first read about it it:

There is an ash layer in eastern Nebraska about 3 feet deep that spans thousands of kilometers. Nowadays people mine it to make household cleaning powders like Comet and Ajax. This ash layer is about two million years old and came from a volcanic blast about a thousand times bigger than the one from Mt. St. Helen’s (which, by the way, was estimated to have exploded with a force 20,000 times greater than the Hiroshima bomb). And sure two million years ago seems like a long time ago, back when the earth was like shifting and shit, way before the stone age… but the volcano is still there and it has been building up pressure steadily for thousands of years.

The volcano is underground, underneath the earth’s crust. It’s  a reservoir of molten rock that begins at least 200 kilometres down in the Earth and rises near to the surface before spreading out about 72 kilometers across, like the shape of a martini glass. But just how dangerous is this supervolcano? Bill Bryson’s History of Nearly Everything paints a frightening picture: “imagine a pile of TNT about the size of an English county that reaches about 13 kilometers into the sky, to about the hight of the highest cirrus clouds.”  That’s what’s underneath Yellowstone National Park.

If ever you’re at Yellowstone marveling at the bubbling hot springs and lovely geysers just think that they’re the product of the world’s largest, most destructive natural time bomb, and that you’re standing right on top of it. The last time Yellowstone erupted was about 630,000 years ago, and scientists have worked out that Yellowstone erupts quite periodically, on average, every 600,000 years. So the next Yellowstone eruption is actually overdue. What’s more, there have been reports that Yellowstone’s caldera has been rising at record rates since 2004. This shouldn’t just amaze you, it should scare the crap out of you. Because if Yellowstone erupted say now-ish, it would wipe out about half of the United States with an ash cloud that not only would obliterate everything in its path, but would also have devastating consequences on the weather, temperatures, crop growth, water quality etc . But here’s the catch– either record rises of magma are signs of an impending kaboom! or they’re just normal fluctuations and the inflow will stop, the caldera will deflate, and nothing will happen. It could be either one– scientists have no clue.

But what does this have to do with iCloud, you ask? Well not too long ago, I was talking to a friend of mine about the Yellowstone super volcano and about halfway through my excited ranting I paused because she was looking at me as if I was a total crazy. And not because she didn’t believe what I was saying, but more because I was actually bringing it up in a conversation. She stared at me as if thinking: “Oh god, you’re talking science to me! Ew.”  Thing is, as I was listening to the guys talking about their new tech toy I realized a strange thing: that IT was now cool whereas nature-talk was still geeky. So if you found supervolcanoes interesting you got stared at, but wait– what’s that? Multiple desktops? Oooooh! Syncing of all your Apple products? Get out of here! The Kindle has a screen that is visible under sunlight? How do they do that! Genius!

I mean, Apple is great, don’t get me wrong. I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro and I run with a little iPod nano, but it’s just amazing to me how one company went and turned information technology all cool and hip, while really amazing things like spiraling seashells and the golden ratio still remain facts locked in dusty old middle-school science textbooks. There’s something to be said about the fact that twenty years ago, if some guy brought up operating systems in a conversation he’d have gotten a look like: “Ew. You’re talking computers to me!” Whereas now, talking about a new OS is as socially acceptable as chatting about how you didn’t really like the last season of Mad Men. Computers and IT have to some extent ceased to be geeky but– how come? How come an iPad gets more appreciation than geysers?

For one, Nature has no marketing department. There’s no one constantly telling us how cool Nature is and how much better real vision is, compared to 1080p HD displays. Second, Nature isn’t interactive– you can go hug a tree but that’s it, the tree won’t giggle and squirm if you do. Nature is quite indifferent to you, whereas an iProduct will respond to all your needs and actions. If you pull the elastic band that launches an Angry Bird, the Angry Bird will be launched. If you pinch things, they will get smaller. If you swipe things, screens will disappear or appear accordingly. And now with Siri, if you talk to it, it will talk back.

We like things that reinforce our sense of agency. We like to do shit to stuff, and stuff to do shit for us. And things that make us feel like we’re making the stuff do shit faster, more elegantly, and more efficiently, cause our jaws to drop.  Nature is dull because it has nothing to do with us. If there was a guy who could make billions of tiny ice sculptures, each unique but that at the same time each sculpture was based on a six-fold radial symmetry pattern, there’s no doubt that guy would be up on YouTube with millions of views already. But because they’re a natural occurrence, snowflakes are meh and no one really cares why they’re shaped the way they are.

Remember dinosaurs? They were “in” for a couple of years but only because Steven Speilberg “brought them to life” using CGI. I remember at the time more people marveled at the technological prowess of the movie than at the fact that there was time when dinosaurs were actually a thing. In fact, I remember coming out of the movie theatre there was a kid clinging to his mom because he’d been scared by the T-Rex eating the guy in the toilet. The mother consoled him saying: ‘No dinosaur’s aren’t real, they’re make believe, they’re like ghosts and monsters, they’re just puppets in the movie.’ Even at the age of six that pissed me off. Of course dinosaurs were real, go see their bones at a museum lady.

But that’s just it, technology, in our eyes, trumps nature. Man-made is somehow always cooler. Why go see mountains when you can fly over them at home with Google’s flight simulator? And no I’m not arguing against technology, I don’t want everyone to go Amish. I just wish Nature could get its own Steve Jobs. Or for people to read a bit more. Not that it makes any difference whether you know about it or not– Yellowstone’s enormous magma pot is still sitting there under the crust, building up pressure, waiting… holy cow that’s terrifying. I think I need a little game of Angry Birds to soothe me before going to sleep.

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