2012: 5 reasons it's not the end of the world (and 5 reasons to worry)

Foretelling the end of the world has been a favorite pastime of certain people almost since the beginning of the world.

From Pope Innocent III (who predicted the end would be in 1284) to Cotton Mather (who flooded the zone with 1697, 1736, 1716, 1717, then sometime post-1728), to, supposedly, Isaac Newton (2060), to the fuss over Y2K, it seems the end has always been near.

As we roll toward 2012, the doomsayers are at it again, focusing on Dec. 21. Books have been written, websites have been launched, a bombastic movie was made, and the city of Tapachula, Mexico, has even installed a digital clock counting down to the end of the world.

Why? Because Mayan mathematicians probably figured that coming up with a 5,000-year calendar was a good day’s work and left it at that.

The Maya, an advanced ancient people whose civilization dates to about 2,000 B.C. and flourished between 250 and 900 A.D., developed a 5,126-year “Long Count” linear calendar for recording past and future events.

The calendar started in 3114 B.C. (by our current Gregorian calendar) and extended to 2012 — specifically, the winter solstice date of Dec. 21, 2012. After that, they’d have a bit of their known Y2K problem and would need a new calendar, but what was the rush? It was more than 1,000 years away. People writing computer code in the 1960s weren’t worried about 40 years down the road, why should the Maya worry about a millennium? There was plenty of time to extend, adapt or replace it with a new calendar.

The Maya never got around to it. The civilization, which covered a wide swath of Central America, was in decline by the year 900. And although the culture continued in spots (and Mayan peoples and languages exist today), its time of great influence was over, even before the Spanish Conquistadors arrived.

Hundreds of years before the Mayan calendar needed an update, everyone had switched to the Gregorian calendar. So it seems there was little reason to start on a new one. It would be like updating WordStar long after everyone had switched to Microsoft Office or Google Apps.

The doomsayers aren’t deterred, of course. And in the midst of political unrest and failing economies around the globe, and budget cuts, furloughs and seemingly monthly threats of a government shutdown at home, anxiety is on the rise.

But, hey, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. All we need is a little hope for the world to survive. Nobody ever committed suicide who had a good two-year-old in the barn, as the old horse racing saying goes. That’s hope.

And in the realm of technology, there are reasons to think things could be looking up in 2012. Here are five of them. But because technology is always a double-edged sword, we also include five reasons these developments could still be cause for worry.

Network security

Reason for hope: Check any list of IT concerns in just about any year, and security is at the top. And probably always will be. But network security just might be improving. The Federal Information Security Management Act, which has often been derided as a paperwork exercise, is making the transition from the periodic assessments to the enforcing the continuous monitoring everybody says it needs. And the Homeland Security Department has appointed an actual technologist with cybersecurity experience, Mark Weatherford, as its first deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity. It doesn’t mean everyone’s problems are solved, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Reason to worry: There are many more fronts to cybersecurity, and not all of them are looking safe. Stuxnet-like threats to water and power plants, and other potential targets such as prisons are one reason for concern. There also is the growth of mobile malware, and targeted attacks via phishing lures that people still fall for. And, of course, there’s China, which, for all its claims of innocence, seems to have left fingerprints on a lot of cyber attacks.


Reason for hope: Government has always collected loads of information, and the amount has increased exponentially in the computer age. But agencies didn’t always know what they had, or where it was, or even how to find it. Recent strides in analytics software are changing that. Tools that can search across multiple databases and perform statistical analysis, predictive analysis and semantic analysis, for instance, are putting all that big data to work. Everything from environmental models to road maintenance to police work is better for it. IBM’s Watson also is moving the ball forward on another front, with natural language processing that helped it excel on “Jeopardy!” and is now being used in medical research. The idea of government getting smarter and more effective might seem strange when one looks at the recent Congress, but at the operational level, it could be happening.

Reason to worry: Not to put too fine a point on it, but a smarter, more effective government is exactly what some people fear. Privacy tops the list of concerns, along with the idea that too much efficiency could skew the checks and balances that a society needs.

The mobile workplace

Reason for hope: As the economy and fiscal budgets make life harder for people, at least technology can make things a little easier for workers. Government agencies are working to accommodate smart phones and tablets in the enterprise, which could lead to more mobile computing and, by extension, more teleworking by employees. The Veterans Affairs Department, for instance, is buying up to 100,000 iPads and developing a security strategy to allow for iPads and iPhones. And the National Institute of Standards and Technology has developed a guide to improved remote access procedures to ensure security for mobile devices. Better mobile options means a better life for employees.

Reason to worry: The more popular mobile devices and apps become, the tastier targets they are for attackers. And if security protocols aren’t in place and users aren’t diligent those better employees can become real threats.

Supercomputing and super networks

Reason for hope: Supercomputing, as usual, has been making great strides. From employing Nvidia gaming-system chips to increase speed to efforts such as the National Science Foundation’s Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment, a distributed computing infrastructure that will link researchers with advanced resources, high-performance systems show no signs of slowing down. And some research data can now ride on the Energy Department’s 100-gigabit transcontinental network, part of a DOE project that plans for an exabit capacity by 2020. Why should the average user rejoice? Because today’s supercomputing power becomes tomorrow’s everyday computing power, and bandwidth tends to follow the same course. The iPad2, for example, has the same computing power  as the Cray 2 supercomputer of 1985. Down the road, that kind of power and speed is something to look forward to.

Reason to worry: Not much, but for all the best efforts in the United States, the fastest machines are, at the moment at least, in Japan and China.

The App Internet

Reason for hope: Feeding off the mobile computing trend, what’s called the App Internet combines smart devices, the Open Web, HTML 5 and cloud computing to deliver “context-aware” apps that know who you are and where you are, and have at least an idea of what you’re looking for — when the next train arrives, how to get to a good Japanese restaurant, what time the next movie starts. And if those apps can talk, like the Apple iPhone’s Siri, all the better for having a truly helpful personal digital assistant.

Reason to worry: Will there be any way to hide from all this help? People complained when it was revealed that iPhones had tracking capabilities, even if Apple said such tracking was only used to figure out where to place cell towers. But tracking seems to be the whole point of the App Internet. Think those apps will be the only entities that know where you are all the time?

As with the potential downsides of other trends, it’s something to think about, but it doesn’t spell the end of the world. Privacy, maybe, but not the world


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