The Accelerating Advancement of Technology or, What the Heck Are Snips?

Originally, I intended to write this post about gender roles and identity, considering that’s been in the news a lot lately. The nursery rhyme, “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” had popped into my head as a cute lead in…

“What are little boys made of? Snips and snails and puppy dog tails.”

But, that got me to wondering. What the heck is a “snip”?

I mean, I know that a snip is a small bit of something — a cutting — but how did that relate to the context of the poem? The rhyme is old. Maybe snips meant something else back then.

“Look it up!” I hear the voice of my mother, and countless teachers through my years of schooling, say in my head.

In those days, that meant dragging the enormous, hernia-enducing dictionary off the shelf and rifling through its thin pages by using those half-moon notches that separated each section by letter. Remember those?

Snip

And that would likely have been the end of it. I would have been enlightened by a couple of snips of information (see what I did there?), but been no closer to the answer I’d been seeking, although number three seems like it might fit, except that it refers to girls, oddly enough.

(I took this image on my phone, which I then emailed to myself. How many years ago would that sentence have made no sense whatsoever?)

Today, however, when confronted with the question, I simply type in the words “snips and snails” and receive this: SnipsandSnails

Wow. Almost 400,000 instances of that phrase dredged up in less than a second! After a few clicks, I quickly learn that the original rhyme probably read, “snips of snails,” and that other words like “frogs” and “snakes” have been substituted for “snips” down through the years. Another possibility is the word may have been “snigs”, which was a word in the Cumbrian dialect for a small eel, according to Wikipedia. What’s a “Cumbrian dialect” you ask? Well, all you have to do is click the helpful link to find out…

As a writer of fiction, I often ponder the future and the past. Where have we been and where we are going. Through computers and the Internet, we have nearly the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips. Things we take for granted today, like Google, didn’t exist only twenty years ago! It’s become so prevalent in our society that the company name has become a verb, synonymous with my mother’s, “Look it up,” from my childhood.

Gutenberg developed the first printing press in the mid 1400s. The first electrical computers were invented in the mid 1940s. Pocket calculators appeared in the 1970s. Desktop computers became commonplace in the 1980s and the Internet (the World Wide Web) blossomed in the 1990s. It took around 500 years to make the leap from the printing press to computing, but only about a tenth of that time to get from those first computers to where we are today.

The term “Technological Singularity” is used to describe a computer with the equivalent brain power of a human being, also known as artificial intelligence. Some scientists believe laptop-sized computers, available to the general public, will have the computational capacity and storage of the human brain within five to ten years. This doesn’t mean those computers will be sentient — that technological leap is still nebulous in time frame and affect on the world — but you will have the equivalent of another brain’s worth of computing power on your desk or in your lap.

Our children are growing up in an Internet-driven world, just like me and my peers grew up in a television and telephone-driven world. My parents grew up in a radio-driven world.

What kind of world will our children’s children grow up in?

Science fiction writers attempt to be visionaries of the future. When we watch the original Star Trek series from the 60s, we see Kirk with a flip-phone for a communicator. In the 90s version, The Next Generation, we see the crew members walk around with multiple tablets and iPads. (Why did they need so many?) The shows portray a time hundreds of years in the future, yet some of these technologies appear today — even have been surpassed today. It’s becoming more and more difficult to create stories that stand the test of time because our technology is advancing so rapidly.

Arthur C. Clarke’s third law states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Humans have never been closer to performing acts of magic in our history. To Gutenberg, our current state of technology would likely be considered nothing short of magical. Who’s to say we won’t be able to conjure up a meal, or travel somewhere across the globe, or across the galaxy, at the snap of our fingers someday?

I had a recent reviewer of my science fiction series say, “typical hokey science, but enjoyable story,” and I had to laugh. Some aspect or another of conventional science is disproved almost daily. Any of you remember when people thought taste buds for salty, sour, bitter, and sweet resided in certain areas of your tongue? Yeah. I was taught that in school. We even did an experiment regarding that when I was in sixth grade and I remember thinking it was bogus then. Yet, that was the accepted “science” of the day. What scientific facts are we teaching now that will seem just as silly in thirty or forty years?

Technology is making the lines between science fiction and fantasy blur. Characters like Gandalf might become reality in our future. (Though he’ll probably only look like that while he’s cosplaying at a comic book convention). So, don’t be afraid to insert fantastical elements in your futuristic stories. They aren’t called “flights of fancy” for nothing!

Maybe someday we’ll actually build boys from snips of snails and puppy dog tails.

Girls from sugar and spice and everything nice? Nah, that’ll never happen.

16 thoughts on “The Accelerating Advancement of Technology or, What the Heck Are Snips?

  1. I absolutely love this post. It is so interesting and so true. As a science person myself, I am constantly amazed at the rapid advance of all things scientific. I do wonder if our forward-looking science fiction can stay a step ahead. Time will only tell.
    And the history of snips is so fascinating….it is now used to define segments of DNA as well. Something all boys and girls are made of!
    Thanks for a post that makes us pause and think and Google! Great read!

    1. Thank you so much, Kathy! I enjoyed writing it, though I have to say the Internet is the deepest rabbit hole ever conceived. I can’t believe the time I’ve spent chasing down tidbits of information like an ADHD squirrel, hopped up on a tankard of espresso! 😉

  2. Very entertaining, Alan. In 4th grade (’83), I had to think up an invention that we might have in the year 2000 for an assignment. I came up with telephones hooked up through televisions so we could see each other as we talked. I remember how everyone laughed and oohhhed at that idea. Lol! If I could only time travel back to that classroom with a few of today’s gadgets!

  3. This is so completely up my alley for so many reasons. I love studying the origins of words and phrases, and I love watching tech develop from sci fi books to reality. There are so many times when I think, “We’re living in Star Trek!”

    For the record, your sci fi books aren’t hokey! I love ’em!

    1. Aw, thanks, Lia! Like I said, I had to laugh at the review. Hard Scifi readers like to have every little detail spelled out and be made “plausible” in their eyes. Nothing wrong with that, but I like to pay more attention to the characters and what’s going on in the story, the science or magic — depending on the story — are just vehicles to move things along 🙂

  4. Great post, Alan, but why down on girls full of sugar and spice? Truthfully, they’d have a rough existence what with all their innerds crumbling… 🙂

    1. I have two daughters, and while I love them both dearly, sugar, spice, and everything nice are pretty low on their list of ingredients 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Great post. Star Wars is an awesome example of a movie/story that is standing through the ages. We are close to making almost-lightsabers, but still working on making the tech to make the tech. Hyperspeed – not yet! Hovercrafts – somewhat, but nowhere near speeder bikes and whatnot! It’s amazing! 😀

    1. Thanks, Erik! I have a friend who builds robots as a hobby. He’s making his own R2D2 right now. It won’t be AI level, of course, but it will be able to respond to verbal commands and perform simple tasks. Baby steps, but we’re getting there!

  6. That was wonderfully interesting. I write space opera and I often worry that any technology I invent will be by-passed by real science in a few years. The technology I want to be invented in my lifetime is the Stargate. I really want to step through that.

  7. Wonderful post! For some reason this one sentence really hit me hard: “(I took this image on my phone, which I then emailed to myself. How many years ago would that sentence have made no sense whatsoever?)”
    I don’t often think about how rapidly things have changed, but I know that so many things like e-mail and taking pictures with a phone have taken place within my lifetime. Am I getting old? Maybe I am, but I’m also excited about the magical-like future of scientific invention. I’m wondering how far we’ll go with 3D printing in the next twenty years, especially now that I’ve seen it getting used with prosthetic devices – something that’s near to my heart for medical advancement since my dad has had a prosthetic leg since he was a teen.
    BTW – thank you for a “future is so bright” kind of post about science and technology. Although sometimes I feel that we all need less screen time, I think science is really cool!

    1. You’re very welcome and thank you for taking the time to read and comment! 3D printing is fascinating and I’m also eager to see where it might lead in the next several years.

      As I alluded to in the post, I often think about the changes my parents and grandparents have seen in their lifetimes. To grow up in a world where radio was the main media for communication and entertainment and now live in our television and Internet driven one must be quite shocking at times. I’m sure there will be advances in the next fifty years that most of us will never see coming.

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