L.A. Times column, 3/24/97
Wed, 26 Mar 1997 20:07:24 +1100 (EDT)
Forwarded food for thought. Will appeal to those who found Negroponte a bit
>From: Gary Chapman <email@example.com>
>The following is my Los Angeles Times column for this week, having appeared
>yesterday, March 24th. This should appear in other newspapers around the
>country in the coming weeks.
>Please feel free to pass this around, but please retain the copyright notice.
>Technology Pundits Are Gazing Into the Future -- and a Few Need Glasses
>By Gary Chapman
>Copyright 1997, The Los Angeles Times
>'What Will Be," a new book with an arresting title, has just been released,
>written by Michael Dertouzos, director of MIT's Laboratory for Computer
>Science. Its subtitle is "How the New World of Information Will Change Our
>This book is part of a new and popular genre that includes the best-selling
>book "Being Digital" -- by Dertouzos' colleague at MIT Nicholas Negroponte,
>the director of MIT's Media Lab -- and Bill Gates' even bigger blockbuster,
>"The Road Ahead."
>Reading these books, and especially contemplating their titles, one is apt
>to think of the mantra of the Borg, those "Star Trek" villains who are
>half-robot and half-human: "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated."
>Essentially, what Dertouzos, Gates (who wrote the forward for Dertouzos'
>book) and Negroponte press upon us is that digital technologies and digital
>"information" -- an exceedingly vague term -- will fill every nook and
>cranny of our lives in the coming years. Dertouzos writes, "The Information
>Marketplace will touch essentially all human activity." Gates suggests that
>Microsoft will be part of everything we do and know, from using digital
>cash to educating our children. Dertouzos speculates on sending an
>electronic "caress" over the Internet, using full-body sensors at each end.
>The books also follow a pattern. They spend some time setting up the
>credentials, experience and stature of their authors by relating 'insider"
>views of the recent history of computing. The implication is that the
>descriptions of future technology that follow are not just wild
>speculations: These are things that these men and their colleagues are
>building, and will build. "The Road Ahead" is more than just a dilettante's
>futurist fantasy. When Gates, in particular, writes a book about what the
>future will look like, we'd better pay attention.
>The main attraction of these books seems to be their chapters on what
>technological marvels await us in the Information Age. Gates spends an
>entire chapter on his mammoth and technology-saturated house, complete with
>guest badges and digital displays of artwork.
>Dertouzos floats the prospect of "bodynets" in our clothes that will allow
>us to "make phone calls, check your e-mail, watch TV, and pay your bills as
>you walk down the street." (Why walk?) Everything will be different,
>except, of course, people "will have to work smarter -- and harder -- to
>keep their jobs," he says.
>All three authors stress the "freedom" that new technologies will give us,
>but their idea of freedom is so pinched and atrophied that it sounds
>Orwellian. "The impact of new technology," writes Gates, " . . . will give
>us more control over our lives, enabling us to tailor our experiences and
>the products we use to our interests."
>Gates doesn't see the corollary: Human beings will be locked into a global
>system of electronic devices and so shaped by forces out of their control
>that freedom will be reduced to consumer preferences and choosing
>"information filters" to manage the fire hose of data aimed at each of us.
>The idea that people might choose their own destinies seems to be lost in
>the past. This is the message of these books' titles: "Get used to this,
>there's nothing you can do about it." What kind of freedom is that?
>Finally, all three of these books are spectacularly shallow, adding up to
>book-length brochures of high-tech hype.
>Dertouzos, at least, attempts to confront the arguments of critics, which
>he calls, alarmingly, "humies," or humanists worried about the ambitions of
>"techies," or technologists.
>But his humies are cartoon representations of the most serious critics,
>most of whom are dead. The big guns of technological criticism -- such as
>philosopher Martin Heidegger, social theorists Herbert Marcuse, Max
>Horkheimer and Jacques Ellul and, yes, even Karl Marx -- are too difficult
>for most readers and they never show up in these books.
>Indeed, the fact that the most formidable critics are both dead and
>unmentioned is part of the point of these books: The texts are so
>ahistorical they read as if we're starting human history from scratch,
>tomorrow. They're carelessly ignorant of the great debates about technology
>that came before us, such as after World War II and the war in Vietnam.
>Unfortunately, the humies of today are weak substitutes for their
>forebears, straw men (and women) comically impotent against the onslaught
>of the technological juggernaut. It's easy for Dertouzos to chide them in a
>patronizing way. "Humies," he writes, "tone down your fears of
>technochange. Step outside your precious castles."
>Dertouzos believes this "is the big challenge before us at the dawn of the
>21st century: to embark on the unification of our technology with our
>But he misses a big point. Technophiles like Negroponte, Gates and
>Dertouzos are blind to the effects of technology on consciousness itself.
>They don't see that our very values and means are distorted by the
>cornucopia of technology that they celebrate. They forget that old saying
>about technology: "When all you have is a hammer, every problem begins to
>look like a nail."
>Are we going to be consumers or citizens, slaves to gadgets and systems or
>truly in control of our lives? What if the advantages of status and earning
>power that accrue to people with cutting-edge technical skills are
>incompatible with democracy?
>A question like "Is it good for society for anyone to be as rich as Bill
>Gates?" would stump these guys. It's out of bounds, a non sequitur. The
>question, "What can Bill Gates do to manage his information flow?" would
>set them chattering for hours. But the answer to the second question is
>inconsequential, while the answer to the first question is critical to the
>kind of society we want to live in or pass on to our children.
>Moreover, it's all too easy to imagine a "new man" of the Information Age
>in his "bodynet," walking down the street paying his bills and checking his
>e-mail, jabbering in cyberjargon, juggling his stock portfolio, planning
>his next start-up, etc., while, at bottom, he's living an empty life in a
>culture that has turned to bland mush.
>No one with an ounce of sensitivity about the human condition believes that
>our chief problems are either not enough information or too much. What we
>lack are meaning and purpose, individually and collectively, which
>technology can never provide.
>Who will go down in history, the person who successfully surfs each
>technological wave, or the person with a timeless moral vision, a
>courageous leader, a bearer and challenger of human aspirations? Which one
>will determine "what will be"?
>Gary Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the University of
>Texas at Austin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Faculty of Communication
University of Canberra